Is Wright Wrong?

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:

[…I] wonder whether Wright isn’t making a mistake similar to that made by certain process theologians– people who (1) look at events happening in the “cream of the crop” of the evolutionary tumult and (2) mistakenly conclude that evolution at this top layer somehow represents a universal telos. I think human arrogance tends to suggest the “ladder” paradigm to us when we assess natural phenomena: we can’t help seeing ourselves as some sort of culmination of natural (or supernatural) processes. My own view is that life and mind are not representative of any telos at all: they are simply stochastic occurrences. Most of this cosmos, pretty though it be, is not alive.

Closed systems tend toward greater entropy over time. Within those closed systems, regions of anti-entropic activity may arise, but the overarching history of those systems is foreordained to follow the path of the “thermodynamic arrow,” as Stephen Hawking calls it. That is why, in a (theoretically) closed system like our universe, tiny pockets of life can form while most of the universe remains (as far as we know) abiotic. Billions or trillions of years hence, all that life will disintegrate as entropy settles more comfortably into its ancient throne. Those tiny pockets of life, then– those little bits of animated telos– are no evidence of a larger cosmic end or purpose. They– we– are a brief spark in the Nabokovian blackness: here and gone. The pessimist views this state of affairs with rue; the man of religion, by contrast, knows this means that each moment is absolutely precious. Life’s finitude and frailty are what give it its value.

Kevin, writing with customary eloquence, makes some very good points, and most of all I agree with his remarks about what gives life its value. But I think that he is missing the point made by Wright in his book, and is wrongly conflating the idea of telos with the possibility of there being a directionality, an “arrow”, to Darwinian evolution.

Telos is a word that has been in philosophical use since classical Greek times, and means “goal” or “purpose”. To argue for telos in evolution would be to suggest that there is in fact a preordained aim – an Omega point, to borrow a term from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – toward which the process is drawn, or toward which it is consciously guided by an intentional entity.

But telos is not the same thing as directionality. Telos has the aim always in sight, and carries with it the whiff of divine or mystical purpose. Given the tension between creationism and Darwinism nowadays, scientifically-minded types are wary indeed of any such association. (Paradoxically, Gould’s efforts in his books Wonderful Life and Full House bent so far backward to avoid any taint of directionality that they left people wondering how all the superb sophistication of modern species such as us could have arisen at all, an opening that has been exploited by some creationists who now cite these books in support of their benighted cause.) But in contrast to the “top-down” influence posited by a teleological view, mere directionality can be achieved quite blindly by the “bottom-up” design work of variation and natural selection. This is the distinction made by Daniel Dennett in his outstanding book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in which he refers to teleological influences as “skyhooks” (which lift magically from above), in contrast to Darwinian “cranes” (which do their lifting by standing on what has already been built).

While it is true, as Gould has pointed out, that in numbers, historical durability, and sheer biomass, the dominant lifeform on Earth is arguably the bacteria, there is no denying that as you move forward in time the complexity of the most complex organisms, and the complexity of their interrelationships, has increased relentlessly. This is the “arrow” that Wright refers to, and it undeniably exists.

There is a wealth of insights in this book, and more posts about it all are forthcoming.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Kevin Kim says

    I think I’ll just have to read the man’s book before I can comment intelligently on it.

    “To argue for telos in evolution would be to suggest that there is in fact a preordained aim – an Omega point, to borrow a term from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – toward which the process is drawn, or toward which it is consciously guided by an intentional entity.”

    My impression of Wright, from his interviews, is that he’d very much like to “go theistic,” but is himself too much of a scientific skeptic to risk the appearance of impropriety among his fellow skeptics. His interview with Steven Pinker, in which Pinker (ethnically Jewish, not a theist by a long shot) suggests that science may actually be working its way back to a certain Platonism, was most revealing in this respect. Wright strikes me as a man in search of scientific justification for the theistic point of view, but because he seems unwilling to come right out and say that this is what he’s working toward, I’m a bit suspicious of his motives and tactics. (Perhaps Wright has “outed himself” in other videos or books. I don’t know.)

    All the above is based on Wright as seen in his videos. I suppose the next step is for me to pick up a copy of Nonzero.


    Posted August 18, 2006 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    I think we should distinguish between the notion that, barring environmental catastrophes, certain evolutionary pathways will (almost) inevitably be explored, and the notion that these pathways represent any sort of telos in the process of evolutionary exploration. Since some of the pathways that get explored will be advantageous, relatively speaking that is, we can expect directionality without telos. And then, even in the realm of non-teleological directionality, it behooves us to distinguish between local and global directionalilty. In other words, we can imagine an evolutionary process which has no global direction but, because of the relative advantageosness of some random turns, will display an interesting variety of local evolutionary trajectories that are, indeed, directional.

    Posted August 18, 2006 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

    I think Wright’s assertion is stronger than the one you are making. What you are saying seems closer to Gould’s model, in which complexity necessarily will increase as a consequence of the fact that life starts out at a lower limit of simplicity – so that a random, “drunkard’s walk” will have only one general direction in which it must tend to move.

    What Wright is saying is that for organisms (and even genes, which find their fates entangled by being in the same boat, namely the organism) to engage in non-zero-sum interactions confers so many fitness advantages that such tendencies will be strongly favored by selection, and further that because the ability to play non-zero-sum games depends so much on exchanging information (which can take many forms), selection will tend to favor better and better information-processing systems. Wright considers the emergence of human-level intelligence to have been pretty much inevitable, in sharp contrast to Gould, although he takes pains to stress that it didn’t have to be humans that turned out to be the lucky ones.

    In other words, the arrow of increasing complexity – that is, the tendency for ever-more-sophisticated properties to emerge – isn’t random at all, though which organisms happen to be in the vanguard may well be.

    Posted August 18, 2006 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    I think I’m on the same page as Wright regarding the (almost) inevitability of certain adaptive strategies, given the nature of selection. One such strategy is engaging in non-zero sum games, an obvious example being symbiosis. I’m not persuaded, though, that complexity itself is particularly relevant to the selectional story. In and of itself, complexity doesn’t seem to be advantageous, though a lot of complex things, like intelligent deliberation and planning, do provide clear advantages.

    Posted August 18, 2006 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says


    Wright’s point is that the more involved the non-zero-sum games you want to play, the more information you need to be able to handle. Because being able to play the broader and deeper games is so strongly adaptive, complexity will be strongly favored, because, as you say, things like intelligent deliberation and planning do provide clear advantages in this regard.

    Posted August 18, 2006 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    For what it’s worth: Wright’s latest interview (with Karen Armstrong) confirms that he sees history as having a larger purpose. I’m being unfair not to give Wright’s Nonzero a fair shake (I’ll read it, I promise!), but I suspect that that book is part of a larger theistic argument he’s piecing together, monograph by monograph.


    Posted August 21, 2006 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Wright has taken pains to distance himself from any explicit theism, and on my reading of his book I don’t have the impression that he is pushing for any “purpose”. I think he is just saying that it has an arrow, a direction, that arises naturally from the benefits of non-zero-sumness.

    Posted August 21, 2006 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  8. Kevin Kim says


    I’ve tracked down a couple quotes from Wright’s interviews that showcase why I think Wright is indeed arguing that the universe as a whole exhibits purpose, which puts him very close to the process theology camp. My post on the matter is here.

    Bob writes:

    “I think we should distinguish between the notion that, barring environmental catastrophes, certain evolutionary pathways will (almost) inevitably be explored, and the notion that these pathways represent any sort of telos in the process of evolutionary exploration.”

    I think all three of us — you, Malcolm, and I — agree that such a distinction should be made. I don’t think, however, that Wright is content to remain neutral: he is convinced there’s a cosmic telos.


    Posted August 27, 2006 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    You may indeed be right about Wright, though he takes pains to avoid taking such a position in Nonzero. In an interview with Daniel Dennett at he tries to get DD to agree that the process of evolution may itself be the result of some sort of design process (link here).

    I think it is important to distinguish between not two, but three different scenarios:

    1) That the exploration by evolution of “design space” is essentially a “drunkard’s walk”, guided only by the local environmental conditions; this is what Gould was arguing for.

    2) That there is indeed a selection pressure that favors increasing complexity, for example due to the advantageousness of engaging in “non-zero-sum” relationships, which is not a “top-down” telos but still leads to an “arrow” of progress. (This is what Wright seems to to be arguing for in Nonzero.)

    3) There is an actual plan, a purpose, to life’s development. Real, full-blown telos.

    I like 2).

    Posted August 27, 2006 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Yeah, this idea of a direction in evolution, toward increasing complexity (and especially increasingly complex information processing) is interesting; one has to be careful about convergent evolution not being touted as a telos-driven process.

    Also, there’s the question, long-term, about how far increasing complexification is possible in terms of the processing capacity of flesh-and-blood beings. How much better can we get in terms of information processing?

    The thing that’s coming to me in memory is an idea that (2) would be supportable given what was edge-physics about 6 or 7 years ago, if what I remember of that didn’t go out the window in the interim. Top-down telos seems to me at best fantasy or wish-fulfillment, but the idea that there are built-in tendencies in evolution seem to me to make a kind of sense. I’m VERY leery about thinking about it in terms of “arrows” of “progress”, though. We don’t regard water running downhill as progress. The only reason we couch things in terms of progress is because it’s us we’re talking about.

    There’s a funny bit online from an old piece by Bruce Sterling in which he explores what might happen if truly better science was being done by AIs… how scientists might react:

    It doesn’t need to be “progress” to be a natural tendency, or a tendency which has benefitted us. To be “progressively better at” really means “continuously increasingly better at”. So what we’d really be talking about here, if we removed all subjective value-judgments, is strong tendencies in nature, right?

    Posted August 30, 2006 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Hi gord (is it Gordon?), and thanks for dropping by. I’m guessing you found your way here from Kevin Kim’s place.

    It is so difficult to avoid value-biased language when talking about these things. Yes, “progress” is a loaded term, I admit, but it is hard NOT to see emergent complexity as “progress” of some sort. I admit, though, that a blue-green alga might disagree – if only it could.

    There is an important difference, though, between water running downhill, and, say, Chopin, which is that water running downhill is a paradigmatic example of increasing entropy, while the appearance of Romantic composers represents a significant local bucking of that universal trend.

    As for how much better we can get in terms of information processing, I see no reason to assume that we are the end of the road, though from here it might take some new and interesting twists. The “encephalization quotient” has trended upward since the dawn of hominids; but being the first lifeform to reflect consciously on natural selection might have some far-reaching effects on selection itself. Certainly, looking at world affairs, there seems still to be some room for improvement.

    Anyway, that’s an interesting website you have there (in particular, you have reminded me of the existence of the tardigrade, an amazing little beast I hadn’t thought about in years). I’ll pop a link on the sidebar.

    Posted August 30, 2006 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Ursa Minor on August 30, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    […] A few days ago I wrote a post about Robert Wright’s book Nonzero, in response to Kevin Kim’s thoughts about the idea of telelology in evolution. Earlier this evening a new commenter, a blogger who goes by the nickname ‘gordsellar’, stopped by to offer some worthwhile remarks in that post’s discussion thread. I moseyed over to peek at his site, eclexys – which, being obviously the work of a curious and intelligent person, has since been added to the waka waka waka sidebar – and found an interesting item about a marvelous animal you might very well never have heard of: the tardigrade. How I can have written hundreds of posts over the last year and a half without mentioning this cuddly little creature, I can’t imagine. […]