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Review of Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny*

J. Bradford DeLong
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

May 2000

Robert Wright (2000), Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Pantheon: 067944252).


Back in 1794 the Enlightenment philosphe Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet wrote his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind--the boldest of the eighteenth-century declarations that humanity had and was destined to see Progress with a capital P. Condorcet was a powerful and convincing advocate--Malthus wrote his Essay on Population explicitly against Condorcet. But that was the high water mark of belief in Progress. By and large the past two centuries have seen the reaction, and confidence in human Progress--technological, political, humanistic, and moral--fell out of intellectual favor.

Now comes Robert Wright, previously author of Three Scientists and Their Gods and The Moral Animal, with an excellent book accompanied by an enthusiastic blurb by William McNeill. Wright's purpose to set out the gospel of progress anew, this time using the language of game theory as his principal mode of rhetoric. At its most basic level Wright's point is that interactions are positive-sum: there are gains from cooperation. Thus human cultural evolution has an arrow and a direction: toward greater complexity, toward higher civilization.

The direction arises at two levels. First, individual humans seek out things that increase their own powers and capabilities. Cooperation tends to do this, so people find ways to cooperate. But the most important form of cooperation is one that is almost impossible to stop: the simple sharing of knowledge. Two heads are better than one. The denser the population (and the better the means of communication) the more ideas will be generated, the larger the number of ideas that turn out to be useful, and the faster will be progress. People are, Wright argues--in my view correctly---naturally acquisitive in that they want useful things, and will eagerly copy new technologies they hear about. Thus Wright sees inventions such as agriculture as inevitable--not as a lucky accident.

Second, at the level of human societies, the societies that are more powerful--have better technologies, more effective social arrangements, greater population densities, and so forth--either swamp their neighbors or force their neighbors to copy them in order to maintain their autonomy. In Eurasia, where contact was constant from an early age--from the year 200 on one could travel from Gibralter to the mouth of China's Yangtze River and cross only three borders--a good innovation at one end would diffuse all the way to the other in a matter of centuries. He believes that the wide spread of religion in agricultural civilizations proves that its productivity-boosting and division of labor-enhancing effects outweigh its exploitative side: those societies that did not have temples and priests did not flourish.

Wright dismisses gloomy talk of barbarian invasions and the fall of empires by asserting that one goes from furs-and-swords to linen-and-pens in three generations: "The Romans weren't exactly hailed by the Greeks as cultural equals when they happened on the scene.... Yet they were massively infiltrated by classical Greek memes, which they then spread across the wider world. In Horace's phrase, 'The Greeks, captive, took the victors captive'. And, anyway, who were the Greeks to look down on intrusive barbarians?... The early Greeks had a title of honor, ptoliporthos, that meant 'sacker of cities'.... But whether these 'barbarians' sack cities, or hover on the periphery and trade... or ally with them in war or ally against them, one outcome is nearly certain: win, lose, or draw, the 'barbarians' become vehicles for advanced memes...." For what truly matters are the basic technologies of agriculture and craft, not the products of high civilizations. And even when you do have significant regression--in the post-Mycenean Dark Age, in the post-Roman Dark Age, or in the wake of the Mongols--Wright reminds us that "the world makes backup copies."

Wright also dismisses gloomy talk of the stagnation of Ming and Qing China, the fall of the Mughal Empire, and the technological and organizational stasis of the Ottoman Empire by arguing that the key unit is not Europe vs. Asia but is instead Eurasia. Sooner or later, Wright argues, some part of Eurasia--it did not have to be Europe--would have hit up on a superior social and technological recipe to that of the mid second millennium empires, and when it did the rest would have copied it. Wright is of the school that holds that China almost broke through to modernity, writing of how paper and woodblock printing were used to distribute useful texts--Pictures and Poems on Husbandry and Weaving, Mathematics for Daily Use, and the Treatise on Citrus Fruit. The recipe that ultimately proved successful--what Wright calls the economic logic of freedom--was stopped in many places: "indeed, on balance, in the centuries after the printing press was invented, European governments grew more despotic." But it only had to succeed once. And given sufficient cultural variation, sooner or later a breakthrough was inevitable.

But even if you buy all of Wright's argument that forms of increasing returns--non-zero-sum-ness, as Wright calls it--impart an arrow of increasing complexity and division of labor to human social, cultural, and economic evolution, this does not necessarily amount to Progress--at least not to anything we would see as progress in human morality or human happiness. For why should organizational complexity be Progress? As Wright puts it: "...it would be hard to argue that there was net moral gain between the hunter-gatherer and ancient-state phases of cultural evolution. The Egyptians had slaves--which virtually no known hunter-gatherer societies had--and their soldiers returned from wars of conquest proudly brandishing the severed penises of their slain foes."

So in the end Wright is forced to play a game of three-card monte to reach conclusions that support his belief in Progress. The card labeled "complexity" must be switched for the card labeled "Progress" without our noticing. In the industrial core, at the end of the twentieth century, we are inclined to tolerate this switch--to say that it is obvious that a highly complicated and productive civilization will have widely-distributed individual wealth, lots of individual freedom, and soft forms of rule, and that social complexity is civilization. But back in the middle of the twentieth century this switch could not have been accomplished at all: "complexity yes," people would have said, "but progress no." And who knows how things will look in a hundred more years?

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743- 1794), was an aristocrat, a mathematician, an official of the Academy of Sciences, and was a friend of Voltaire (1694-1778). He strongly supported the revolution of 1789 as an example of human progress. But the Committee of Public Safety turned on him: he was arrested, and died in prison before he could be executed.


*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 human cultural evolution toward greater complexity and biological evolution toward greater complexity.

Wright's argument that biological evolution has an arrow as well--tends to produce animals with big brains that think--runs roughly as follows:

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.

But wait! Most of your environment is made up of other living creatures. Hence the environment becomes more complicated over time too. And because the environment becomes over time, there is increasing adaptive value in information acquisition and information processing organs: better eyes (and ears) and bigger brains. Random evolution creates increasing diversity and complexity of life. Increasing diversity and complexity of life makes for a more complicated environment. And a more complicated environment generates strong evolutionary pressure for eyes, hands, and brains.

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.


p. 39: "Why are a large majority of known hunter-gatherer societies labeled by anthropologists as 'egalitarian'... such as the !Kung and the Shoshone? Maybe because that's all that was left by the time the anthropologists showed up. One reason the !Kung and the Shoshone are so culturally simple is that they live in barren lands..."

p. 43: "The archaeologist Brian Hayden... has this to report: "I can categorically say that the people of all the cultures I have come in contact with exhibit a strong desire to have the benefits of industrial goods that are available...'"

pp. 48-9: "The fact that population density and size lubricate economic and technological development has been largely ignored.... [S]ome of them... do stress population growth... but they emphasize a... downside, not an upside. 'Irresistible reproductive pressures.'.... In short: Innovate or die! Population density, in this vew, drives technological and social development not by creating opportunities but by creating problems."

p. 51: "The 'negative' side of population growth--environmental stress that makes subsistence precarious--may or may not be a big part of the story, but it is certainly not the whole story. The gadgets that pile up at an ever faster rate as population grows are not just subsistence technologies."

p. 56: "Still, war isn't nonstop zero-sumness, either. One big reason is that, even as war is inserting zero-sum dynamics between two groups, within the groups things are quite different."

p. 63: "...peace is ultimately its own reward. Just ask the Auyana of New Guinea. After they were pacified by Europeans, the men rejoiced in their newfound ability to go urinate in the morning without fear of ambush. The first step toward a productive day."

p. 73: "Once you realize that man does not live by bread alone--that status and sex are nice, too--the claim that hunting and gathering beats primitive farming as a subsistence technology begins to lose relevance."

p. 73: "The seminal calculations of the !Kung workday--two or three hours, then party time--have been put to skeptical scrutiny and found wanting. The calculators forgot to include time spent processing the food, making spears, and so on. It now appears that these hunter-gatherers, at least, work roughly as hard as horticulturalists."

p. 86: "As Marvin Harris has written: 'viewed within the living context of a redistributive system, tombs, megaliths, and temples appear as functional components whose costs are slight in comparison with the increased harvests which the ritualized intensification of agricultural production makes possible'."

p. 103: "This book has made little use of such familiar phrases as the 'Stone Age' and the 'Bronze Age'. The reason, clearly, is not an aversion to 'technological determinism', but rather a belief that metallurgy makes for a bad version of it. The Maya, the Aztecs, and the Inca were basically Stone Age people--what metal they had was used mainly for jewelry and the like, not swords or shields. Yet they had much more in common with Egypt or China in the Bronze Age than with, say, the Stone Age Shoshone of their own hemisphere. A more useful dividing line between the Shoshone on the one hand and state-level societies on the other comes from energy and information technologies. All state-level societies farmed, and all had (relatively) sophisticated means of handling data.

p. 108: "Historians tend to dwell on differences.... But first let's ask: How were early states, in the various regions where they evolved, alike? This is one way to simplify ancient history--by realizing, fundamentally, the same thing was happening everywhere you look."

p. 108: "Archaeologists speak of six 'pristine' civilizations.... Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mesoamerica, South America, China, and the... Indus.... Some scholars throw in West Africa as well."

p. 117: In the Old World, by contrast, the natural expansion of early civilizations, and their ultimate interconnection, had not been short-circuited by murderous aliens. By the first century A.D. the process had reached a culmination of sorts. The tendencies that had carried China and Rome to their glory--growth in the degree and scope of social complexity--had been at work in the lands between them. Just to the east of the Roman Empire was the Parthian empire.... East of Parthia was the Kushan empire.... And to its east was the western extremity of China under the Han. Eurasia was now wall-to-wall empires. In the terminology of the historian William McNeill, the 'Eurasian Ecumene' had been closed. One could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, one-third of the way around the world, while passing through only four polities. And commerce did so, along the Silk Road."

p. 131: "The Romans weren't exactly hailed by the Greeks as cultural equals when they happened on the scene.... Yet they were massively infiltrated by classical Greek memes, which they then spread across the wider world. In Horace's phrase, 'The Greeks, captive, took the victors captive'. And, anyway, who were the Greeks to look down on intrusive barbarians?... The early Greeks had a title of honor, ptoliporthos, that meant 'sacker of cities'.... But whether these 'barbarians' sack cities, or hover on the periphery and trade... or ally with them in war or ally against them, one outcome is nearly certain: win, lose, or draw, the 'barbarians' become vehicles for advanced memes...."

p. 145: "...what people of the early Middle Ages most needed wasn't a good stiff does of Demosthenese. They needed... a harness that wouldn't press on a horse's windpipe.... These sorts of memes--nuts and bolts, practical technologies--are more duable than those generated by, say, Sophocles, most of whose plays were lost forever."

p. 159: "China invented paper and had both wood block printing and movable type before they showed up in the west. They were used largely to spread practical knowledge. Hence such books as Pictures and Poems on Husbandry and Weaving and Mathematics for Daily Use. Some books came from private publishers, but many had an official air, such as the five-volume Remedies from the Board of Harmonious Pharmaceutics. Book titles of the age suggest the dawning of a scientific mind-set and science's natural drift toward specialty: Treatise on Citrus Fruit, say, or Manual of Crabs."

p. 169: "Once you view China and Japan as part of a larger east Asian brain, some noted examples of China's forgetfulness during the listless Ming period lose their force. It's true, for example, that China's encyclopedic Exploitation of the Works of Nature, written in 1637, was destroyed (perhaps because of the author's political views). But by then there were Japanese editions, which survived. Once again, the world makes backup copies."

p. 185: "The economic logic of freedom is sufficiently subtle to have eluded a number of European rulers in the early modern age. Indeed, on balance, in the centuries after the printing press was invented, European governments grew more despotic."

p. 206: "...it would be hard to argue that there was net moral gain between the hunter-gatherer and ancient-state phases of cultural evolution. The Egyptians had slaves--which virtually no known hunter-gatherer societies had--and their soldiers returned from wars of conquest proudly brandishing the severed penises of their slain foes."

p. 229: "Hitler, in an age of telephones and airplanes, could conceivably have conquered the world. True, stabnation might have ensued.... But rulers can bear stagnation so long as there are no vibrant socieites to vanquish or embarrass them."

p. 272: Mammalian lineages broadly exhibit a movement toward braininess.... Examples of mammals--or for that matter multicellular creatures in general--evolving toward less braininess are vanishingly rare."

pp. 274-5: "In the course of this niche-filling, natural selection doesn't just invent remarkable technologies; it keeps reinventing them. Flight and eyesight are two technologies so amazing that they are commonly cited by creationists for their implausibility. Yet flight has arisen through evolution on at least three separate occasions, and eyes have been independently invented dozens of times. Why are eyes such a favorite of natural selection's? Because light is a terrific medium of perception.... This isn't to say that natural selection is single-minded in its devotion to light... infrared sensors... sonar... creating electric fields and sensing disturbances in them... the informational value of the earth's magnetic field.... Why is natural selection so attentive to sensory technologies? Becuase they facilitate adaptively flexible behavior. And what else facilitates adaptively flexible behavior? The ability to process all of this sensory data and adjust behavior accordingly. In other words: brains.

p. 290: "We tend to overlook the deeply social orientation of human intelligence, precisely because it is so deep. But the mental tricks that constitute it become vivid when suddenly they're missing.... Normal four-year-olds know that people who haven't looked inside a box don't know what's in it. Autistic children lack this instinct for ascribing mental perspective to people: they are 'mind blind'."

p. 310: "Of course, after Darwin, Paley's stock fell. But let's be clear why. Paley wasn't wrong to say that life is evidently functional. And he wasn't wrong to say that this functionality strongly suggested a designer. He was just wrong to assume that the designer was a being rather than a process."


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> 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 (dl@silcom.com) 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 (kspagnolo@hort.cri.nz) 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 (philipw.nrd@cbo.gov) 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 (zimran_ahmed@yahoo.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 (reiley@vanderbilt.edu) on June 19, 2000.


Dear Brad:

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 (wright@clark.net) on June 19, 2000.


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