Teaching | Writing | Career | Politics | Book Reviews | Information Economy | Economists | Multimedia | Students | Fine Print | Other | My Jobs
Review of Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny*
Robert Wright (2000), Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Pantheon: 067944252).
Sign up for Brad Delong's (general) mailing list
> Wright's argument that biological evolution has an arrow as > well--tends to produce animals with big brains that think ...
Gould's reply to that argument is that random evolution creates increasing diversity of life, so there will be an outlying tail of increasing complexity. The mode of the distribution remains with simple organims, but since we happen to be outliers on the tail, we have an egocentric bias in explaining how a "directed" process results in us.
Contributed by Dave Long (firstname.lastname@example.org) on September 1, 2000.
> *The above review covers only the first two-thirds of the book. At > that point Wright asks the question: "Aren't organic evolution and > human history sufficiently different to demand separate treatment?"
Thanks for the review. Have you read any of Stephen Jay Gould's work? His answer to this question is an emphatic 'yes' and he deals with many of the issues you then comment on. In Gould's view, the whole notion of directed progress in evolution is completely wrong. Rather, changes occur to organisms due to their environment that may or may not lead to greater complexity and are at any rate, totally non- directed.
> Life starts out simple. It then evolves, with variation and with the > conservation and spread of successful variations. Thus evolution > generates increasing diversity, and increasing diversity generates > increasing complexity: it is hard for a one-celled organism to become > less complicated (although viruses have managed), and easy for it to > become more complicated.
Gould argues that it is very possible for organisms to become less complicated, but their start as a single cell is the limiting point. Complexity increases, not because of some 'arrow', but because at this point, you can't more in the other direction.
> Maybe his biological argument is right--I'm inclined to think probably > it is--but maybe not. Big eyes and big brains are expensive in terms > of energy. Why not go for bigger teeth or stronger legs?
Because there is no arrow - there is no driving force. The changes are random and some turn out to work better than others and survive.
Gould gives a great example of how the horse is seen as being at the top of its evolutionary tree of progress, showing its lineage as a straight line of progression from its earliest form. He calls this "life's little joke", because this lineage is actually far from straight, but has to be traced tortuously through many species on the great "bush of life" (iconography is another favourite of Gould's - the tree reinforcing this incorrect idea of progress through its very form - a big round bush better suits Gould's reality), but mainly because the horse is the last of its kind - the last of a failed experiment! No one talks much about the real success stories - bats, antelopes and rodents - not to mention bacteria. The progressivists like to refer to different evolutionary 'ages', the last being the age of man. If one talks rather in terms of successful species, we started in the age of bacteria and are still there!
> And > complicated animals seem to be (so far) at a disadvantage in species > survival when the asteroids hit.
Again making the point that there is no particular reason involved behind any particular change, just a response to very localized environmental factors.
Sorry to go on. The best treatment of this topic is in Gould's book "Full House". I love reading his stuff, because he seems at heart to be a historian, always interested in how we came to hold our present beliefs, not just what they happen to be (I like Chomsky for the same reason). Your apparent interest in history leads me to recommend this book to you most strongly.
Contributed by Ken Spagnolo (email@example.com) on June 19, 2000.
Stephen Gould's book Full House is about the "inevitability" of Progress/Complexity in biology. Basically since bacteria are limited as to how simple they can get and still be alive, over the eons the full range of life can get larger only by getting more complex. (Essentially think of it as an f distribution truncated near the origen.) The mean and the mode of life can still remain quite simple, while the full range of life expands in complexity. Needless to say, Gould (and you) is a better writer than I, but you get the idea.
Since Gould wrote, there is a new book--I forget the title--on how difficult complex life is to form. I believe the discovery of planets outside our solar system has raised thinking on this issue. But it turns out that you need a solar system with both Jupiter and Saturn (and possibly Neptune, etc), to provide a certain stability over the eons. Otherwise, Juipiter "eats" or kills the smaller planets. You need a solar system about 2/3rds of the way out of the galaxy, so that previous supernovae will have produced sufficient heavy elements. But not so near the center that you get binary stars which would burn out the planets. You need a tide-producing moon. Even with all that you get bacteria and only bacteria for the bulk of life's existence on earth.
Not economics, but still history.
Contributed by Philip Webre (firstname.lastname@example.org) on June 19, 2000.
really nice book review. One quick comment:
> *The above review covers only the first two-thirds > of the book. At that point Wright asks the question: > "Aren't organic evolution and human history > sufficiently different to demand separate > treatment?" > > I think the answer to this question is "yes," and > that the book should stop at that point. Wright > thinks that the answer is "no," and so the book > continues. He goes on to draw analogies between
You are quite right in this argument. evolutionists take great pains to point out (both darwinist and neo-darwinists) that evolutionary growth is in no way a continual series of improvements or "environmental progress." the core tautology driving biological evolution is that "the fittest survive" and "fittest is defined by those that survive." If complexity does best, things will become more complex. if simplicity does best, things will be more simple. Man, being arguably the most complex animal in every way, is not a the pinnacle of some evolutionary pyramid, merely a node in an ever increasing web.
i really like your website and columns, btw.
all the best
Contributed by zimran ahmed (email@example.com) on June 19, 2000.
By the way, what is three-card monte? A swindler's game? I'm always learning new cultural references from you...
Finally, I want to take issue with your last paragraph:
>Maybe his biological argument is right--I'm inclined to think probably it >is--but maybe not. Big eyes and big brains are expensive in terms of >energy. Why not go for bigger teeth or stronger legs? And complicated >animals seem to be (so far) at a disadvantage in species survival when the >asteroids hit.
Hmmm... seems to me that the animals with the small brains, big teeth, and stronger legs were the ones who got taken out by the asteroids. The ones with higher brain/bodymass ratios were the ones who then became dominant... I would have bought your argument in this paragraph if you hadn't tossed that last sentence in.
Contributed by David Lucking-Reiley (firstname.lastname@example.org) on June 19, 2000.
Thanks for reviewing my book on your site, and thanks for calling it "excellent". But I do have one quibble that I can't resist sharing with you.
You depict me as starting out by arguing for "Progress with a capital P," and then engaging in sleight of hand. You write: "The card labeled "complexity" must be switched for the card labeled "Progress" without our noticing." But the truth is I never say I'm making any kind of broad-gauged argument for Progress in the first place. In the book's first chapter (pp. 16-17), I write "To say that history has a direction is not to endorse all the tenets of early cultural evolutionism or of nineteenth-century progressivist history. It is not, for example, to blithely predict the triumph of freedom and equality in all their dimensions. Indeed, though I think history is on the side of human freedom in one sense, there is another sense in which freedom is shrinking. If there is something magnificent about the emerging social structure, there is something terrifying about it, too. Fortunately, this structure, even if broadly inescapable in the long run, is by no means inevitable in detail. Anyway, the question of whether history's basic arrow will on balance make us freer or less free, will make our live better or worse, is one I'll defer for now. I do think that in some respects history's basic direction makes human beings morally better, and will continue to do so. But that isn't the immediate point. The immediate point, to be made over the next thirteen chapters, is that if we leave morality aside and talk about the objectively observable features of social reality, the direction of history is unmistakable."
So I'm clear from the beginning that the book is fundamentally about growth in social complexity, and the one qualification I make comes a dozen chapters later, in arguing that there has been *one* kind of moral progress--toward a more universalistic morality. I don't promise progress up front and then switch to complexity, as you seem to suggest.
I want to stress again that I'm glad you published your review, even if your main criticism is not (in my unbiased view!) supported by what I say in the book. If I seem hypersensitive, it's because there has been a fairly large amount of misinformation about this book--indeed, I half-suspect that you had absorbed some of it before looking at the book, and that your reading of the book was unconsciously shaped by that. By the time you got to the end of the book, maybe you were disappointed that I didn't make the argument reviewers of the book had said I made. And I definitely didn't.
Anyway, thanks again for reading it and taking the trouble to review it. I know you're busy, and I greatly appreciate it when I (a mere journalist) am taken seriously by academics.
Contributed by Bob Wright (email@example.com) on June 19, 2000.
Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
This document: http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/Econ_Articles/Reviews/nonzero.html