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Spring Books

New book says we stand on a threshold


We’re six billion and counting. Clinging to a used planet, we have survived another thousand years of life with each other. Yet we’re unsure of ourselves and asking new questions as well as the old ones.

The search for meaning is the non-traditional way to raise religious questions in our time.

Not that the traditional way was ever exactly that. Humans have searched for the big answers from entrails of chickens to the four gospels. Despite all our progress the answers remain elusive and life problematic. Are we going anywhere or just wandering aimlessly like ants?

Just a minute, interjects author Robert Wright. Whatever about us, the ants are not aimless. This gets Wright started on a whole line of thinking, nothing less than “an argument for human destiny.” Some will say this territory has been trod by searchers and teachers since time began. Sure, Wright counters, but we are still living in chaotic times right here in River City. “Technological, geopolitical and economic change seem ominously fast,” we writes, “and the fabric of society seems somehow tenuous.”

There may, however, be good news in the forecast. Our particular chaos has about it “the aura of a threshold.” He is referring to the quantum leap that occasionally happens when all or part of creation lurches to a new level, such as when we first walked upright or first learned a foreign language. “I just mean that growing turmoil does signify, by my lights, a distinct step in the unfolding of what you could call the world’s destiny,” Wright intones. “We are indeed approaching a culmination of sorts; our species seems to face a kind of test toward which basic forces of history have been moving us for millennia. It is a test of political imagination — of our ability to accept basic, necessary changes in structures of governance — but also a test of moral imagination.”

So Wright has written a big book with the ungainly title of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Pantheon, 480 pages, $27.50). It’s not ungainly for nothing. He planned to call the book “Non-zero-sumness” until everyone said how ugly that was. The terminology derives from a process called game theory, which has been with us for half a century. Usually without knowing it, writes Wright, we have been playing a game called non-zero-sum, which explains past human progress and could be the key to future leaps.

Rules of game theory

In zero-sum games, the fortunes of participants are inversely related. For you to win, I must lose, and vice versa. It is operative in tennis, boxing and much of life. In non-zero-sum games, by contrast, your gain need not be my loss. In highly NZS situations our interests could entirely overlap. In real life, though, the options are usually only partially NZS. The challenge — and a fundamental theme of the book — is to work toward more win-win outcomes (though win-win and such do not fully match his meaning, which is why he stuck with the ungainly nomenclature for which there are no good synonyms).

At one level the book is a survey of human history and organic evolution to show how we developed thus far with the indispensable help of game theory. This survey would be a guide to the future, which is at a fork in the road: toward a new, higher equilibrium, or toward blowing ourselves all to hell.

We are, for context, presented with various long-range snapshots of ourselves. One school of thought, led by Lewis Henry Morgan, saw us starting as “savages,” progressing until we were “barbarians,” before becoming “civilized.” This was no mere ivory tower debate. Marx, Engels and many other real-life players were involved in the fray. Another school, led by anthropologist Franz Boas, disagreed, not with the name-calling but with the steady upward progress this outline implied. Wrote Boas disciple Margaret Mead: “We have stood out against any grading of cultures in hierarchical systems which would place our own culture at the top. … We have stood out for a sort of democracy of cultures.”

This egalitarian view didn’t survive very well. It’s hard to deny an upward move toward complexity, and some cultures, especially in the West, traditionally had more of it than others.

One characteristic of this upward progress, which most people may say they knew all along, is that it goes hand-in-glove with ever more non-zero-sumness. There is, in other words, more and more of something in it for nearly everyone.

In practice, too

This sounds dry in the abstract, but Wright makes constant forays back to ancient history to show how the theory worked and thus how we became who we are. He visits, for example, the Shoshone, who once inhabited what is now Nevada. Their largest unit of social organization was the family. The male head of the family was “the entire political organization and its whole legal system.” By contrast the !Kung San, renowned hunter-gatherers of Africa’s Kalahari desert, had a more cohesive social structure. One reason, experts say, is because they hunted giraffes. In those pre-refrigerator days, one family could not eat a giraffe; neither, in their circumstances, would they want to waste meat; nor would they, being typical humans, waste a chance to collect the IOU that came from sharing the meat. Such IOUs, the author writes, were money in the bank in early society. As an expert on Eskimos said, “the best place for [an Eskimo] to store his surplus is in someone else’s stomach.”

The non-zero-sum factor, Wright keeps saying, is located out near the edge of our self-understanding. Calculation, therefore, is too self-conscious an attitude for what, most of the time, we do for each other in the context of NZS interaction. The author elaborates: “Evolutionary psychologists have made a strong — in my view compelling — case that this unconscious savviness is a part of human nature, rooted ultimately in the genes; that natural selection, via the evolution of ‘reciprocal altruism,’ has built into us various impulses which, however warm and mushy they may feel, are designed for the cool, practical purpose of bringing beneficial exchange.”

These built-in impulses include generosity; gratitude, with concomitant sense of obligation; empathy for and trust in reliable reciprocators, also known as friends. These elements are found in all cultures. This seems to imply that the natural selection, which brought us to where we are, instinctively recognized non-zero-sum logic before we consciously acknowledged it.

Time and again Wright points out that the size of the canvas forces him to paint with broad strokes. He pauses occasionally to show that his generalizations have exceptions. My generalizations of his generalizations leave the picture starker still. Yet the starkness of the contrast between primitive and contemporary constantly unearth unexpected insights. For example, a Big Man (a technical term for the main local guy just before the culture got cohesive enough to have chiefdoms) in New Guinea, upon bestowing heaps of food and wealth on another Big Man, was heard to say, “I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much.”

Not everyone will read our subsequent journey as moral progress, but Wright settles for the contention that it is at least progress toward complexity.

In one human arena after another, game theory is applied to show the arrow, however wobbly, pointing upward toward what we humans have usually accepted as progress. It’s ambiguous progress at times, as we all know from experience. Our blessings are invariably mixed. War provides a cogent example. Despite the savagery, an array of benefits accrues to nearly every war. “That, actually, is a good rough-and-ready index of non-zero-sumness: the extent to which fates are shared. War, by creating more shared fates, by manufacturing non-zero-sumness, accelerates the evolution of culture toward deeper and vaster social complexity.”

If there seems to be less here than meets the eye, merely a finding of the silver lining that goes with every cloud, it remains true that life’s poor progress derives in large part from our amazing slowness to see the obvious. So we lurched according to circumstances. But that’s the devil of it: even zero-sum situations can give rise to the next step forward. A football team’s traumatic loss in the playoffs can draw members together and propel them to next year’s Super Bowl. Wright takes us zigging and zagging across the centuries in what everyone except perhaps the Kansas School Board would call some kind of evolution.

We’re falling short

Whatever upward journey we’re on, it is clear we are not yet, despite all we have and have done, at our destination. The author refers to “cultural lag,” which happens when material culture changes so fast that non-material culture has trouble catching up — too many innovations without time or wisdom to absorb them.

He quotes sociologist William Ogburn’s solution to this imbalance: Speed up moral progress to catch up with material progress. If this sounds too facile, so does Wright’s own remedy: “cut the rate at which material technology is transforming the world; make the inevitable unfold at a more sedate pace.” But to whom do you make the first phone call on a Monday morning once you’ve decided to slow down the world?

While he has no plan for global slowdown, the author has some idealistic non-zero-sum suggestions: that First World workers and Third World workers unite and adjust for a more fair all-round wage; that industrialists do what’s necessary to save scarce fuels; and other non-zero-sum strategies.

This and other suggestions land like a load of bricks on our own dear capitalist ethos, which Wright seems to take for granted. Capitalism, as all its legendary gurus have repeatedly maintained, aims at a maximization of profits. No matter what language they couch it in, capitalism is by definition a zero-sum (that is, lest we forget, win-lose) game. It is astonishing how little capitalism has done, despite all its think tanks and paid apologists, to finesse itself, or reform itself, as a system, as a philosophy, so that it could be a non-zero-sum enterprise from top to bottom. (Sure, there are humane and generous capitalists who deal with the world on a NZS basis, but to that extent they are untrue to capitalism.)

Wright is more comfortable with more impersonal systems such as the second law of thermodynamics, about which I know nothing, the one, he says, that “sounds so depressing: entropy — disorder — grows inexorably; structure decays.” This is a high hurdle life must leap over before taking us anywhere else. Energy is the key: “It is this captured energy that life uses to build and replenish its structure, to arrange matter into distinctly ordered form and keep it there, notwithstanding the universal tide of entropy.”

To energy add information. Not just your dictionary and computer. “Data processing permeates even trivial-seeming organic functions.” Data processing is why grass grows as it does. Even the broad strokes the author is forced to use demonstrate the immense complexity we have achieved and the grand miracle in which we participate. He reaches one of his occasional crescendos as follows:

Viewed against the backdrop of all of life, then, culture was in one sense nothing new: just another data-processing system invented by natural selection to marshal energy and matter in ways that preserve DNA. But it was the first of these systems that began to take on a life of its own, inaugurating a whole new kind of evolution. Natural selection, after inventing brainier and brainier forms of DNA, long ago invented brains — and then finally, in our species, invented a particularly impressive brain, a brain that could sponsor a whole new kind of natural selection.

And one of the tricks of our recent brains is that they, despite our stumbling, keep urging us upward. This upward mobility would take us nowhere — the argument continues — without the driving force of non-zero-sum logic.

Is onward upward?

Then, if one continues on upward, one eventually runs into the question of God. Anyone who can take the word of the Bible or one’s religion of choice that God’s in his heaven will be saved a lot of heavy reading, but will miss some mighty challenging conundrums. Reading this book it’s easy to see why fundamentalism is such a comforting buffer against the risks of confronting the big, disquieting questions of life.

More than once Wright drags in the late Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, patronizes him a little (“As best I can make out, at Point Omega the human species would constitute a kind of giant organic brotherly-love blob”) but knows Teilhard was onto something. God’s love, no less. That, however, took a leap of faith not allowed in natural theology, where Wright chooses to take his stand.

The usual definitions and descriptions of God pose a problem for the searcher relying on logic. One who is infinitely powerful and infinitely good needs to help us out, for starters, with the problem of evil. So Wright asks a more modest question: “Are there signs of any divinely imparted meaning in the evidence immediately before us: the history of life on earth?”

And yes, he offers compelling evidence of an upward thrust toward order and complexity, with occasional leaps over thresholds, which at close range might seem gratuitous but for which earth had been preparing us. The arrow was pointing toward meaning.

The problem of evil still lurks, however, mocking meaning: “Isn’t goodness a slightly naïve thing to ask of an architect whose plans included natural selection? At its core, natural selection is cutthroat.”

The debate is all over the place, like life. We have made great progress in taming this cutthroat quality. On the other hand, we’re killing each other more than ever. We saw that altruism worked as a way of getting along together, so we spread it beyond the family, until eventually it was bred in our bones. On yet another hand, altruism is volatile, too — he refers to affection’s oft-underplayed downside, for example the real-life Texas mother who plotted the murder of her daughter’s rival for a cheerleader role. It remains a jungle out there.

Wright concedes he can point the upward arrow only to a certain height, a height too low for adherents of most traditional religions: “After all, if peace and tolerance grow only out of a non-zero-sum calculation — only out of rational self-interest — then there is something cool and mechanical about it all.” It, however, remains all too human.

Scholars such as Thomas Berry and Diarmuid O’Murchu have been saying for some time that we are between stories. In the past, relying more on imagination than scientific knowledge, we wrote ourselves the grandest, sublimest scenarios our heads and hearts dared yearn for. The rational search for meaning has not yet set its upward-pointing arrow so high.

There is an immense thrill in the prospect that Wright is right and we stand on another threshold for another quantum leap. But to what shall we leap? At a certain level the author does a fine job of explaining us to ourselves. We nod with recognition. Yet finally he promises nothing. He has no new story. One can see why religion still appeals to so many, hinting unrealistically at something more sublime than even non-zero-sum can offer.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000