But what if instead, even considering disease and war and repression, the arrow of history is generally positive? What if life has a favorable logic that can be understood rationally? These are the questions asked by a magnificent new book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by RobertWright.
Wright, whose 1994 book, The Moral Animal, was named by The New York Timesas one of the twelve best books of the year, is exactly the sort of thinker establishment organizations like The New York Times are inclined not tolike. (He's also a Beliefnet columnist.)Wright thinks things are getting better, and have been getting better, basically since our primate ancestor Lucy first saw dawn in the OlduvaiGorge. He believes life has inherent meaning, and considers the universe rich in signs of some Higher Purpose, though headmits he doesn't know what the purpose is or who might be responsible. Wright thinks that both our genes and our social structures push us towardmorality, though obviously we often fall short. He comes to his conclusions from a hard-science background: Wright got his start as a writer by winning the National Magazine Award for a series of essays on the science ofinformation theory. (Note to readers: I know Wright personally.)
In Nonzero, Wright attempts to trace a basically positive arc through humanhistory. Citing dozens of historical sources, he argues, first, thatalthough ancient societies undeniably could be brutal, in the main the men and womenof prehistory helped each other more often than they harmed each other.Why? Because it was in their interest to do so. "Game theory," a branch of mathematics, is called on to show why.
Wright uses game theory to demonstrate in elaborate detail that although there are individual instances where people come out ahead by harming each other, most people most of the time will maximize their personal fortunesby cooperating rather than by fighting. This is why, he suggests, peoplebanded together in the first place: not for combat, but for mutual aid. It is why the really hostile, destructive societies of history -- the Spartans, the Nazis -- have disappeared, while the mainly cooperative societiesflourished. Good guys don't finish last, Wright contends. Historically, the good guys have done quite a bit better than the bad guys. In today's standard intellectual interpretation, human affairs are "zero-sum" -- one person orgroup wins while the other loses, so that if you average the outcomes, you get zero. Wright contends instead that most human interactions have "nonzero" or "win-win" results -- both parties come out ahead, though perhaps one is more aheadthan the other.
In prehistory, Wright finds countless examples of societies in whichnonzero social and economic structures left everyone better off. In many ancientNative American societies, for example, tribes with surplus food shared itwith neighbors, in part to create an obligation that the neighbors wouldshare with them if positions reversed.
Nonzero then extends its thinking to natural selection. Wright, who numbersamong the best and most accomplished writers on evolutionary theory, takeson those theorists who view evolution as a directionless force: instead, he suggests, evolution makes living things more complex and more interesting, to say nothing of conferring on them self-awareness. In one ofthe book's sharpest sections, Wright debunks the idea, popular with the contemporary life-is-meaningless cohort, that evolution cannot have a direction because all natural selection does is respond to environmental change, which is random. Most of evolution, Wright counters, is not life responding to climate or physical resources: it is life responding to otherlife, and when life responds to life, ever-more-interesting "nonzero" outcomes can happen.
Bringing his analysis to the present day, Wright supposes that market economics is nonzero -- free enterprise is far from perfect, but on the whole, societies based on voluntary transactions will be ones in whichalmost everyone ends up better off. Democracy, Wright contends, is nonzero -- despite its maddening flaws, most of the time democratic systems choose outcomes that benefit most people. Information is a nonzero commodity,Wright thinks -- people can share it without reducing the amount they possess. Andwe live in an age when market economics, democracy, and information are flourishing as never before, all optimistic signs.