“Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” by Robert Wright


The point of this book is tough to describe. The author is so persuasive that he could probably convince me of anything, his examples are so wide ranging and his conclusions far fetched but airtight. One way Robert Wright states his hypothesis is that Francis Crick is wrongly credited with discovering the secret to life in DNA. John von Neumannn is a better candidate for that distinction with his discovery of game theory.

He posits that overall, human history has been trending toward greater cooperation and connectivity. As ideas and industry spread, more people become dependent on one another and their tribal circle expands, allowing even greater cooperation. This all sounds very utopian and rosy, and this book was written pre-9/11, but the more Wright expands his argument, the more you realize he isn’t crazy or stupid. If nothing else, this book is an incredibly persuasive example of revisionist history. I don’t mean that because it’s false, but it does make you rethink what you thought you knew. My favorite digression is the part about barbarians, “we were all once barbarians”.

Further Links:
Robert Wright’s TED Talk on non-zero-sumness: He’s certainly a better writer than public speaker.

The Nerdist Podcast with Jon Favreau: Good throughout, at around 1:06 Favreau has a thought that elucidates the theme of this book very well.  I wonder if he’s read it.
This book is on Bill Clinton’s list of favorite books. Lists of imminent people’s favorite books are always interesting, here’s Teddy Roosevelt’s.
Buy on Amazon: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Stuff of Interest:
teleological—an attempt to describe why something happened, instead of simply noting its existence.
Lewis Henry Morgan, John Stuart Mill, and Margaret Mead: notable people with differing views of the directionality of history (does it follow a path or not?).
Hobson’s Choice— ‘Take it of leave it’ a choice in which only one option is offered.
Jericho—The history of this city is incredible. I thought it was a Biblical myth but is in fact real as Cincinnati (another place I’ve never been).


Plainly, change in the structure of societies tends to happen sooner or later, and is more likely to raise complexity than to lower it.

One premise of cultural evolutionism is “the psychic unity of humankind”—the idea that people everywhere are genetically endowed with the same mental equipment, that there is a universal human nature. The psychic unity of humankind is the reason that around the world, on every continent, cultural evolution has moved in the same direction. The arrow of human history begins with the biology of human nature.
That arrow, as I’ve noted, points toward larger quantities of non-zero-sumness. As history progresses, human beings find themselves playing non-zero-sum games with more and more other human beings. Interdependence expands, and social complexity grows in scope and depth.

The Shoshone and Fuegians observed by Twain and Darwin weren’t “living fossils”—they were anatomically modern human beings, just like you or me—but their cultures were living fossils.

Hunting big animals encourages sharing not just because leftover meat can spoil but also because hunting is a chancier endeavor than gathering—so using current surplus to insure against future shortage pays especially big non-zero-sum dividends. All told, then, it is not surprising that social complexity tends to be higher among hunter-gathers who rely on big game. The more important big game is, the more non-zero-sumness there is, the more society organizes to harness that non-zero-sumness—to turn it into positive sums.
So, to the cultural evolutionist, the explanation for the Shoshone’s having the “irreducible minimum” in social complexity is not (as Boas might fear) that the Shoshone are stupid. It’s that their surroundings were—in this respect, and in other respects that we’ll come to—less conducive to rapid cultural evolution than some other surroundings.

To say that reaping non-zero-sum benefits elevates social complexity borders on the redundant. The successful playing of a non-zero-sum game typically amounts to a growth of social complexity. The players must coordinate their behavior, so people who might otherwise be off in their own orbits come together and form a single solar system, a larger synchronized whole. And typically there is a division of labor within the whole. (Some people make the nets, some people man the nets, some people chase the rabbits.) One minute you’re a bunch of independent foragers, and the next minute you’re a single, integrated rabbit-catching team, differentiated yet united. Complex coherence has materialized.
Note that this particular but of social self-organization was mediated by a technology, the rabbit net. The invention of such technologies—technologies that facilitate or encourage non-zero-sum interactions—is a reliable feature of cultural evolution everywhere. New technologies create new chances for positive sums, and people maneuver to seize those sums, and social structure changes as a result.

People by their nature come together to constitute a social information processing system and thus reap positive sums. The fandango, the academic conference, and the Internet are superficially different expressions of the same deep force.

Though Shoshone life, like life everywhere, seems to have been filled with non-zero-sum calculation, “calculation” isn’t quite the right word. When people interact with each other in mutually profitable fashion, they don’t necessarily realize exactly what they’re doing. Evolutionary psychologists have made a strong—in my view, compelling—case that this unconscious savviness is a part of human nature, rooted ultimately in the genes; that natural selection, via the evolution of “reciprocal altruism,” has built into us various impulses which, however warm and mushy they may feel, are designed for the cool, practical purpose of bringing beneficial exchange.
Among these impulses: generosity (if selective and sometimes wary); gratitude, and an attendant sense of obligation; a growing empathy for, and trust of, those who prove reliable reciprocators (also known as “friends”).

In all cultures friendships have underlying tension. In all cultures workplaces feature gossip about who is a slouch and who is a team player. In all cultures people scan the landscape for the lazy and the ungrateful, and rein in their generosity accordingly. In all cultures, people try to get the best deal possible.

Hands aren’t very cerebral, after all; guiding any invisible hand there must be an “invisible brain.” Its neurons are people. The more neurons there are in regular and easy contact, the better the brain works—the more finely it can divide economic labor, the more diverse the resulting products. And, not incidentally, the more rapidly technological innovations take shape and spread. As economists who espouse “new growth theory” have stressed, it takes only one person to invent something that the whole group can then adopt (since information is a “non-rival” good). So the more possible inventors—that is, the larger the group—the higher its collective rate of innovation. All told, then, the Northwest Coast Indians outproduced and outinvented the Shoshone not because they had better brains (the sort of conclusion Franz Boas worried about) but because they were a better brain.

The fitful but relentless tendency of invisible social brains to hook up with each other, and eventually submerge themselves into a larger brain, is a central theme of history. The culmination of that process—the construction of a single, planetary brain—is what we are witnessing today, with all its disruptive yet ultimately integrative effects.

War, by making fates more shared, by manufacturing non-zero-sumness, accelerates the evolution of culture toward a deeper and vaster social complexity.

That zero-sumness promotes non-zero-sumness should come as no surprise. The standard example of non-zero-sum dynamics, after all, is the game-theory exercise called “the prisoner’s dilemma.” If two partners in crime cooperate—if each agrees to stay mum when interrogated by the prosecutor, rather than implicate the partner in exchange for lenient treatment—both can benefit. And the source of their common interest is the conflict of interest between them and the prosecutor.

In the short run, this impetus for aggregation may seem aimless. Alliances shift, tensions come and go,and large social structures dissolve almost as often as they form. But in the long run, over millennia, the worldwide trend has been toward consolidation, toward higher and higher levels of political organization. And one reason is war—intense, essentially zero-sum games that generate non-zero-sum games.

Elman Service (who died in 1996) envisioned chiefdoms often being formed when several nearby villages were bound by commerce; the village located at the nexus would naturally become the richest and would gradually grow dominant. It could all happen peacefully, Service believed. In his 1962 book Primitive Social Organization, he wrote, “It is, in fact, clear from the record in some cases and probable in many others that small neighboring societies, or parts of them, often join an adjacent chiefdom quite voluntarily because of the benefits of participation in the total network.” Carneiro’s reply, essentially, is: Networks, schmetworks. “Force, and not enlightened self-interest, is the mechanism by which political evolution has led, step by step, from autonomous villages to the state,” he wrote in 1970.

During the biological evolution of our species, one of the benefits of male status was easier access to sex. (So too with our nearest relatives—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas.) Because of this correlation between status and fecundity, genes imbuing males with a thirst for status have fared well by natural selection. The resulting drive to impress people needn’t bring conscious awareness of its reason for being—any more than hunger entails a knowledge of nutrition. Status feels gratifying; it seems to be its own reward, even if its ultimate evolutionary purpose was genetic proliferation.

But Hayden describes the Big Man as a genetically distinct “personality type” present in all societies—the “aggrandizer.” These aggrandizers are “empire builders; they seek to control human affairs for their own benefit and gratification.” In short, they are bad guys, different from such good and innocent souls as you, me, and Hayden. This is in some ways a comforting worldview, but it is at odds with modern Darwinian theory, not to mention observed social reality. To be sure, some people, for whatever reason, are more ambitious than others. But there’s a little Big Man in all of us. We are all social climbers by nature. Some just manage to climb higher than others.

In primitive war, few things come in handier than sheer manpower. And agriculture supports much larger settlements than hunting and gathering does. One of the earliest know farm towns, the ancient, excavated village of Jericho, housed hundreds of people on around six acres. Not huge by modern urban standards, but compare it to what lies beneath: remnants of a hunter-gatherer camp one-fifth as large. Imagine a battle between these two villages, and you’ll see that farming was a compelling lifestyle. Whether or not early farmers thought about the military edge their lifestyle offered, war would have helped the lifestyle spread.
Perhaps fittingly, Jericho is surrounded by a wall. At four meters high and three meters thick, with cylindrical watchtowers, this wall may have once been the largest capital project in the history of the world—a monument to the non-zero-sumness created by conflict between groups and thus intensified by farming.

In one classic game-theory experiment, a pair of subjects is offered a collective windfall—money for nothing. The first subject (the chief, in this analogy) decides how to divide up the money between the two, and then the second subject (the commoner) chooses between accepting his allotted share and vetoing the deal, vaporizing the windfall for both of them. Time and again, commoners veto deals that are radically unequal; an offer of $20 out of $100 gets vetoed about half the time, and any offer of less than that is probably doomed. Imagine: college students turning down real money for no work! Apparently there are some kinds of non-zero-sum games that people just won’t play. And this pride is found cross culturally; experiments in Japan, Slovenia, the United States, and Israel yield the same basic results.

In assessing how exploitative different governments are, the key question is: How much greed can leaders get away with before it comes back to haunt them?

True, distinct polities and peoples rose and fell ad nauseam, but these seemingly pointless cycles of growth and decay added up to a larger arrow of cultural evolution. The arts of writing and agriculture and handicraft and construction and government advanced. The Aztecs, like the Romans, were administrative and engineering whizzes. They had their well-oiled bureaucracy, their bridges and their aqueducts. With the sluice gates on their ten-mile dam they controlled the level of the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.
But the Aztecs weren’t exceptional people, and neither were the Romans. Both were just like the people who had come before them—human beings muddling through, incrementally adding to their cultural inheritance.

The moral of the story is simple: when thinking about cultural evolution, don’t get wrapped up in the particular people and peoples. Instead, keep your eye on the memes. People and peoples come and go, live and die. But their memes, like their genes, persist. When all the trading and plundering and warring is done, bodies may be lying everywhere, and the social structure may seem in disarray. Yet in the process, culture, and aggregate may seem in disarray. Yet in the process, culture, and aggregate menu of memes on which society can draw, may well have evolved. Eventually, social structure will follow, coalescing around the newly available technological base. It may take awhile for the social structure to catch up with the technology. But given enough time, it will.

Before the barbarians lay vast expanses of Roman farmland, tilled by peasants who paid stiff taxes to a government that was increasingly unable to defend them How to exploit the situation?
One approach might have been to sweep across the agrarian countryside, battling Roman soldiers, then taking their land. Another approach was to leave the peasants more or less alone and simply cut a deal with Roman officials under which you begin to replace them as tax collectors. The barbarians of legend would have taken the first path. The real-life barbarians took the second, thus realizing every person’s dream: a high ratio of income to work. Over the fifth and sixth centuries, the Roman tax apparatus came to be, in the words of one historian, “under new management.”
There is a famous putdown applied to public servants who begin their careers with high ideals and wind up corrupted: they “came to do good and stayed to do well.” Of the barbarians who fought Rome we might say, “They came to do bad, and stayed to do well.” They may have begun their invasions in a mood to pillage, but they eventually found a more sedate livelihood. This flexibility is one reason that by A.D. 500 western Europe had evolved fairly smoothly from a single empire to several large barbarian kingdoms, such as the Visigothic in Spain and the Ostrogothic in Italy.

Indeed, if you explore the murky recesses of just about any famously civilized people, you’ll find this dark secret: they started out as barbarians.

When a civilization such as Rome dominates its neighbors, it typically possesses some sort of cultural edge: better weapons, say, or better economic organization. Yet this dominance is hard to maintain precisely because these valuable memes tend naturally to spread beyond its borders, empowering its rivals. In the case of Rome, the barbarians-empowering memes included military strategy. But the exact memes will differ from case to case. As the historian Mark Elvin has observed, the diffusion of Chinese ironmaking technology to the Mongols during the thirteenth century would come back to haunt China. Elvin was among the first to clearly see that this is a general dynamic in history: the very advancement of advanced societies can bring the seeds of their destruction. As Elman Service put the matter: ‘The precocious developing society broadcasts its seeds, so to speak, outside its own area, and some of them root and grow vigorously in new soil, sometimes becoming stronger than the parent stock, finally to dominate both environments.”

The point isn’t that any one useful idea is, strictly speaking, certain to spread, or certain to be reborn if extinguished. The point is that, the more useful the idea, the more likely both spreading and rebirth are. And as the spread of useful ideas raises the world’s population, and these likelihoods, grow all the more, until finally they do approach certainty. Increasingly, societies resemble large, thick brains, their neurons spreading incremental innovation rapidly and reliably, spurring further innovation.

To stay strong, a society must adapt new technologies. In particular, it must reap the non-zero-sum fruits they offer. Yet new technologies often redistribute power within societies. (The often do this precisely because they raise non-zero-sumness—because they expand the number of people who profit from the system and so wield power within it.) And if there is one opinion common to ruling classes everywhere, it is that power is not in urgent need of redistributing.

In the spiritual realm, India gave us Buddhism, the first major religion to stress tolerance and nonviolence, the only major religion to spread far and wide without conquest, and arguably the major religion whose founding doctrines (unembellished by later additions) most readily survive the modifying force of modern science.

The key to the pattern of history isn’t the fixedness of everything that people do. The key is the pattern’s long-run imperviousness to the lack of fixedness. A Ming ruler, perhaps out of sheer caprice, rescinds China’s oceanic voyages, and the most sophisticated nation on earth turns inward—yet the big picture remains unchanged: globalization and the information age, with all their political import, are in the cards.

Indeed, there is no better historical preparation for thinking about how the Internet will reshape political and social life than seeing how the printing press reshaped them. The late modern era—today—is in many ways the early modern era, only more so.

The vast, fast collaboration allowed by information technologies slowly turned the multinational technical community into an almost unified consciousness. Increasingly, good ideas were “in the air” across the industrialized world.
Witness how often the same basic technological breakthrough was made indepently by different people in different places at roughly the same time. And witness—as testament to the impetus behind easing communication—how often these independent breakthroughs were in information technology itself: the telegraph (Charles Wheatstone and Samuel F.B. Morse, 1837); color photography (Charles Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron, 1868); the phonograph (Charles Cros—again!—and Thomas Edison, 1877); the telephone (Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, 1876)—and so on, all the way up to the microchip (Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, 1958-1959).

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