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am 19. Februar 2000
This book is a pretentious regurgitation of a half-digested science. The logic of the book goes like this. First, cooperation problems are ubiquitous in social and economic interactions (a common place idea). Second, human societies cope with these problems by devising institutions aimed at detecting cheaters and spreading information about them (also a common place idea barely worth repeating). And third, successful cooperation not only creates immediate material gains, but also gives rise to the need of more cooperation as some interactions that were hitherto impossible become viable (this idea, despite being the key for the whole book, is barely stated and never convincingly proved). If you want to write about science, it makes sense to use some method. State your hypothesis first and then show the evidence. Wright mixes up theory and evidence, perhaps knowing that his arguments wouldn't withstand any serious scrutiny.
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am 31. März 2000
I'm a software engineer by profession, but I've always had an interest in history. I found this book to be very entertaining and insightful. I found the thesis of this book to be logical, well defended, and somewhat revolutionary.
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am 19. 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.
Wright dismisses gloomy talk of barbarian invasions and the fall of empires by asserting that one goes from furs-and-swords to linen-and-pens in three generations: "The Romans weren't exactly hailed by the Greeks as cultural equals when they happened on the scene.... Yet they were massively infiltrated by classical Greek memes, which they then spread across the wider world. In Horace's phrase, 'The Greeks, captive, took the victors captive'. And, anyway, who were the Greeks to look down on intrusive barbarians?... The early Greeks had a title of honor, ptoliporthos, that meant 'sacker of cities'.... But whether these 'barbarians' sack cities, or hover on the periphery and trade... or ally with them in war or ally against them, one outcome is nearly certain: win, lose, or draw, the 'barbarians' become vehicles for advanced memes...." For what truly matters are the basic technologies of agriculture and craft, not the products of high civilizations. And even when you do have significant regression--in the post-Mycenean Dark Age, in the post-Roman Dark Age, or in the wake of the Mongols--Wright reminds us that "the world makes backup copies."
Wright also dismisses gloomy talk of the stagnation of Ming and Qing China, the fall of the Mughal Empire, and the technological and organizational stasis of the Ottoman Empire by arguing that the key unit is not Europe vs. Asia but is instead Eurasia. Sooner or later, Wright argues, some part of Eurasia--it did not have to be Europe--would have hit up on a superior social and technological recipe to that of the mid second millennium empires, and when it did the rest would have copied it. Wright is of the school that holds that China almost broke through to modernity, writing of how paper and woodblock printing were used to distribute useful texts--Pictures and Poems on Husbandry and Weaving, Mathematics for Daily Use, and the Treatise on Citrus Fruit. The recipe that ultimately proved successful--what Wright calls the economic logic of freedom--was stopped in many places: "indeed, on balance, in the centuries after the printing press was invented, European governments grew more despotic." But it only had to succeed once. And given sufficient cultural variation, sooner or later a breakthrough was inevitable.
But 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: " 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.
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am 17. Februar 2000
As a Christian, the assumption that there is a direction and purpose to history is evidenced in the writings of the Bible. Wright maiantains that society evolves through combinations of technological innovation and plain old human competiveness, which is also true. In fact, it has never been more true today, than at any point of history to date. The evolution of our technology, human choice of will, and the direction or purpose, as evidenced in the Bible are blatantly obvious, or should be, to all but the ignorant. The current and future technology, which we all depend upon daily, will result in our own enslavement. As earlier stated , the assumption that there is a purpose and direction to history, will be combined with the current and future technology. I suggest you all read "Transfer: the end of the beginning," written by Jerry Furland. I enjoy knowing what happened yesterday, as well as I do two thousand years ago, but I need to know what is going to happen in the next decade. My advice, humbly given: read Furland, available through amazon also.
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am 30. Mai 2000
By applying the game theory of non-zero and zero-sum strategies Robert Wright established an astonishing relation between this game theory and cultural and biological evolution. Sound knowledge of anthropological and historical concepts are displayed troughout the entire book. There is an abandonment of morality during most of the chapters, to retake a theological and moralistic view of evolution in the last chapter. The most important aspect to make non-zero a book worth reading is the ability of the author to give an organized perspective of human evolution incorporating history, geography and biological evolution. The future of humankind will be determined not only by natural selection but also by moralistic determinants. In the final two chapters,Richard Wright gave only briefly a chance for a superior divinity to be part of this evolution.
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am 18. April 2000
I suppose it shouldn't surprise one. It took a long time for the idea that end of a geocentric view of the universe was not the end of finding meaning in life on earth. I guess it is going to take an even longer time to absorb the fact that Darwin's theory of natural selection acting on random variation is not the end of finding meaning in life on earth either. But it is a little surprising to find that intelligent (but probably not very wise) people still insist on trying to find some kind of larger meaning in Darwin's theory itself. No wonder creationists argue against the teaching of Darwinian theory in schools. When the likes of Wright try to turn it into a source of a kind of secular religion and a source of `meaning' and `purpose' in life you would have to concede that creationists might have a case for equal time!
There seems to be two kinds of science popularisers: (a) those, like Gould, who are keen to popularise their science itself; their love of the science shines through and (b) those who popularise science as a vehicle for particular social and political hobby horses. Wright definitely belongs in the latter category. For those of you insecure enough to be still in search of the meaning of life, the universe and everything (even though the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy found it a long time ago and it is `42') you will possibly find this book useful.
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am 18. März 2000
While the over all theme of the book is almost unassailable, the author lends himself to criticism on almost every page. For example, "There is today a lot more pig DNA around than its undomesticated kin, wild boar DNA. In that sense--in the Darwinian Sense--getting eaten is the best thing that ever happened to pork." It almost seems the author does more to invalidate his position than to justify it.
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am 29. Januar 2000
This book (Non-Zero) is a flat Zero. It is difficult, if not impossible, to follow the author. The generalizations submitted by the author are enough to drive any reader crazy, as they make no sense. You just can't equate human evolution to a "game theory."
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am 3. Februar 2000
This is a very preliminary reaction. Got to page 5. Decided to check referenced "prisoners dilemma" on pg 341. My dilemma is why does "you" wind up with two 10yr options while "him" does not get any. They both are shown with equal 3yr and 1yr options. Is that what is meant by a non-zero-sum?
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am 1. Februar 2000
Theoretically it shouldn't take much time to get through this psuedo intellectual romp, for the writing is breezy. But even the few hours seems time ill spent. This is poorly reasoned, poorly argued tripe, so riddled with falacies and misleading interpretations of the evidence that it does not merit serious consideration.
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