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.
am 2. Februar 2005
Robert Wright, der Autor von NONZERO, ist Evolutionsbiologe und ein begnadeter Schreiber - humorvoll, verständlich, informativ und absolut überraschend. Seine (wohl begründete) These:
Die Evolution von der ersten Bakterie zum Menschen und die Entwicklung des Menschen vom Steinewerfer zum Erfinder der Atombombe ist tatsächlich ein Fortschritt - zu mehr Frieden und Zusammenarbeit auf der Erde. Kurz gesagt: Die Evolution ist zielgerichtet (Fachwort: teleologisch). Durch Zufall und Irrtum, durch eine "arms race" zwischen immer intelligenter agierenden Lebewesen führte sie zum Menschen und den zur globalen Zusammenarbeit.
Das "tool" der Evolution zur Errechung dieses Zwecks? Die Erfindung des "reziproken Altruismus" und damit die immer stärker werdenden Neigung zu "Nonzero-Games". Daher der Titel, denn die Spieltheorie sagt: Bei Zero-Games wie Fussball oder Schach MUSS einer verlieren. Bei Nonzero-Games KÖNNEN beide verlieren, aber oft genug gewinnen sie. Zum Beispiel beim Handel. Durch gegenseitige Freundlichkeit, gegenseitiges Vertrauen, gegenseitige Zuverlässigkeit, Dann wird aus Nonzero sogar eine Win/Win-Situation. Und die stärkt Freundlicheit, Vertrauen und Zuverlässigkeit weiter.
Ein typisches Beispiel für den Fortschritt? Zwischen den Dörfchen der frühen Clanfamilien gabs ständig Krieg. Nicht weil unsere Ahnen so angriffslustig waren, sondern weil die Männer im Krieg "Status"gewannen, durch reiche Beute mehr Frauen anzogen und mehr Kinder zeugen (und ernähren) konnten. Durch die immer stärkere Vernetzung der Welt bis heute wird Krieg vermieden. Er findet statt, aber nur noch in begrenzten Gebieten. Die Abstände zwischen den Kriegsschauplätzen sind immens gewachsen. In den Städten und Dörfern dazwischen herrscht Frieden. Einleuchtend, oder?
Ich finde auf jeden Fall: Wer mitreden will über das Thema "Wird alles immer schlechter? Oder vielleicht besser?" MUSS Robert Wright's NONZERO gelesen haben. Sonst redet er Unsinn. Er zeigt zumindest, dass er von Evolution und menschlicher Historie keine Ahnung an. Und ganz abgesehen davon: NONZERO ist für alle, die einigermaßen gut Englisch können, die reine Lesefreude!
am 19. Juli 2000
Nonzero starts off great. The history of humankind is reviewed from the perspective that human culture advances as technology advances by people instituting cultural changes to increase nonzero sum gains (gains accrued by the facilitation of trade). This whole analysis is exciting and thought provoking, which explains why so many people have been stimulated to write reviews of this book. The problem comes when the author (Robert Wright) tries to predict the future and to give his advice on how to "save the world". At this point the book gets very hard to stomach. He pictures a world progressively dominated by a single world (supranational) governance, with "culture lag" (technology changing too fast for society to adapt) being a major problem. Here's his tip on how to "save the world" (p. 233):
"The idea isn't to create a Bureau of Global Slowdown at the United Nations. The idea is simply to tolerate various supranational efforts that are starting to take shape and that, as they solidify, will naturally have a sedative effect. As first-world and third-world workers unite to raise third-world wages (and thus keep first-world wages from free falling), industrialists will complain that this dulls the market's edge, slowing progress. Yes, it does-but that's okay. As environmentalists unite to save rain forests, or tax fossil fuels, the same complaint will be heard-and the same answer will apply. In the age of the superempowered angry man, and the quite disgruntled man, the slowing down of deeply unsettling change is a benefit, not just a cost because anger and disgruntlement are world-class problems."
I'll let this "tip" speak for itself.
am 4. März 2000
Nonzero is the most interesting non-fiction book I've ever read. It has given me a new perspective on history, not to mention biology as well. The application of game theory to evolution - both cultural and biological - makes perfect sense. It evinces the essence of evolution and natural selection.
For such a heavy subject Wright's writing style is nicely conversational, and rather witty. But this does not mean that the book lacks rigor. Anyone who claims that he doesn't convincingly argue points and back up his thesis with facts is, well, crazy. A 16 page bibliography, 51 pages of endnotes (that are as informative as the text itself) and 2 appendices, prove that he has done his share research. He synthesizes a wealth of diverse information into clear, concise chapters. He presents other viewpoints and demonstrates their faults and merits. But the most impressive thing about the book is its unwavering logic. There is no mathematical/scientific proof of evolutionary direction in this book, only constant and persuasive logic. It makes sense.
am 3. Februar 2000
I am having a bit of trouble seeing Wright's "ghost in the machine" (I do not doubt that there is one!) but is Wright trying to emphasize 'emergence and chaos theory as the "elan vital" for human evolution? I will re-read-but it seems to me that conclusions are scarce in Wright's Non-Zero. I think the problem is that I tend to aim for reductionist analysis (gear A turning Spindle B) and Wrights more or less Holistic perspective-which is equally true but damn hard to demonstrate.
am 10. April 2000
Non-Zero is an excellent book, because it shows an arc to human (and physical, biological, natural) history. That arc is complexity, and cooperation, through the additive effects of cooperation.
The book is readable, almost chatty. The author fleshes out a truth long known by sociologists. Emile Durkheim stated the thesis most cogently -- the sum of social facts (human society) is greater than their individual parts (given persons). In other words, people who cooperate do big things, like go to the moon, or raise hundreds of bushels of corn, or make movies. The author brings clarity and readability to this thesis. I do not think that the book is terribly original -- the author cites authoritative sources for nearly every insight he presents. What this book gives is scope, a view that has taken a step back from encrusted academic language and simply communicates it's message.
The book is too hopeful. An example: the author describes the social insurance that comes from potlatch and similar ceremonies, the sharing of material wealth. But surely burning the wealth is a degenerative form of this useful insurance ritual? The author could have explored the entire idea of degeneration in non-zero-sumness -- in other words, when cooperative beneficial behavior becomes perverse -- in better detail. He writes off degenerative social behavior as social dead ends -- which does not particularly help 20 million dead kulaks in Soviet Russia, and won't help 200 million dead Americans if there is a smallpox related terrorist incident.
For his next book, or article, I think Wright should explore counter-examples to his thesis in greater detail. But this book is excellent, because it communicates so well, a thesis that is particularly important today: the globalization of nonzerosumness -- cooperate or die!
The most important line in the book, comes when Wright calls for more love, more cooperation, a greater supply of spiritual well being -- as an antidote to terrorists, angry men, those persons alienated from modern society. Isn't this what the Pope fosters by apologizing? If making Serbians feel a bit more appreciated prevents ambushes, murders, a holocaust, why not?
Why not? Well, Wright needs to examine the difference between cooperation and placating the evil, between Neville Chamberlain with the Nazis and Churchill with Stalin. His hopefulness in some ways is an artifact of willful historical ignorance --- or to be kinder, one book cannot cover all possibilities, and a good futurist who wants to make money must stick to his rosy scenarios --- but I grow mean.
It is a compliment to an author that his writing raises these questions. This is the sort of book that entertains, but leaves the reader thinking. That is a high compliment. Wright has gone exploring among the dross and over-written tomes of sociology and anthropology, and mined the gold. The result is a book that is better than the sources it uses. One is left feeling that the author is a bit smug about the analytical wedge he uses to make his points, a bit unwilling to expose the weaknesses his game theory incorporates.
But the reader is also left feeling better educated about, and more aware of, of the questions left on the table. Given that these questions are cetnral to the survival of human kind, the book is a good start to thinking about human survival, spiritual growth, and what humans can do when they embrace complexity and cooperate.
am 5. April 2000
This is a grand tour through history, starting with the evolution of life and ending with the Internet and global economy. The point of this tour is that history is not a random series of accidents. It has a direction. The direction is toward increasing complexity and increasing interdependence between things, both living and non-living.
If the idea that history is not random seems pretty commonsensical, I feel that way too. Afterall, few would deny that human beings are more complex than bacteria, that global media and the Internet make us more sensitive to what is going on with other people than ever before, or that nations are more economically and politically linked to each other now than they were during previous centuries. The thing that Wright does, in contrast to prevailing modern philosophy in a number of fields, is to show this progression as an _inevitable_march_ from things that sometimes bump into each other to things that interact in increasingly sophisticated and more complex ways.
The organizing principle behind this grand tour of evolutionary and cultural history is the "non-zero sum game," a concept taken from the mathematical theory of games. The idea is that interactions between entities sometimes involve competing for a limited resource, and sometimes involve cooperating for mutual gains. Shades of the "win-win" philosophy shoved down our throats by management consulting authors the last decade. Except that Wright sees legitimate mutual gains all over the place, from the primordial soup to computer networking, and a tendency for things that take advantage of non-zero sum games to be selected in preference to others.
Wright does an interesting and erudite job of examining history to look for evidence of progression and mutual gains. He also competently and accessibly traces the history of the concept of historical inevitability, both its supporters and its detractors. He does an admirable job of finding and addressing anomalies to his theory, such as the persistence of war and other zero sum (and worse) games. What he doesn't do is to provide much in the way of testable propositions, but perhaps that's asking too much of a theme of such sweeping scope that it could probably be better described as a framework than a theory. I'd compare this to Steven Pinker's similarly ambitious attempt to merge cognitive science with evolutionary theory in his "How the Mind Works," only the goal in Non Zero is even more difficult. All the more reason to congratulate Wright for the attempt, and to appreciate that he managed to accomplish as much as he has in such an effective way.
This book is very well written and kept my attention, even for topics in history that I normally would skip, like obscure periods in medieval serfdom. I kept wondering how he was going to explain all of the little exceptions that crossed my mind when he presented his theme. How could the Dark Ages be evidence of increasing cultural progression, for example ? He managed to anticipate nearly every one of my questions eventually.
I have a couple of nit-picks with the printing of the hardcover version of this book by Pantheon. First, the cover of the hardback edition is done in a strange sort of staggered style, with some of the letters on the jacket and some on the book itself. Good books take heavy abuse in my home, and once the jacket was history, I was left with a book cryptically entitled "O Z R Logic Human O E T W I H." Thus rendering it useless as the nice coffee table prop it could have been. Unless I crayoned in the missing letters. Ok, that's a pretty silly thing to complain about.
Slightly less petty, I think, the book also uses a very annoying form of footnoting, little crosses for every note. As if they were telling the reader that there was a graveyard of ideas that never made it to the main text. I found it so oppressive to track down and exhume all of these instances of crosses and try to figure out which note went at which point that I simply stopped trying. Wright's efforts at giving the book a scholarly tone were defeated by this unfortunate choice of formatting.
I'd like to mention one of the big criticisms that I've seen levelled at this book. The key concepts to Wright's view of history is that increasing interaction and interdependence render certain historical trends both <inevitable> and <progressive>. As the critics point out, and so does Wright, these general notions are not new things to claim. Philosophers and scientists have often devoted a lot of effort to showing that human societies do not "evolve," that modern societies are not "more evolved" forms of tribal societies, that "social Darwinism" is nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to justify the rich getting richer and the poor being left out. The logic goes that the animal that gets eaten is a victim of its own adaptive unworthiness, and so the poor schlep that gets trodden on by his peers is simply exercising his Darwinian option to be selected out of existence to purify the gene pool toward something greater. Good grief. "Social Darwinism" is hardly noble thinking or even remotely presentable as scientific. But that's _not_ what Wright is doing, and those who accuse Wright of such thinking must be reading this book very selectively. It would be unfair to refuse this tour on that basis. He rightly points out that such interpretations of evolution are at the very least generally guilty of the naturalistic fallacy (confusing a description of nature with what "should" be).
All in all, a very entertaining and educational romp through natural and human history, and an interesting historical "theory of everything," that could have been (has been, and will be) done much worse by others.
am 6. März 2000
Anyone who introduces religious thought into scientific discussion today must feel like Copernicus did, knowing full well that his expressed ideas will be incendiary to the Almighty Church. I commend Robert Wright for his bravery. He is attempting to observe Darwinian evolution from a higher plane, one that requires faith, both fundamental and leaping. In "The Moral Animal" he made a credible case that the evolution of a single cell could produce a complex human organism capable of moral judgment through self-interested altruistic behavior. Now, in "Nonzero" he has made a credible case that the same evolutionary forces act upon social groups (adopting the gene=meme hypothesis that results from primate consciousness) through non-zero-sum game theory to produce complex interactive civilizations. With technology/information in symbiosis with population growth (is there any doubt that agrarianism, trade and the printing press ushered in population bursts?), humans have been compelled toward complexity in order to overcome barriers to their gene/meme propagation. He has made a strong argument that, simply by evolution, we are on the brink of shifting from competitive state-dominated social organizations to a worldwide social organization, as our technology enables that leap in complexity. The dramatic progress of the European Union and the recent World Trade Court decision requiring the United States (the Big Cahuna) to change its tax laws are proof enough for me that Mr. Wright is onto something. At the end of the book, he (very, very cautiously) points to the next step in our Kabbalistic ascent to the Keter. It is a world in which the entire planet is a living organism and humans are its naturally evolved "brain". I can think of nothing more Copernican, more deflating to scientific egos, than to reduce our scientific achievements to the status of computational consciousness and memory.
am 15. Februar 2000
This is a brave attempt to bring a very intimidating and contentious subject to popular attention. It is fashionable to insist that science has poven that life has no purpose or direction. Wright argues instead for the idea of evolution as having "complexity", intelligence , and, hopefully, some measure of moral progress as its goal. Contrary to making modern life meaningless, science of evolution has opened up the possibility that human consciousness has a place in an ongoing process towards a better world. I thought his speculations on "meta evolution" and religion were particularly insightful.
It is a much more personal, speculative, and far reaching book than his excellent " Moral Animal". Wright is taking some personal risks in stating his beliefs so openly -something that most scientist cannot or will not reveal. I can think of few subjects that become so pretentious and overbearing, yet Wright very deliberiately attempts this important subject in a direct and down to earth manner designed not to impress but to communicate to as wide a readership as possible. It is a record of a man trying to think through a difficult subject as earnestly as he can, knowing that he cannot have all the answers. It his best honest guess about one of the most important issues of the day. If anyone has ever read a better spin on this subject I would love to know about it.
One caution: I would read "The Moral Animal" first. "Non Zero" is very much a follow up.
am 6. Februar 2000
Twenty five years ago, Albert Camus' The Stranger overwhelmed me; it seemed to speak directly to my teenage angst. I plunged into the stacks to read (or try to read) other "existential" writers, and though I didn't find the answers I was seeking, Camus' book started me down a path of my own making. Robert Wright's Moral Animal had the same dramatic impact on my thinking; my interest in evolution started with Stephen Jay Gould's Reflections on Natural History series and accelerated with Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, but Wright's book articulated evolutionary theory by speaking to the most personal of human experiences: relations between men and women. The ideas weren't his, he just provided the magnifying glass and suddenly many things came into focus: never seen before but now perfectly obvious. My book list swerved heavily through his bibliography, and reading suddenly felt urgent. One quickly realizes, however, bold new ideas in this field are hard to come by. In many cases, writers such as Gould and Stephen Dawkins, appear to have been distracted by their public relations battle with the forces of creationism. Their books read like it. Wright and Pinker seem to have a different perspective, one that assumes the world accepts evolution as fact and settles into the next stage of the discussion: what does it truly mean?
In his new book, Nonzero, Robert Wright offers a few ideas of his own. As a result, whereas Moral Animal had a crisp pace, now he must spend more ink detailing the evidence that supports his credibility. The book reads long but as anyone who has perserved through Stephen Dawkins' books knows, the ideas are what matter most. Is evolution directional? Is it directional because we tend to cooperate. I believe and hope our children will look back from a better future and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Most of those publishing commercial books on human evolutionary theory are academics; as an accomplished journalist and a writer incapable of writing a boring sentence, Robert Wright has little competition. His ability to attract a mainstream audience makes him one of the most important voices on this subject.