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 Robert Wright.
Wright, whose 1994 book, The Moral Animal, was named by The New York Times as 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 to like. (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 Olduvai Gorge. He believes life has inherent meaning, and considers the universe rich in signs of some Higher Purpose, though he admits 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 toward morality, 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 of information theory. (Note to readers: I know Wright personally.)
In Nonzero, Wright attempts to trace a basically positive arc through human history. Citing dozens of historical sources, he argues, first, that although ancient societies undeniably could be brutal, in the main the men and women of 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 fortunes by cooperating rather than by fighting. This is why, he suggests, people banded 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 societies flourished. 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 or group 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 ahead than the other.
In prehistory, Wright finds countless examples of societies in which nonzero social and economic structures left everyone better off. In many ancient Native American societies, for example, tribes with surplus food shared it with neighbors, in part to create an obligation that the neighbors would share with them if positions reversed.
Nonzero then extends its thinking to natural selection. Wright, who numbers among the best and most accomplished writers on evolutionary theory, takes on 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 of the 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 other life, 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 which almost 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. And we live in an age when market economics, democracy, and information are flourishing as never before, all optimistic signs.
Obviously it's important to be skeptical of declarations that the tide of history will always flow in desirable directions. Optimism ruled at the end of the 19th century, yet world wars and mass atrocities were in store. Wright repeatedly pauses to acknowledge that horrible things have happened, and more horrible things are sure to happen in the future. But overall, he contends, most historical trends are more constructive than we realize.
From this, Wright draws two overarching points. One is that life seems to be advancing toward some positive goal or destiny. "One odd result of material progress has been to increase the tendency of people to find life devoid of meaning," he wryly observes. Knowledge, freedom, life spans, living standards--all are improving: maybe this is a chance oscillation of purposeless forces, or maybe it shows something fundamentally good at work.
Second, Wright contends that the more we comprehend nonzero systems, the better they will work. The more people understand the "game theory" of life, the more they will become convinced that cooperation simply works better than conflict. A logic of progress will be created.
Books that search for grand themes in history are almost impossible to write 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