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Belief in Progress Cloaked in the Rhetoric of Game Theory
am 1. Juni 2000
Back in 1794 the Enlightenment philosphe Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet wrote his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind--the boldest of the eighteenth-century declarations that humanity had and was destined to see Progress with a capital P. Condorcet was a powerful and convincing advocate--Malthus wrote his Essay on Population explicitly against Condorcet. But that was the high water mark of belief in Progress. By and large the past two centuries have seen the reaction, and confidence in human Progress--technological, political, humanistic, and moral--fell out of intellectual favor.
Now comes Robert Wright, previously author of Three Scientists and Their Gods and The Moral Animal, with an excellent book accompanied by an enthusiastic blurb by William McNeill. Wright's purpose to set out the gospel of progress anew, this time using the language of game theory as his principal mode of rhetoric. At its most basic level Wright's point is that interactions are positive-sum: there are gains from cooperation. Thus human cultural evolution has an arrow and a direction: toward greater complexity, toward higher civilization.
The direction arises at two levels. First, individual humans seek out things that increase their own powers and capabilities. Cooperation tends to do this, so people find ways to cooperate. But the most important form of cooperation is one that is almost impossible to stop: the simple sharing of knowledge. Two heads are better than one. The denser the population (and the better the means of communication) the more ideas will be generated, the larger the number of ideas that turn out to be useful, and the faster will be progress. People are, Wright argues--in my view correctly---naturally acquisitive in that they want useful things, and will eagerly copy new technologies they hear about. Thus Wright sees inventions such as agriculture as inevitable--not as a lucky accident.
Second, at the level of human societies, the societies that are more powerful--have better technologies, more effective social arrangements, greater population densities, and so forth--either swamp their neighbors or force their neighbors to copy them in order to maintain their autonomy. In Eurasia, where contact was constant from an early age--from the year 200 on one could travel from Gibralter to the mouth of China's Yangtze River and cross only three borders--a good innovation at one end would diffuse all the way to the other in a matter of centuries. He believes that the wide spread of religion in agricultural civilizations proves that its productivity-boosting and division of labor-enhancing effects outweigh its exploitative side: those societies that did not have temples and priests did not flourish.
Even if you buy all of Wright's argument that forms of increasing returns--non-zero-sum-ness, as Wright calls it--impart an arrow of increasing complexity and division of labor to human social, cultural, and economic evolution, this does not necessarily amount to Progress--at least not to anything we would see as progress in human morality or human happiness. For why should organizational complexity be Progress? As Wright puts it: "...it would be hard to argue that there was net moral gain between the hunter-gatherer and ancient-state phases of cultural evolution. The Egyptians had slaves--which virtually no known hunter-gatherer societies had--and their soldiers returned from wars of conquest proudly brandishing the severed penises of their slain foes."
So in the end Wright is forced to play a game of three-card monte to reach conclusions that support his belief in Progress. The card labeled "complexity" must be switched for the card labeled "Progress" without our noticing. In the industrial core, at the end of the twentieth century, we are inclined to tolerate this switch--to say that it is obvious that a highly complicated and productive civilization will have widely-distributed individual wealth, lots of individual freedom, and soft forms of rule, and that social complexity is civilization. But back in the middle of the twentieth century this switch could not have been accomplished at all: "complexity yes," people would have said, "but progress no." And who knows how things will look in a hundred more years?
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743- 1794), was an aristocrat, a mathematician, an official of the Academy of Sciences, and was a friend of Voltaire (1694-1778). He strongly supported the revolution of 1789 as an example of human progress. But the Committee of Public Safety turned on him: he was arrested, and died in prison before he could be executed.