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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny [Paperback]

by Robert Wright
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 9, 2001 0679758941 978-0679758945 Reprint
In his bestselling The Moral Animal, Robert Wright applied the principles of evolutionary biology to the study of the human mind. Now Wright attempts something even more ambitious: explaining the direction of evolution and human history–and discerning where history will lead us next.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright's narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology's ongoing transformation of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Nonzero, from New Republic writer Robert Wright, is a difficult and important book--well worth reading--addressing the controversial question of purpose in evolution. Using language suggesting that natural selection is a designer's tool, Wright inevitably draws the conclusion that evolution is goal-oriented (or at least moves toward inevitable ends independently of environmental or contingent variables).

The underlying reason that non-zero-sum games wind up being played well is the same in biological evolution as in cultural evolution. Whether you are a bunch of genes or a bunch of memes, if you're all in the same boat you'll tend to perish unless you are conducive to productive coordination.... Genetic evolution thus tends to create smoothly integrated organisms, and cultural evolution tends to create smoothly integrated groups of organisms.

Admittedly, it's as hard to think clearly about natural selection as it is to think about God, but that makes it just as important to acknowledge our biases and try to exclude them from our conclusions. It is this that makes Nonzero potentially unsatisfying to the scientifically literate. Time after time we've seen thinkers try to find in biological evolution a "drive toward complexity" that might explain all sorts of other phenomena from economics to spirituality. Some authors, like Teilhard de Chardin, have much to offer the careful reader who takes pains to read metaphorically. Others--legions of cranks--provide nothing but opaque diatribes culminating in often-bizarre assertions proven to nobody but the author. Wright is much closer to de Chardin along this axis; his anthropological scholarship is particularly noteworthy, and his grasp of world history is excellent. Unfortunately, he has the advocate's willingness to blind himself to disagreeable facts and to muddle over concepts whose clarity would be poisonous to his positions: try to pin him down on what he means by complexity, for example. Still, his thesis that human cultures are historically striving for cooperative, nonzero-sum situations is heartening and compelling; even though it's not supported by biology, it's not knocked down, either. If the reader can work around the undefined assumptions, Wright's charm and obvious interest in planetary survival make Nonzero a worthy read. If the first chapter's title--"The Ladder of Cultural Evolution"--makes you cringe, the last one--"You Call This a God?"--will make you smile. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Evolution meets game theory in this upbeat follow-up to Wright's much-praised The Moral Animal. Arguing against intellectual heavyweights such as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and Franz Boas, Wright contends optimistically that history progresses in a predictable direction and points toward a certain end: a world of increasing human cooperation where greed and hatred have outlived their usefulness. This thesis is elaborated by way of something Wright calls "non-zero-sumness," which in game theory means a kind of win-win situation. The non-zero-sum dynamic, Wright says, is the driving force that has shaped history from the very beginnings of life, giving rise to increasing social complexity, technological innovation and, eventually, the Internet. From Polynesian chiefdoms and North America's Shoshone culture to the depths of the Mongol Empire, Wright plunders world history for evidence to show that the so-called Information Age is simply part of a long-term trend. Globalization, he points out, has been around since Assyrian traders opened for business in the second millennium B.C. Even the newfangled phenomenon of "narrowcasting" was anticipated, he claims, when the costs of print publishing dropped in the 15th century and spawned a flurry of niche-oriented publications. Occasionally, Wright's use of modish terminology can seem glib: feudal societies benefited from a "fractal" structure of nested polities, world culture has always been "fault-tolerant" and today's societies are like a "giant multicultural brain." Despite the game-theory jargon, however, this book sends an important message that, as human beings make moral progress, history, in its broadest outlines, is getting better all the time. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (January 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679758941
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679758945
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Wright is a contributing editor of The New Republic, a Slate.com columnist, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the cofounder of www.bloggingheads.tv, runs the web-based video project www.meaningoflife.tv, and lives in Princeton, NJ, with his wife and two daughters.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
122 of 139 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sweeping, informative and entertaining January 25, 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Thankfully, an increasing number of authors (Landes, Diamond, et al) have been tackling social evolution - a crucial topic that's been shied away from for too long. Wright's effort is inspired, intelligent, engaging, erudite, not the least bit pretentious, and exceedingly well-written. Wright's basic message is that living organizations - both organisms and the groups they form - have been getting increasingly complex and well-integrated since life began, so it's a good bet that this trend will continue into the future. He presents a general hypothesis, and then provides a mountain of fascinating evidence to back it up. It's not experimental science, it's theory-driven science, but it's definitely not "bad science" as a few reviewers (usually non-scientists, interestingly) have said. Reading this book will definitely increase your knowledge and understanding of the history of life on earth, and as the goal of science is to increase knowledge and understanding, I'd say the scientific value of this book is high - much higher than most history you will read (historians usually don't even try to make their interpretations consistent with biological knowledge). Though not the last word in social evolution, this book is an excellent leap forward, and anyone interested in history, biology, or social evolution should read it, and have a great time doing it. Highly recommended.
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194 of 226 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dr. Pangloss, I Presume? January 24, 2003
Format:Paperback
Robert Wright has the odd distinction of having written one of the best non-fiction books of the past decade (The Moral Animal) and now, with Nonzero, one of the most disappointing.
How it happened is a bit of a mystery. The Moral Animal, a summary of developments in the field of evolutionary psychology, was tightly organized, well-argued and eloquent. The book's thesis--that human nature is rooted in our genetic code, itself honed through millions of years of evolution-stood on the shoulders of the giants (from Darwin to Dawkins) who laid its scientific and theoretical foundation. Wright's contribution was to distill their work into an accessible but lucid package, with the particularly clever device of illustrating the principles that guide human behavior with examples from Darwin's own life.
With Nonzero, Wright extends the argument to claim that human societies (like the species itself) evolve, compete and adapt. That idea itself is not controversial. But Wright adds the gloss that societal evolution takes place in an arc that inevitably leads to further complexity and "progress". Here, unfortunately, he is trying to be original. Even if Wright happens to be right--and he may be--the lack of a scholarly foundation for his arguments is painfully evident throughout the book.
Wright proves again and again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. His acquaintance with history is broad but not deep. Errors, overgeneralizations and a tendency to confuse trivia with truth riddle his accounts of human civilizations. He is willing to toss in any idea--no matter how thinly reasoned--that supports his argument on any particular page.
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157 of 183 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Arrow of Cultural Evolution June 19, 2000
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Game Theory Applied To Cultural Evolution November 16, 2005
Format:Paperback
Over 10 years ago, accomplished journalist Robert Wright wrote the acclaimed "Moral Animal," summarizing the findings of the new (or at least reborn and renamed) science, evolutionary psychology. I read, reread, and underlined "The Moral Animal," convinced that I had finally found an explanation for human behavior I could wholeheartedly believe in. With great expectation, I approached "Nonzero."

In "Nonzero," Wright relies on "Moral Animal," but has a much more ambitious thesis. He draws heavily on game theory which Wright broadly divides into competitive games (I win, you lose) and co-operative games (win-win). He acknowledges the constant presence of both types of games in human interaction, then relentlessly develops the hypothesis that real cultural progress is always the result of technological advance PLUS a co-operative (nonzero sum) cultural interaction. Progress builds on itself and a complex society eventually develops.

In Part I (long), Wright considers hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, war, culture, technology, chiefdoms, barbarians, China, Romans, Dark Ages, modern times, and the Globalization of world commerce. One by one, he uses impeccable logic to show how progress in cultural evolution has been made through co-operation, and how improved technology then forced further nonzero sum (co-operative) games.

In Part II (short) he applies the same thinking to biological evolution.

In Part III (short) he ambitiously speculates on the meaning of life, God, and Globalization issues.

This is a very different book than "Moral Animal." In that situation Wright took an already coalescing collection of data about a new field of study and presented it in a cohesive form for public consumption.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing read
You have to read this book, then you are almost pulled into reading it again! Amazing book with beautiful detail!
Published 7 days ago by Larex Croft
4.0 out of 5 stars It will give you hope.
The author makes good points but goes into more examples than is probably necessary. Very worth the time to read.
Published 1 month ago by B. Bartlett
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful read
I have recommended this book to others. It covers multiple topics that are very interesting to me. I find the author very witty and his presentation and arguments on each topic... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Dennis Ryan
5.0 out of 5 stars Blew my mind!
Robert Wright is an American journalist, scholar, and prize-winning author. In his landmark book `Nonzero - The Logic of Human Destiny'(1) he opens with the following quote from... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Rod Matthews
5.0 out of 5 stars Nonzero/Zero of Game theory is a true Duality
Nonzero-sum is a Duality.

As C.G.Jung defined it, we can only understand a "duality" by also understanding its opposite; beyond that we need "unity consciousness" to... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Harry Winter
1.0 out of 5 stars A book only professors could love
The back cover of Robert Wright's book, Nonzero, should be warning enough. There, three professors extol the book which is a professor's dream of obfuscation and making complex... Read more
Published on November 25, 2011 by John Martin
4.0 out of 5 stars Life has a direction
According to Robert Wright, life has a definite direction towards the more complex and towards overall improvement. Read more
Published on October 9, 2011 by bronx book nerd
5.0 out of 5 stars An Optimistic View of our Evolutionary Path
For me, the ultimate evaluation of a non-fiction book comes from how much the reading of it changes the way you think or behave. Read more
Published on June 26, 2011 by Jeremy McCarthy
1.0 out of 5 stars Maybe two stars.
I agree with the negative reviews that suggest a breadth and not depth. The book is entertaining enough, but more often frustrating. Read more
Published on February 17, 2010 by S. kennedy
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an excellent and extremely timely book everyone should read!
The book's basic argument is that human cultures have evolved to engender further levels of interdependence and complexity and will continue to do so, barring some cosmically... Read more
Published on January 13, 2010 by O Dawson
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