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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
 
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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny [Kindle Edition]

Robert Wright
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Produktbeschreibungen

Amazon.de

One of the main layman's objections to the supposedly random process of evolution is that for all its inherent pointlessness, evolution seems to have a goal, a narrative, a conscious direction. And that direction is towards complexity. Germs become animals. Apes become humans. Blood-caked Aztec savages become liberal-minded East Coast essayists. Now Robert Wright, author of the much-praised The Moral Animal, has come along with a contentious new book to tell us that the layman has been on to something all along. Evolution does have a goal.

The title of Wright's book comes from games theory, which divides human interactions into "zero sum games", where for every winner there's a loser, and "non-zero sum games", where everyone gains. Wright's aim is to knit together this theory with anthropology, zoology, biology, and history, plus a dash of chaos theory, and thus attest that "non-zero sum altruism" is the natural inclination of humankind. To prove this he cites such disparate phenomena as the sago-swapping natives of the US Northwest, the global government-in-waiting that is the European Union, and the anarchically generous ethos that rules the Net--all of which apparently go to show that we are, deep down, caring, sharing nice guys. Wright's second aim is to show this niceness is no accident: evolution helps to make us that way.

The author's learning is lightly worn. Sometimes too lightly. After a while his chatty, hey-let's-have-a-beer style starts to grate: "When was the last time you invented a boomerang?"; "Ah, Tahiti!". There are also some minor errors, like his claiming that Britain fought the Hundred Years War (it was England), or his perception that milkmen are a thing of the past, that make you wonder whether he has finessed some of the more intractable scientific arguments. Certainly his book has already attracted some brickbats from the atheistic hardnuts of evolutionary psychology. But the case that he advocates remains as exciting as it is unsettling. Because, if evolution does have a point, if human history has a deliberate, conscious, "narrative drive", who had the idea? Who's the scriptwriter of Man, the Movie? --Sean Thomas

Amazon.co.uk

One of the main layman's objections to the supposedly random process of evolution is that for all its inherent pointlessness, evolution seems to have a goal, a narrative, a conscious direction. And that direction is towards complexity. Germs become animals. Apes become humans. Blood-caked Aztec savages become liberal-minded East Coast essayists. Now Robert Wright, author of the much-praised The Moral Animal, has come along with a contentious new book to tell us that the layman has been on to something all along. Evolution does have a goal.

The title of Wright's book comes from games theory, which divides human interactions into "zero sum games", where for every winner there's a loser, and "non-zero sum games", where everyone gains. Wright's aim is to knit together this theory with anthropology, zoology, biology, and history, plus a dash of chaos theory, and thus attest that "non-zero sum altruism" is the natural inclination of humankind. To prove this he cites such disparate phenomena as the sago-swapping natives of the US Northwest, the global government-in-waiting that is the European Union, and the anarchically generous ethos that rules the Net--all of which apparently go to show that we are, deep down, caring, sharing nice guys. Wright's second aim is to show this niceness is no accident: evolution helps to make us that way.

The author's learning is lightly worn. Sometimes too lightly. After a while his chatty, hey-let's-have-a-beer style starts to grate: "When was the last time you invented a boomerang?"; "Ah, Tahiti!". There are also some minor errors, like his claiming that Britain fought the Hundred Years War (it was England), or his perception that milkmen are a thing of the past, that make you wonder whether he has finessed some of the more intractable scientific arguments. Certainly his book has already attracted some brickbats from the atheistic hardnuts of evolutionary psychology. But the case that he advocates remains as exciting as it is unsettling. Because, if evolution does have a point, if human history has a deliberate, conscious, "narrative drive", who had the idea? Who's the scriptwriter of Man, the Movie? --Sean Thomas

Amazon.com

Nonzero, from New Republic writer Robert Wright, is a difficult and important book--well worth reading--addressing the controversial question of purpose in evolution. Using language suggesting that natural selection is a designer's tool, Wright inevitably draws the conclusion that evolution is goal-oriented (or at least moves toward inevitable ends independently of environmental or contingent variables).

The underlying reason that non-zero-sum games wind up being played well is the same in biological evolution as in cultural evolution. Whether you are a bunch of genes or a bunch of memes, if you're all in the same boat you'll tend to perish unless you are conducive to productive coordination.... Genetic evolution thus tends to create smoothly integrated organisms, and cultural evolution tends to create smoothly integrated groups of organisms.

Admittedly, it's as hard to think clearly about natural selection as it is to think about God, but that makes it just as important to acknowledge our biases and try to exclude them from our conclusions. It is this that makes Nonzero potentially unsatisfying to the scientifically literate. Time after time we've seen thinkers try to find in biological evolution a "drive toward complexity" that might explain all sorts of other phenomena from economics to spirituality. Some authors, like Teilhard de Chardin, have much to offer the careful reader who takes pains to read metaphorically. Others--legions of cranks--provide nothing but opaque diatribes culminating in often-bizarre assertions proven to nobody but the author. Wright is much closer to de Chardin along this axis; his anthropological scholarship is particularly noteworthy, and his grasp of world history is excellent. Unfortunately, he has the advocate's willingness to blind himself to disagreeable facts and to muddle over concepts whose clarity would be poisonous to his positions: try to pin him down on what he means by complexity, for example. Still, his thesis that human cultures are historically striving for cooperative, nonzero-sum situations is heartening and compelling; even though it's not supported by biology, it's not knocked down, either. If the reader can work around the undefined assumptions, Wright's charm and obvious interest in planetary survival make Nonzero a worthy read. If the first chapter's title--"The Ladder of Cultural Evolution"--makes you cringe, the last one--"You Call This a God?"--will make you smile. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

Evolution meets game theory in this upbeat follow-up to Wright's much-praised The Moral Animal. Arguing against intellectual heavyweights such as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and Franz Boas, Wright contends optimistically that history progresses in a predictable direction and points toward a certain end: a world of increasing human cooperation where greed and hatred have outlived their usefulness. This thesis is elaborated by way of something Wright calls "non-zero-sumness," which in game theory means a kind of win-win situation. The non-zero-sum dynamic, Wright says, is the driving force that has shaped history from the very beginnings of life, giving rise to increasing social complexity, technological innovation and, eventually, the Internet. From Polynesian chiefdoms and North America's Shoshone culture to the depths of the Mongol Empire, Wright plunders world history for evidence to show that the so-called Information Age is simply part of a long-term trend. Globalization, he points out, has been around since Assyrian traders opened for business in the second millennium B.C. Even the newfangled phenomenon of "narrowcasting" was anticipated, he claims, when the costs of print publishing dropped in the 15th century and spawned a flurry of niche-oriented publications. Occasionally, Wright's use of modish terminology can seem glib: feudal societies benefited from a "fractal" structure of nested polities, world culture has always been "fault-tolerant" and today's societies are like a "giant multicultural brain." Despite the game-theory jargon, however, this book sends an important message that, as human beings make moral progress, history, in its broadest outlines, is getting better all the time. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

A populistic presentation of the proposition, challenged by much evidence in history, that humanity is on an ineluctable path to betterment, material if not moral. Wright sees this having occurred over the range of human polities, from the hunter-gatherer band to the chiefdom to the nation-state. Writing in a conversational, offbeat manner, Wright maintains that societies evolve through combinations of technological innovation and plain old innate human competitiveness and status-seeking. "Add Technology and Bake for Ten Millennia" runs one typically chatty chapter title that ambles about the invention of agriculture even as it twits Margaret Meadean anthropologists who argue that societies have no evolutionary direction. Defining the process as "non-zero-sumness," the opposite of a zero-sum game, Wright supports his view by drawing on an impressive breadth of knowledge that happily doesn't lord over the text but rather buoys it with interesting connections. Ending with a push of his thesis of progressiveness into biology, of all things, Wright caps a spritely, opinionated big-picture history of human civilization. Gilbert Taylor

From Library Journal

Wright (The Moral Animal) has written an informative and insightful book that examines the sociocultural evolution of our species toward ever-greater complexity, advancing technology, and scientific information. In the footsteps of cultural evolutionists Lewis H. Morgan and Leslie A. White and indebted to the vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Wright stresses the general progress in cultural evolution from nomadic bands to the emerging global society. He stresses the dynamic non-zero-sum basic pattern throughout human history, observing that "the directionality of culture, of history, is an expression of our species, of human nature." Special attention is given to the influences of war, agriculture, technology (iron implements and the printing press), and the convergence of information. Wright gives a quintessentially planetary perspective that does not consider the awesome influences of future outer-space exploration and migration on the destiny of our species. Despite its lugubrious style and the lack of illustrations, this scholarly analysis of human sociocultural development is suitable for large academic collections.
-H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Pressestimmen

Advance Praise for Nonzero

"I recommend Nonzero to any and all readers as a marvelous summary and interpretation of what is now known and surmised about biological and human history on our planet. For an author so well informed scientifically, perhaps the book's most unusual feature is the fact that Wright does not flinch from closing with a chatty, informal yet incisive argument about cosmic meaning and purpose behind the story he unfolds. . . . I greatly admire the book. [Wright] knows so much and has thought so clearly; and allows his imagination to range so freely!"
-- William H. McNeill, professor emeritus of history, University of Chicago, and author of The Rise of the West

"This is the book to read to start off the millennium. Leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop, this integrative and inspiring volume is brimming with hope for a positive human future. Religions are made of such stuff."
-- Martin Seligman, professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Learned Optimism

"Wright's chapters on the evolution of biological complexity and intelligence -- in addition to being beautifully written and scientifically sound -- are a welcome corrective to current trendy views that understate natural selection's creative power. There is, indeed, as Darwin said, a grandeur in this view of life."  
-- James Gould, professor of biology, Princeton University, and author of Biological Science


Praise for The Moral Animal

"A fiercely intelligent, beautifully written, and engrossingly original book. Wright writes with a consistent, irreverent wit that does not hide a heartfelt seriousness of purpose."
-- New York Times Book Review

"This clever and stimulating book is destined to become a classic. . . . Like Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, it could well change the way people think and feel about their lives -- perhaps even how they behave. . . . An intellectual entertainment argued with wit and style."
-- The Economist

Pressestimmen

Wright has constructed an interesting thesis... bold and thought-provoking. SUNDAY TIMES Not only a fascinating read but an important one. INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY One of the main layman's objections to the supposedly random process of evolution is that for all its inherent pointlessness, evolution seems to have a goal, a narrative, a conscious direction. And that direction is towards complexity. Germs become animals. Apes become humans. Blood-caked Aztec savages become liberal-minded East Coast essayists. Now Robert Wright, author of the much-praised The Moral Animal, has come along with a contentious new book to tell us that the layman has been on to something all along. Evolution does have a goal. The title of Wright's book comes from games theory, which divides human interactions into "zero sum games", where for every winner there's a loser, and "non-zero sum games", where everyone gains. Wright's aim is to knit together this theory with anthropol The author's learning is lightly worn. Sometimes too lightly. After a while his chatty, hey-let's-have-a-beer style starts to grate: "When was the last time you invented a boomerang?"; "Ah, Tahiti!". There are also some minor errors, like his claiming tha Sean Thomas, AMAZON.CO.UK REVIEW

Kurzbeschreibung

In his bestselling The Moral Animal, Robert Wright applied the principles of evolutionary biology to the study of the human mind. Now Wright attempts something even more ambitious: explaining the direction of evolution and human history–and discerning where history will lead us next.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright's narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology's ongoing transformation of the world.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Synopsis

Robert Wright challenges the conventional view that biological evolution and human history are aimless. Employing game theory - the logic of "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" games - he isolates the impetus behind life's basic direction: the impetus that, via biological evolution, created complex, intelligent animals, and then via cultural evolution, pushed the human species towards deeper and vaster social complexity. In this view, the coming of today's independent global society was "on the cards" - not quite inevitable, but, as Wright puts it, "so probable as to inspire wonder". Wright takes on some of the past century's most prominent thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins, arguing that a coolly specific appraisal of humanity's three-billion-year past can give new spiritual meaning to the present and even offer political guidance for the future.

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Robert Wright has written extensively for THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, THE NEW YORKER and TIME magazine, and currently works as a senior editor at THE NEW REPUBLIC.

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Introduction: The Calm Before the Storm

A great many internal and external portents (political and social upheaval, moral and religious unease) have caused us all to feel, more or less confusedly, that something tremendous is at present taking place in the world. But what is it?
-- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg once ended a book on this note: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Far be it from me to argue with a great physicist about how depressing physics is. For all I know, Weinberg's realm of expertise, the realm of inanimate matter, really does offer no evidence of higher purpose. But when we move into the realm of animate matter -- bacteria, cellular slime molds, and, most notably, human beings -- the situation strikes me as different. The more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and, especially, the drift of human history, the more there seems to be a point to it all. Because in neither case is "drift" really the right word. Both of these processes have a direction, an arrow. At least, that is the thesis of this book.

People who see a direction in human history, or in biological evolution, or both, have often been dismissed as mystics or flakes. In some ways, it's hard to argue that they deserve better treatment. The philosopher Henri Bergson believed that organic evolution is driven forward by a mysterious "é lan vital," a vital force. But why posit something so ethereal when we can explain evolution's workings in the wholly physical terms of natural selection? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian, saw human history moving toward "Point Omega." But how seriously could he expect historians to take him, given that Point Omega is "outside Time and Space"?

On the other hand, you have to give Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin some credit. Both saw that organic evolution has a tendency to create forms of life featuring greater and greater complexity. And Teilhard de Chardin, in particular, stressed a comparable tendency in human history: the evolution, over the millennia, of ever more vast and complex social structures. His extrapolations from this trend were prescient. Writing at the middle of this century, he dwelt on telecommunications, and the globalization it abets, before these subjects were all the rage. (Marshall McLuhan, coiner of "global village," had read Teilhard.) With his concept of the "noosphere," the "thinking envelope of the Earth," Teilhard even anticipated in a vague way the Internet -- more than a decade before the invention of the microchip.

Can the trends rightly noted by Bergson and Teilhard -- basic tendencies in biological evolution and in the technological and social evolution of the human species -- be explained in scientific, physical terms? I think so; that is largely what this book is about. But the concreteness of the explanation needn't, I believe, wholly drain these patterns of the spiritual content that Bergson and Teilhard imputed to them. If directionality is built into life -- if life naturally moves toward a particular end -- then this movement legitimately invites speculation about what did the building. And the invitation is especially strong, I'll argue, in light of the phase of human history that seems to lie immediately ahead -- a social, political, and even moral culmination of sorts.

As readers not drawn to theological questions will be delighted to hear, such speculation constitutes a small portion of this book: a few cosmic thoughts toward the end, necessarily tentative. Mostly this book is about how we got where we are today, and what this tells us about where we're heading next.

The Secret of Life

On the day James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Crick, as Watson later recalled it, walked into their regular lunch place and announced that they had "found the secret of life." With all due respect for DNA, I would like to nominate another candidate for the secret of life. Unlike Francis Crick, I can't claim to have discovered the secret I'm touting. It was discovered -- or, if you prefer, invented -- about half a century ago by the founders of game theory, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern.

They made a basic distinction between "zero-sum" games and "non-zero-sum" games. In zero-sum games, the fortunes of the players are inversely related. In tennis, in chess, in boxing, one contestant's gain is the other's loss. In non-zero-sum games, one player's gain needn't be bad news for the other(s). Indeed, in highly non-zero-sum games the players' interests overlap entirely. In 1970, when the three Apollo 13 astronauts were trying to figure out how to get their stranded spaceship back to earth, they were playing an utterly non-zero-sum game, because the outcome would be either equally good for all of them or equally bad. (It was equally good.)


Back in the real world, things are usually not so clear-cut. A merchant and a customer, two members of a legislature, two childhood friends sometimes -- but not always -- find their interests overlapping. To the extent that their interests do overlap, their relationship is non-zero-sum; the outcome can be win-win or lose-lose, depending on how they play the game.

Sometimes political scientists or economists break human interaction down into zero-sum and non-zero-sum components. Occasionally, evolutionary biologists do the same in looking at the way various living systems work. My contention is that, if we want to see what drives the direction of both human history and organic evolution, we should apply this perspective more systematically. Interaction among individual genes, or cells, or animals, among interest groups, or nations, or corporations, can be viewed through the lenses of game theory. What follows is a survey of human history, and of organic history, with those lenses in place. My hope is to illuminate a kind of force -- the non-zero-sum dynamic -- that has crucially shaped the unfolding of life on earth so far.

The survey of organic history is brief, and the survey of human history not so brief. Human history, after all, is notoriously messy. But I don't think it's nearly as messy as it's often made out to be. Indeed, even if you start the survey back when the most complex society on earth was a hunter-gatherer village, and follow it up to the present, you can capture history's basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential -- that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth.

This isn't to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes. Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naïve; parasitic behavior is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offers no shortage of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence.

This basic sequence -- the conversion of non-zero-sum situations into mostly positive sums -- had started happening at least as early as 15,000 years ago. Then it happened again. And again. And again. Until -- voilà! -- here we are, riding in airplanes, sending e-mail, living in a global village.

I don't mean to minimize the interesting details that populate most history books: Sumerian kings, barbarian...
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