9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A great read in history and human destiny,
This review is from: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Paperback)Does humanity have a purpose? A difficult question that the author doesn't attempt to answer in this book. However, he undertakes another question that, if answered, could make answering the first question a little less difficult. Robert Wright, author of "The Moral Animal", asserts that civilization is inevitable and that cultural and biological evolutions are driven toward complexity. In other words, cultural evolution is moving forward by a force and not here only as a result of a long string of serendipitous shots of good fortune, although luck does help. A lot.
Mr. Wright identifies this force as what he calls Nonzero-sumness. Nonzero-sum is the name given in Game Theory to the interaction that leaves every party involved in a more favorable state than (or, at least, similar to) its state prior to the interaction, or what is informally known as a win-win situation. That is in contrast to zero-sum interactions where parties gain through the loss of others. A soccer match is a typical zero-sum interaction for the playing teams since the triumph of one means the loss of the other. However, the same game is a nonzero-sum interaction for the players of a team since a goal scored by a player is a goal for all players in the team.
The author says that nonzero-sumness is embedded in nature and that all forms of life and social structures are rewarded if they tap into its nonzero-sumness potential. Just as well, structures or forms that do not make use of this potential are taken over by other structures or forms that do. In addition, if nonzero-sumness is tapped into in one way, possibilities for further nonzero-sumness multiply exponentially. Complex civilization, in other words, is inevitable. Even intelligence is inevitable, albeit not necessarily in a human form.
This is a strong claim, but it doesn't go unsubstantiated. Mr. Wright spends the first and bigger part of the book analyzing history from the first appearance of hunter-gatherer societies to our day and age. He takes head-on many mysteries such as the reason why the industrial revolution appeared in Europe and nowhere else any earlier, or why did the Chinese civilization regress from complexity and expansion to isolation and decay in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.
The first common notion that he refutes is the claim that agriculture was invented as a result of a dry up of abundant natural resources available to hunter-gatherer societies. He refutes this by proving that agriculture was invented several times throughout history, and was not necessarily an invention to elude fresh hardships. He looks thoroughly into several civilizations that started independently from scratch and found its way to complexity driven by the force of exploiting nonzero-sumness.
He also explains how some major zero-sum activities, such as wars and commercial competition, seem to drive civilization further when in fact they are either mere failed attempts or serve a wider nonzero-sum purpose.
Sounds boring? It's probably my review that is boring because the book is extremely entertaining and the arguments will leave you with a lot of thoughts to say the least. The depth of Mr. Wrights' knowledge in history is manifest throughout the book and serves his arguments extremely well.
In the second part the author attempts to prove that not only cultural evolution is driven by nonzero-sumness, but biological evolution as well. And although science doesn't seem to extend solid confirmation of Mr. Wright's arguments, it doesn't prove it erroneous either. He will extend many examples that are explained perfectly by his theory.
Things, however, begin to get a bit too controversial for my taste in the third part. Here the author pushes the notion of nonzero-sumness a bit too far. Too far to the extent of actually saying that god is nonzero-sumness, although equivocally. He also theorizes that the process of evolution (biological and cultural that is) is in fact conscious. Based on one philosophical definition of consciousness as the ability of some kind of information processing, he argues that by processing the feedback of genetic mutation and social development; evolution is self-conscious. Finally, I did not find myself agreeing with his attempt to conform the force of life to the second law of thermodynamics of entropy.
Nevertheless, this does not subtract value from the book overall but indeed adds to it. Even those claims that I did not find myself in agreement with left me with a lot to think about and helped me reshape many of my ideas and notions. And in the end, the author contemplates lightly the question that started this review, although he doesn't claim to have the answer. But as I said, the question seems a little more accessible in the light of the information provided by this book.
Another thing that I liked about this book is its accessibility. The layman reader will not have to worry about unfamiliar terms because everything is explained rather simply and difficult concepts are properly introduced into the discussion.
In conclusion, I think that this is a very good book to read if you're interested in humanity or history as it will offer the reader a lot to learn in both fields.