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Unformatted text preview: NONZERO Acclaim for Robert Wright’s NONZERO: The Logic of Human Destiny “An original, accessible and thought-provoking view of history . . . full of rich detail, ingenious insight and bold argument.” —The Economist “Wright carries his learning lightly, and his bold attempt to uncover parallels between organic evolution and the development of human cultures makes for a compelling synthesis. . . . Wright is right about so many things: evolution is seeded with inevitabilities, cultures have common trajectories, and human history has seen great hopes and terrible crimes but is capable of achieving a final destiny.” —Simon Conway Morris, The New York Times Book Review “An extraordinarily insightful and thought-provoking book. . . . Wright does an astonishingly effective job of finding directionality in history, not just over the past few thousand years but over the almost four billion years since the beginning of life on earth.” —Francis Fukuyama, The Wilson Quarterly “A dazzling tour of world history. . . . Although he takes into account the tooth-and-claw battles of nations, the vanished empires, social violence and chaos, the shocks and changes of technology, Mr. Wright finds pattern and meaning in history. We are moving toward connectedness, toward one world. . . . Does that mean we can rest on our laurels and simply let the game go on? No; Mr. Wright wants us consciously to take charge.” —The Ottawa Citizen “A must for history buffs . . . highly readable. . . . Wright’s chatty, informal style makes all the difference.” —The Singapore Straits Times At long last, here is a ‘millennium book’ that is definitely worth reading. . . . An enormously skillful summary of everything you always wanted to know about history and science but were afraid to ask.” —David Davidar, The Hindu (India) “A genuine advance in our understanding of how we came to be, and where we are headed. . . . We—the sorry mass of humanity—have made history, but we have often proceeded blindly and without the least understanding of the great project in which we are engaged. Wright should be content that he has described, better than anyone in recent days, the nature and scope of that endeavor.” —John Judis, The Washington Monthly “Books that search for grand themes in history are almost impossible to write 1 well, but when successful, make a lasting impression on thought. Nonzero is such a work. Brilliant, sweeping, and alive with insight, it is the first really important book of the new decade.” —Gregg Easterbrook, beliefnet.com “Generous and urgent scholarship about everything from the function of war among native North American peoples to the origins of language . . . provided with witty style, energy, and an attractive sort of bold humility.” —Lionel Tiger, National Review “Grand and entertaining . . . perceptive and thought-provoking.” —Boston Herald “Nonzero is a zealous and often thrilling gloss of all of human history—a work of philosophical derring-do from one of America’s alpha minds.” —Virginia Heffernan, Talk “Amusing and bold and at the same time illuminating, contentious and controversial.” —Toronto Globe & Mail “I recommend Nonzero to any and all readers as a marvelous ummary and interpretation of what is now known and surmised about biological and human history on our planet. . . . Wright knows so much and has thought so clearly; and allows his imagination to range so freely!” —William H. McNeill, University of Chicago, author of Plagues and People and The Rise of the West “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, Princeton University, author of Biological Science 2 Contents Introduction PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND 1. The Ladder of Cultural Evolution 2. The Way We Were 3. Add Technology and Bake for Five Millennia 4. The Invisible Brain 5. War: What Is It Good For? 6. The Inevitability of Agriculture 7. The Age of Chiefdoms 8. The Second Information Revolution 9. Civilization and So On 10. Our Friends the Barbarians 11. Dark Ages 12. The Inscrutable Orient 13. Modern Times 14. And Here We Are 15. New World Order 16. Degrees of Freedom PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE 17. The Cosmic Context 18. The Rise of Biological Non-zero-sumness 19. Why Life Is So Complex 20. The Last Adaptation PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY 21. Non-crazy Questions 22. You Call This a God? Appendix I: On Non-zero-sumness Appendix II: What Is Social Complexity? Bibliography Index 3 Introduction THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM 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 overarching 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 a 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 “élan vital,” a vital force. But why posit something so ethereal when we can explain evolution’s workings in the wholly physical term of natural selection? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian, saw human history moving toward “Point Omega.” But how eriously 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 pattern 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 4 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 member of a legislature, two childhood friends sometimes—but not always—find their interests overlapping. To the extent that their interests do overlap, their relationship i non-zero-sum; the outcome can be win-win or lose-lose, depending on how they play the game. (For elaboration on non-zero-sum logic, and discussion of the classic non-zero-sum game “the prisoner’s dilemma,” see appendix 1.) 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 form 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 and all subsequent daggers refer to elaborative notes that can be found in the Notes section at the end of the book. This isn’t to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes and never have lose-lose outcomes. (Badly governed societies are littered with losses, and 5 history is littered with the remains of badly governed societies.) Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naïve; exploitation—ranging from clear-cut parasitism to subtler inequity—is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offer plenty of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, and 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 hordes, medieval knights, the Protestant Reformation, nascent nationalism, and so on. In fact, I try to give all of these their due (along with such too-often-neglected exemplars of the human experience as native American hunter-gatherers, Polynesian chiefdoms, Islamic commercial innovations, African kingdoms, Aztec justice, and precocious Chinese technology). But I do intend to show how these details, though important in their own right, are ultimately part of a larger story—to show how they fit into a framework that make thinking about human history easier. After surveying human history, I will briefly apply to organic history the same organizing principle. Through natural selection, there arise new “technologies” that permit richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction among biological entities: among genes, or cells, or animals, or whatever. And the rest, as they say, is organic history. In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of evermore-numerous, ever-larger, and ever-more-elaborate non-zero-sum games. It is the accumulation of these games—game upon game upon game—that constitutes the growth in biological and social complexity that people like Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin have talked about. I like to refer to this accumulation as an accumulation of “non-zero-sumness.” Non-zero-sumness is a kind of potential—a potential for overall gain, or for overall loss, depending on how the game is played. The concept may sound ethereal in the abstract, but I hope it will feel concrete by the end of this book. Non-zero-sumness, I’ll argue, is something whose ongoing growth and ongoing fulfillment define the arrow of the history of life, from the primordial soup to the World Wide Web. You might even say that non-zero-sumness is a nuts-and-bolts, materialist version of Bergson’s immaterial élan vital; it gives a certain momentum to the basic direction of life on this planet. It explains why biological evolution, given enough time, was very likely to create highly intelligent life—life smart enough to generate technology and other forms of culture. It also explains why the ensuing evolution of technology, and of culture more broadly, was very likely to enrich and expand the social structure of that intelligent species, carrying social organization to planetary breadth. Globalization, it seems to me, has been in the cards not just since the invention of the telegraph or the steamship, or even the written word or the wheel, but since the invention of life. The current age, in which relations among nations grow more non-zero-sum year by year, is the natural outgrowth of several billion years of unfolding non-zero-sum logic. 6 YOU CALL THAT DESTINY? Any book with a subtitle as grandiose as “The Logic of Human Destiny” is bound to have some mealy-mouthed qualification somewhere along the way. We might as well get it over with. How literally do I mean the word “destiny”? Do I mean that the exact state of the world today has been inevitable for eons? No, on two counts. First, I’m talking not about the world’s exact, detailed state, but about its broad contours, such as the scope and nature of its political and economic structures. Second, I’m not talking about something that was literally inevitable—100 percent guaranteed ever since the dawn of history, or the dawn of life, or whatever. Still, I am talking about something whose chances of transpiring were very high—something that was “in the cards” in the sense that the deck was stacked heavily in its favor. Some people may consider it cheating to use the word “destiny” when you mean not “inevitable” but “exceedingly likely.” Would you consider it cheating to say that the destiny of a poppy seed is to become a poppy? Obviously, a given poppy seed may not become a poppy. Indeed, the destiny of some poppy seeds seems—in retrospect, at least—to have been getting baked onto a bagel. And even poppy seeds that have escaped this fate, and landed on soil, may still get eaten (though not at brunch) and thus never become flower . Still, there are at least three reasons that it seems defensible to say that the “destiny” of a poppy seed is to become a poppy. First, this is very likely to happen under broadly definable circumstances. Second, from the seed’s point of view, the only alternative to this happening is catastrophe—death, to put a finer point on it. Third, if we inspect the essence of a poppy seed—the DNA it contains—we find it hard to escape the conclusion that the poppy seed is programmed to become a poppy. Indeed, you might say the seed is designed to become a poppy, even though it was “designed” not by a human designer, but by natural selection. For anything other than full-fledged poppyhood to happen to a poppy seed—for it to get baked onto a bagel or eaten by a bird—is for the seed’s true expression to be stifled, its naturally imbued purpose to go unrealized. It is for reasons roughly analogous to these that I will make an argument for human destiny. Of course, the human-poppy analogy gets most contentious when we ponder the third reason: Is it fair to say that our species has some larger “purpose”? Is there some grand goal that life on earth was “designed” to realize? I think the reasons for answering yes are stronger than many people—especially many scientists and social scientists—realize. Still, as I’ve already suggested, this question is slippery, and answers to it must be speculative. In contrast, destiny in the more modest sense of the word—a likely outcome, an outcome that history naturally move toward—is a fairly concrete proposition, more clearly open to empirical appraisal. This book is a full-throated argument for destiny in this sense of “direction,” along with a more reticent argument for destiny in the sense of “purpose.” THE CURRENT CHAOS Neither biological evolution nor human history is a smooth, steady process. Both pass through thresholds; they can leap from one equilibrium to a new, higher-level equilibrium. To some people, the current era has the aura of a threshold; it has that 7 unsettling, out-of-control feeling that can portend a major shift. Technological, geopolitical, and economic change seem ominously fast, and the fabric of society seems somehow tenuous. For instance: World currency markets are rocked by the turbulent force of electronically lubricated financial peculation. Weapons of mass destruction are cultivated by rogue regimes and New Age cults. Nations seem less cohesive than before, afflicted by ethnic or religious or cultural faction. Health officials seriously discuss the prospect of a worldwide plague—the unspeakably gruesome Ebola virus, perhaps, or some microbe we don’t yet know about, spread around the world by jet-propelled travelers. Even tropical storms seem to have grown more intense in recent decades, arguably a result of global warming. It sounds apocalyptic, and some religiously minded people think it literally is. They have trouble imagining that this rash of new threats could be mere coincidence—especially coming, as it has, at the end of a millennium. Some fundamentalist Christians cite growing global chaos as evidence that Judgment D...
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