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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny [Anglais] [Broché]

Robert Wright

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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 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 makes 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 ever-more-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 é lan 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. All along, the relentless logic of non-zero-sumness has been pointing toward this age in which relations among nations are growing more non-zero-sum year by year.


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 ten or fifty or one hundred years from now is inevitable, down to the last detail? No, on two counts.

(1) I'm talking not about the world's exact, detailed state, but about its broad contours: the nature of its political and economic structures (Whither, for example, the nation-state?); the texture of individual experience (Whither freedom?); the scope of culture (Whither Mickey Mouse?); and so on.

(2) I'm not talking about something that is literally inevitable. Still, I am talking about something whose chances of transpiring are very, very high. Moreover, I'm saying that the only real alternatives to the "destiny" that I'll outline are extremely unpleasant, best avoided for all our sakes.

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 flowers.

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? Here, as I've said, the argument has to get quite speculative. But I do think the reasons for answering yes are stronger than many people -- especially many scientists and social scientists -- realize.

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 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 speculation. 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 Day is around the corner. A whole genre of best-selling novels envisions "the Rapture," the day when true believers, on the way to heaven, meet Christ in midair, while others, down below, find a less glamorous fate.

In a sense, these fundamentalists are right. No, I don't mean about the Rapture. I just mean that growing turmoil does signify, by my lights, a distinct step in the unfolding of what you could call the world's destiny. We are indeed approaching a culmination of sorts; our species seems to face a kind of test toward which basic forces of history have been moving us for millennia. It is a test of political imagination -- of our ability to accept basic, necessary changes in structures of governance -- but also a test of moral imagination.

So how will we do on this test? Judging by history, the current turbulence will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global political, economic, and social structures have largely tamed the new forms of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organization higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will, in retrospect, look like the storm before the calm.

Or, on the other hand, we could blow up the world. Remember, even poppy seeds don't always manage to flower.

For that matter, even if we avoid blowing up the world, elements of uncertainty remain. Though the natural expression of history's logic has certain firm parameters, they leave some leeway. One can imagine, within the bounds of possibility suggested by the trajectory of the past, future political structures that grant more freedom or less, more privacy or less, that foster more order or less, more wealth or less.

One purpose of this book is to aid in exploring this "wiggle room" -- in choosing among such alternative futures and in realizing the choice. But at least as important as using destiny's leeway wisely is easing destiny's arrival. History, even if its basic direction is set, can proceed at massive, wrenching human cost. Or it can proceed more smoothly -- with costs, to be sure, but with more tolerable costs. It is the destiny of our species -- and this time I mean the inescapable destiny, not just the high likelihood -- to choose.


From the Hardcover edition.

Revue de presse

"Exciting and intellectually stimulating?well-written, witty, and quite timely as we consider the challenges of our global, interconnected future."?The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Amazon.com: 3.9 étoiles sur 5  107 commentaires
124 internautes sur 141 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Sweeping, informative and entertaining 25 janvier 2000
Par Un client - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Thankfully, an increasing number of authors (Landes, Diamond, et al) have been tackling social evolution - a crucial topic that's been shied away from for too long. Wright's effort is inspired, intelligent, engaging, erudite, not the least bit pretentious, and exceedingly well-written. Wright's basic message is that living organizations - both organisms and the groups they form - have been getting increasingly complex and well-integrated since life began, so it's a good bet that this trend will continue into the future. He presents a general hypothesis, and then provides a mountain of fascinating evidence to back it up. It's not experimental science, it's theory-driven science, but it's definitely not "bad science" as a few reviewers (usually non-scientists, interestingly) have said. Reading this book will definitely increase your knowledge and understanding of the history of life on earth, and as the goal of science is to increase knowledge and understanding, I'd say the scientific value of this book is high - much higher than most history you will read (historians usually don't even try to make their interpretations consistent with biological knowledge). Though not the last word in social evolution, this book is an excellent leap forward, and anyone interested in history, biology, or social evolution should read it, and have a great time doing it. Highly recommended.
158 internautes sur 184 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The Arrow of Cultural Evolution 19 juin 2000
Par James B. Delong - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
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: "...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.
198 internautes sur 232 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Dr. Pangloss, I Presume? 25 janvier 2003
Par Doginfollow - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
Robert Wright has the odd distinction of having written one of the best non-fiction books of the past decade (The Moral Animal) and now, with Nonzero, one of the most disappointing.
How it happened is a bit of a mystery. The Moral Animal, a summary of developments in the field of evolutionary psychology, was tightly organized, well-argued and eloquent. The book's thesis--that human nature is rooted in our genetic code, itself honed through millions of years of evolution-stood on the shoulders of the giants (from Darwin to Dawkins) who laid its scientific and theoretical foundation. Wright's contribution was to distill their work into an accessible but lucid package, with the particularly clever device of illustrating the principles that guide human behavior with examples from Darwin's own life.
With Nonzero, Wright extends the argument to claim that human societies (like the species itself) evolve, compete and adapt. That idea itself is not controversial. But Wright adds the gloss that societal evolution takes place in an arc that inevitably leads to further complexity and "progress". Here, unfortunately, he is trying to be original. Even if Wright happens to be right--and he may be--the lack of a scholarly foundation for his arguments is painfully evident throughout the book.
Wright proves again and again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. His acquaintance with history is broad but not deep. Errors, overgeneralizations and a tendency to confuse trivia with truth riddle his accounts of human civilizations. He is willing to toss in any idea--no matter how thinly reasoned--that supports his argument on any particular page. This leads to breathtaking leaps of fact and logic, such as a passage attributing the "many millions who died in the Holocaust" to the 19th century German nationalism provoked "when industrialization swept lands that had just barely left the Middle Ages."
It's not just that Wright knows next to nothing about 19th century Germany--or Ming China, or Tokugawa Japan, or Medieval Europe, or dozens of other civilizations he discusses. It's not just that he gets facts wrong or (more often) rips them out of context. It's that he doesn't seem to care. He's so sure he knows the arc of civilization that the details don't really matter. Inconvenient facts are disregarded or sculpted to support the narrative. Thus the Dark Ages and Feudalism are represented as advances over the Roman Empire. The collapse of great civilizations is always portrayed as the triumph of some progressive force (Wright even offers six bullet points in favor of barbarians). All developments--even contradictory ones--are presented as positive. Centralization or decentralization, political unity or disunity, nationalism or transnationalism--it's all good, according to Wright, at the particular moment they arose.
Here Wright dangles perilously between the dialectics of Hegel and the optimism of Dr. Pangloss. Which, incidentally, suggests a possible reason for the failure of the book. Unlike The Moral Animal, where Wright obviously profited from immersion in the major works of evolutionary psychology, Nonzero gives short shrift to the theorists who have explored the meaning and direction of history in much greater depth and breadth than Wright has. (Hegel, Marx, Toynbee and Spengler come to mind). There are some shoulders to stand on, but Wright prefers his own two feet, however shaky. Perhaps he thinks that evolutionary psychology and game theory are ideas that make previous efforts obsolete. They don't. There's nothing in the notion that societies compete and adapt and evolve that would have astonished Kant or Hegel. And there's nothing to suggest that Wright's vantage point at the beginning of the 21st century allows him to see more clearly than his precedessors--and plenty of reason to believe that it doesn't.
The book recovers somewhat (and earns a second star) in its final chapters, when the subject shifts from history back to science. Still, Nonzero reads like two separate books (or long essays) awkwardly fused together.
Beyond the merits of its argument, the book's glib and casual style is tiring. The lively, measured prose of the Moral Animal has gone AWOL. (And surely the author could have found alternatives to countless appearances of awkward phrases like "non-zero-sumness").
Is Nonzero worth reading? No time spent thinking about these subjects is wasted, but there are better guides than this one.
31 internautes sur 33 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Game Theory Applied To Cultural Evolution 17 novembre 2005
Par The Spinozanator - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
Over 10 years ago, accomplished journalist Robert Wright wrote the acclaimed "Moral Animal," summarizing the findings of the new (or at least reborn and renamed) science, evolutionary psychology. I read, reread, and underlined "The Moral Animal," convinced that I had finally found an explanation for human behavior I could wholeheartedly believe in. With great expectation, I approached "Nonzero."

In "Nonzero," Wright relies on "Moral Animal," but has a much more ambitious thesis. He draws heavily on game theory which Wright broadly divides into competitive games (I win, you lose) and co-operative games (win-win). He acknowledges the constant presence of both types of games in human interaction, then relentlessly develops the hypothesis that real cultural progress is always the result of technological advance PLUS a co-operative (nonzero sum) cultural interaction. Progress builds on itself and a complex society eventually develops.

In Part I (long), Wright considers hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, war, culture, technology, chiefdoms, barbarians, China, Romans, Dark Ages, modern times, and the Globalization of world commerce. One by one, he uses impeccable logic to show how progress in cultural evolution has been made through co-operation, and how improved technology then forced further nonzero sum (co-operative) games.

In Part II (short) he applies the same thinking to biological evolution.

In Part III (short) he ambitiously speculates on the meaning of life, God, and Globalization issues.

This is a very different book than "Moral Animal." In that situation Wright took an already coalescing collection of data about a new field of study and presented it in a cohesive form for public consumption. Matt Ridley did the same in his excellent book "Red Queen" while a whole group of similar thinking scientists cheered them both on.

In "Nonzero" Wright cuts across several disciplines, developing his own ideas, alone. For this, he has been criticized by academians from history, biology, philosophy, anthropology, economics, politics, and theology - though his rough drafts were critiqued by representatives from all these disciplines.

Although Wright makes a good case, his subject matter is more amenable to speculation than proof. Evolution has hard evidence from molecular biology, the fossil record, DNA, and elsewhere - every new finding fits easily into the framework of existing knowledge. Not so with the game theory analysis of historical cultural evolution - any plausible theory can be just as logically advocated as the next.

That being said, Wright makes a compelling argument with valid points on every page and writes in an informal, conversational, non-abrasive style. Throughout the chaos of history, he concentrates on the good (progress) that accrues, even if he's describing the barbaric overthrow of a society that had become corrupt - always maintaining a "fireside chat" style sense of humor: "This view of history, intent on generalizing, ignores the fascinating and consequential differences between civilizations. For people who lodge this complaint...you're in luck! There are thousands of books you'll love reading..."

Probably you'll disagree with some of Wright's conclusions, but that does not make the reading of this book any less compelling. Like "Moral Animal" it is firmly grounded in evolutionary psychology and is a highly entertaining, educational, and unique sidetrip through history from Wright's perspective - his point of view being that despite the constant historical presence of both competitive and co-operative games, the co-operative (nonzero sum) ones alone contributes to cultural progress.
31 internautes sur 34 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Ambitious, erudite, extraordinary 28 février 2000
Par Robert Cullen - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Wright's ambition is no less than to offer an analog of physical science's elusive unified theory. He wants to explain the entire course of human history. To an astonishing degree, he succeeds. His erudition is almost overwhelming. He ranges fluidly from cellular biology to Chinese history to Islamic theology. And he does so in a style that is both friendly and accessible. Reading Nonzero is like having a pleasant, extended conversation over brandy with a wise friend who's had time to read and ponder all the books you've wished you read but haven't gotten to yet. No doubt this will expose Wright to scads of petty complaints from academics who are so narrowly focused on departmental politics and the minutiae of their dissertations that they not only can't see the forest, but have forgotten its existence. For the rest of us, though, Nonzero is a treat.
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