Big Game

I had put it aside for a while (I tend to have too many books going at once), but have just finished reading Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. It is quite brilliant, and I highly recommend it.

“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.”

Nonzero is a searching examination of both human and biological history from the perspective of game theory. In brief, the idea is that when two agents interact – and by “agents” we meant those things that can be thought of as having and pursuing interests of their own – there are only a few forms the interaction can take. One is the “zero-sum” model, where each party’s gain is the other’s loss – as, for example, two people playing poker head-to-head. Another we can call “negative sum”; in this case both parties are worse off than they were before they met, as in, say, a nuclear war. Finally, there are “positive-sum” interactions, in which the joint efforts of the parties involved lead to gain for both that is above and beyond what either might have accomplished alone. Examples of such interactions abound; to name a very few, there are: treaty organizations, biological symbiosis, trade unions, hunting parties, multicellular organisms, corporations, the free market, and nations.

Wright argues that the mutual benefit of non-zero-sum relationships is so great that it is inevitable that as soon as agents appear that can be said to have “interests” – and once natural selection got going, that was the case for all living things, a point I have made in these pages with regard to intentionality – then selection pressures are going to drive those agents reliably into such relationships wherever possible. This is true, he believes, not only for biological entities, but for social ones as well, and the first section of the book is a look at the arc of human history from this viewpoint.

In the next section Wright takes aim at the view, expressed, perhaps, most forcefully by the great Stephen Jay Gould in his books Wonderful Life and Full House, that the processes of evolution are massively contingent, and that intelligence such as we possess, given a rerun of life’s program from the initial conditions, might well not have arisen at all. Nonsense, says Wright: the inexorable logic of non-zero-sumness, which is all about the exchange of information, would inevitably have favored the appearance of ever-more-sophisticated information processors, and while primates might have not have been the lucky ones, someone was bound to be. Wright argues that non-zero-sumness has been favored by natural selection since the dawn of life.

Finally, the author considers where all of this might lead, and considers the implications of the apparently teleological arrow of evolution toward ever-greater levels of complexity and organization. He makes no brief for conventional concepts of God, but makes clear that the world, when one realizes that there does indeed seem to be a drive toward increasing levels of mutually beneficial interaction among its inahbitants, seems a more hopeful place, and certainly less incompatible with the idea of the Divine than the Goulds and Weinbergs would have you think.

The book is not without its flaws – it teeters on the brink of committing to a theological position but seems always to lose its nerve, and the reader also has the feeling sometimes that the case Wright makes is so protean as regards its mechanism that it can be reshaped to buttress any claim – but it is stunningly impressive in the scope of what attempts and achieves.

I’ll be writing about the ideas in this book in more detail in days to come. But best of all would be to read it yourselves.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    I’ve blogged a reaction to this post. Alas, my blog no longer accepts comments (long story), but I do post emailed comments.


    Posted August 17, 2006 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Your thoughtful post deserves a proper response, and I will try to put one up tomorrow.


    Posted August 17, 2006 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Is Wright Wrong? on August 18, 2006 at 11:55 am

    […] The multidimensional Kevin Kim, over at his one-of-a-kind weblog Big Hominid’s Hairy Chasms, has posted a response to my mention of Robert Wright’s book Nonzero. In his post Kevin calls into question the idea of any directionality or purpose to biological evolution, making common cause in this regard with the late Stephen Jay Gould. Kevin writes: […]