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Issue No. 69 (May 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Robert Wright’s gloom-defying book Nonzero
Are we ambling toward a win-win world?
Some books make an immediate impact, often because they sum up what many of us are already dimly thinking (Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat is a good example; see our review HERE).
Other books are so original and paradigm-defying that they take longer to work their magic.
When Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny was published back in 2000, it did not rocket onto the bestseller list. But there were signs it was writ to last. It received rave reviews from thoughtful people across the political spectrum (e.g., John Judis on the left, Andrew Sullivan on the right). President Clinton called it “astonishing” and urged White House staffers to read it.
They read it, too. And all over Washington DC it continues to be read by the kinds of people who rarely read “big-picture” books. It may be one of the few books that’s equally popular among policy wonks and spiritual seekers, and even Fortune Magazine recently named it one of the 75 "smartest books we know."
And it’s never been more relevant than at this gloomy Holiday season.
It can make you glow with hope and possibility. But unlike most other books that have such effect, it is as fact-based and hard-headed (even hard-hearted: clear-sighted, Wright would say) as they come.
Call it neo-Darwinian if you like. An earlier book by Wright, The Moral Animal (1994), its title an obvious double-entendre, is considered the leading introduction to “evolutionary psychology,” which gives more weight to our covert genetic drives than to our feel-good professions of love and brotherhood.
We are not dealing with some starry-eyed thinker here.
Wright is hard to put in a box. Is he a science writer, a psychologist, a policy analyst, a moral (even a religious) philosopher? Well, yes, yes, and yes. And he’s all those things at a very high level.
His columns for The Sciences magazine won a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism. He was recently a visiting scholar in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently a senior fellow at a public policy think tank in Washington DC (the New America Foundation, identified with the radical middle), and he’s appeared several times in What Is Enlightenment?, a popular spiritual magazine.
And he writes not only clearly but beautifully and with a sense of humor and elan.
Many writers overuse words like “holistic” and “integrative.” Wright hardly ever uses such words, and he doesn’t have to, because his work embodies their true meaning.
A different kind of history
On one level, Nonzero is a book about world history.
Some books about world history treat the adoption of “American” values and American-style democracy as the desirable end-point for all (e.g., David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations). Other world history books treat the destruction of capitalism and establishment of socialism as the end-point (e.g., Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System).
In our day, though, the biggest stack of world history books teaches that history has no end-point, no known trajectory or arrow. Wright lays this view at the feet of such philosophers of history as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, but he could just as well have pointed to our most popular Advanced Placement and college texts in world history, such as Jerry Bentley’s 1,200-page Traditions and Encounters (2nd ed. 2003).
“My ecumenical world history [is] grounded in large-scale empirical narrative [and] does not pretend to know the end of history,” Bentley recently wrote (for all sources, see RE:SOURCES section at the end of this article).
Wright’s book is just as grounded in “large-scale empirical narrative” as Bentley’s -- it looks coolly and “materialist[ically]” (Bentley’s word) at the rise of technology, the use-value of war, the unwitting contributions of "Our Friends the Barbarians," etc. But like the American-values- and Marxist-oriented historians, Wright is gutsy enough to find direction in history.
Specifically, he finds that (in the long run, and with plenty of fits and starts along the way) we are becoming less “zero-sum” and more “non-zero-sum.” In other words, we are becoming more cooperative, more win-win -- partly because we’re getting savvier and partly because crises are forcing us to do whatever works.
Here is our “core pattern,” as Wright sees it: “New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential.”
As the 21st century lurches onward, it is reassuring to be told that we're getting some things right; that we're going in the right direction overall; that there are grounds for hope.
Those gorgeous details
Although this is definitely a "Big Ideas" book, the pleasure is in the details.
In the chapter on the rise of agriculture, for example, you’ll enjoy the way Wright makes mincemeat of all the p.c. archaeologists and anthropologists who assume -- even now! even at our top graduate schools! -- that healthy cultures are in some sort of equilibrium with their environment and never willingly change.
'Tain't so, Wright tells us. Agriculture was not brought about by some oppressive outside force (drought, conquest); neither was it brought about by the imperatives of geography. It was brought about largely from within -- by humans’ incorrigible desire to tinker with nature, by “our species’ genius,” by the fact that hunter-gatherers “are in truth just like us. They’re competitive, they’re status-hungry, and, above all, they are individuals.”
Down with the myth of egalitarian hunter-gatherers in placid harmony with their surroundings! Up with the understanding of all people as imperfect, striving beings, just like you and me!
Down with right-wing romance and left-wing nostalgia. Up with empathy for raw, fearful, individualistic humanity.
Cultural and biological evolution
Although Wright’s text most resembles a history book, it is more than that. On a deeper level, it’s a book about how cultural and biological evolution work in tandem.
The section called “A Brief History of Organic Life” argues that “at some basic level,” cultural and biological evolution have the same machinery, the same fuel (the energy created by the clash between zero-sum and non-zero-sum forces), and parallel directions (long-run growth in cooperation and complexity).
“Information technology” -- very broadly conceived! -- is at the center of this story. So is the concept of “memes,” units of cultural information analogous to genes:
A meme can be just about any form of non-genetic information transmitted from person to person: a word, a song, an attitude, a religious belief, a mealtime ritual, an engineering concept. Bodies of memes can be whole religions or ideologies or moral systems or technological systems.
Now that we’ve figured out how genes work and memes work, Wright says, “natural selection is effectively over.” Cultural evolution has not only put us “on the verge of taking control of our genetic evolution,” it’s put us on the verge of spreading our (culturally and genetically evolved) cooperative, win-win intelligence into every nook and cranny of the planet. Can we develop the moral imagination to do it right?
Our political future
So Wright’s book is ultimately about our political future.
But it displays little interest in the current obsessions of left and right. Its real concern is whether we can convert our increasingly non-zero-sum experiences into better global practices. For example:
-- Can we honor the essential humanity of those who are in many ways not “like us”?
-- Can we make our relationships “non-zero-sum” across larger and larger distances?
-- Are we ready for “world governance” as something that might equally appeal to multinational managers and nonprofit save-the-worlders? (“World governance, you might say, is human destiny, the natural outgrowth of the millennia-old expansion of non-zero-sumness among human beings.”)
Direction, sure. But purpose?
Wright’s book could have ended there. But it burrows deeper. It asks if there’s a Designer in the house.
That is definitely a timely topic.
Wright is uncharacteristically tentative on the subject of spirit. But it’s “not crazy” to conclude, he says, that evolution “has a purpose and is the product of design.”
After all, “we’ve already established . . . that biological and cultural evolution move in a direction -- toward broader and deeper complexity.”
Was evolution “designed” to move us in that happy direction? Neither Pat Robertson nor the ACLU can know for sure. But Wright puts the issue nicely when he asks, Isn't evolution’s directionality “more suggestive of divinity” than the alternative -- a world in which evolution has no direction?
Not a bad question to ponder during this Holiday season.
Just don’t forget Wright’s main point. The more the two big barriers to non-zero-sumness (information blockages and trust blockages) are overcome in the age of the Internet and incessant travel, the more incumbent it is on us to seize the positive opportunities that arise.
Whether or not there's a Designer in the house, we desperately need conscious change agents, from the classrooms to the boardrooms to the legislatures.
For a fascinating analysis and critique of the various kinds of world history that are being written today, see Jerry Bentley, “Myths, Wagers, and Some Moral Implications of World History,” Journal of World History (March 2005).
For Wright’s thinking since publication of Nonzero, see Elizabeth Debold (interviewer), “Suggestions of a Larger Purpose: An Interview with Robert Wright,” What Is Enlightenment? Magazine (Spring-Summer 2002); Carter Phipps (interviewer), “The Globalization of Morality,” What Is Enlightenment? (August-October 2004) (another interview with Wright); and Robert Wright, “The Big Idea,” Slate (November 19, 2001).
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