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Chicken Soup for the Evolutionist’s Soul

February 2000
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A review of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning. Such is the stuff of which myth, religion, history, and science are made.

Sometimes the patterns we find represent reality — DNA as the basis of heredity or the fossil record as the history of life. But sometimes the patters are imposed by our minds rather than discovered by them — the face on Mars (actually an eroded mountain) or the Virgin Mary’s image on the side of a glass building in Clearwater, Florida (really an oil stain from a palm tree, since removed to enable the faithful to better view their icon). The rub lies in distinguishing which patterns are true and which are false, and the essential tension (as Thomas Kuhn called it) pits skepticism against credulity as we try to decide which patterns should be rejected and which should be embraced.

That tension is at the forefront of Robert Wright’s latest work, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. At Skeptic magazine I routinely receive what I call “Theories of Everything” — manuscripts by authors purporting to have discovered the ultimate pattern that explains, well, everything. Usually they deal with physics and cosmology, claiming that Newton, Einstein, or Hawking are wrong and that this single-spaced typed paper most likely composed by someone with no formal training in the field will revolutionize all of science. Sometimes they employ ersatz-evolutionary explanations for various questions about nature and humanity. Occasionally they compress all of human history into a handful of patterns that can be explained in even fewer principles. Never have I seen anyone try to explain the evolution of all nature and history in one sweeping theory based on a single principle. Until now.

I do not mean to imply that Robert Wright’s Nonzero is the work of a crank. It is not. It is a serious work by an experienced journalist with stellar credentials (Time, Slate, The New Republic, The Sciences). For a nonscientist Wright is a formidable thinker and a persuasive writer on matters scientific, and he has mastered the literature in researching this book. But I must confess, after a decade spent as a professional observer of crankdom, that my baloney detector alarm went off when Wright proclaimed in his introduction that just like Francis Crick and James Watson announced that the double-helix was “the secret of life,” that “With all due respect for DNA, I would like to nominate another candidate for the secret of life.”

That candidate is “nonzero.” In zero-sum games like tennis, the margin of victory for one player is the margin of defeat for the other. If I win 6-2, you lose 2-6 — my margin of victory was +4, your margin of defeat was -4, summing to zero. In non-zero-sum games both players win, as in an economic exchange where I win by purchasing your product and you win by receiving my money.

What Wright is proposing is that over billions of years of natural history, and over thousands of years of human history, there has been an increasing tendency toward the playing of nonzero games between organisms that has allowed more nonzero gamers to survive. That is, while competition between individuals and groups was common in both biological evolution and cultural history, symbiosis among organisms and cooperation among people have gradually displaced competition as the dominant form of interaction. Why? Because those who cooperated — who played more nonzero games — were more likely to survive and pass on their genes for cooperative behavior.

This is definitely a theory of everything, “from the primordial soup to the World Wide Web,” as Wright boasts. He’s not exaggerating. He begins with the earliest cellular organisms to evolve, the prokaryote cells which, in order to better survive in a hostile environment, gathered together in a cooperative venture to become eukaryote cells, the complex units of which we are made (those little cellular organelles you had to memorize in high school biology were once autonomous cells back in the pre-Cambrian). Single eukaryote cells then clumped together into multi-cellular organisms, who then invented the delightful nonzero game of sex that accelerated genetic variability from which natural selection could select. These multi-cellular sexually-reproducing organisms then discovered that they were better able to survive by playing such nonzero games as kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

In kin selection we are willing to act unselfishly toward our genetic kin (children, brothers and sisters, cousins) because, in the long run and on average, more of our genes will make it to the next generation than if we only act selfishly in a zero-sum fashion. In reciprocal altruism (I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine) we cooperate because, in the long run and on average, more of our genes will survive into the next generation if this generation doesn’t destroy itself through excessive win-lose conflicts. As the classic saying from political revolutionaries goes, “if we don’t hang together we’ll all hang separately.” Social animals such as ants and humans are especially good at nonzero games, and as you may have noticed there are a lot of ants and humans around.

It is important to realize that animals are not aware they are being altruistic in any conscious goodwill sense. All animals, including human animals, are just trying to survive, and it turns out that cooperation is a good strategy, as Wright notes about bats: “A vampire bat, on returning from a nightly blood-sucking expedition empty-handed, may accept a donation of regurgitated blood from a close friend — and will return the favor on some future night when fortunes are reversed. Both bats benefit in the long run. Of course, they aren’t smart enough to recognize this win-win dynamic. Still, it is non-zero-sum logic that natural selection followed in programming bats to behave as if they did understand such things.”

What’s good for bats is good for humans. From the Paleolithic to today human groups have evolved from bands of hundreds, to tribes of thousands, to chiefdoms of tens of thousands, to states of hundreds of thousands, to nations of millions (and even one with a billion). This could not have happened through zero-sum exchanges alone. The hallmarks of humanity — language, tools, hunting, gathering, farming, writing, art, music, and all the rest including and especially the world wide web — could not have come about through the actions of isolated zero-sum gamers. Humans are, by nature, nonzero animals.

As grand as this sweep of history is, this isn’t really Wright’s big “secret of life.” His leitmotif is that non-zero-sumness has produced direction in biological and cultural evolution, and that this directionality means there is a point to life, “that the evolutionary process is subordinate to a larger purpose — a ‘higher’ purpose, you might even say.” Here Wright is arguing for the extreme end of an interesting debate within evolutionary science — was our existence necessary and inevitable, or contingent and unlikely? Wright believes it is the former. Rewind the tape of life and play it back over and over and we would appear again and again. By “we” he means an intelligent social species that carries its “social organization to planetary breadth.” If humans had not filled this inevitable position of global dominance, one of the other hominids — the Neanderthals, for example — or the great apes would have. This directionality or “purposefulness,” as Wright calls it, was built into the cosmos not by any higher intelligence, in a theological sense, but by the laws of nature.

How far back does Wright go for this global inevitability? All the way. “Globalization, it seems to me, has been in the cards not just since the invention of the telegraph or the steamship, or even the written word or the wheel, but since the invention of life. All along, the relentless logic of non-zero-sumness has been pointing toward this age in which relations among nations are growing more non-zero-sum year by year.” Can a one-world government be far away? It is inevitable, says Wright. Pat Buchanan is bucking billions of years of evolution.

Nonzero is dressed up in the language of science, and Wright purports to be describing the world as it is. But his book is prescriptive, not descriptive. It presents a vision of the way the world should be (his discussion of cooperation and consensus seems especially suited for the political arena), not the way it actually is. The sentiments are warm (who would disagree with promoting more cooperation?), but science deals in facts, not sentimentality.

Is there really, as Wright suggests, a pattern of increase and dominance of nonzero exchanges in the evolution of life and culture? He offers no trend line graphs or comprehensive data sets comparing the changing rate of zero-sum versus non-zero-sum exchanges. He never attempts to test his hypothesis. Instead he just piles on examples that support his thesis and hopes that the reader does not find contradictory examples. This is what is known in cognitive psychology as the “confirmation bias,” where we look for confirmatory evidence and ignore disconfirmatory evidence, or as I like to say about how psychics work: their clients remember the hits and forget the misses.

In reality, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that zero-sum encounters in nature are common, brutal and a driving force of evolutionary change that show no sign of abating. Human history is even worse right up to the present where, for example, since the end of the Cold War tribalism and genocide have become daily news stories. It is surprising that a savvy social commentator like Wright would ignore such zero-sum problems as Bosnia, Chechnya or East Timor. Stand on the border between India and Pakistan and tell the people there that non-zero-sumness is blossoming and cooperation is flowering.

Likewise, is social globalization an inevitable necessity of the evolutionary process? The scientific evidence indicates just the opposite. Paleoanthropologist Richard Klein’s authoritative work The Human Career (University of Chicago Press), for example, shows that Neanderthals had brains as big as ours and were in Europe for 200,000 years, yet their tools and culture show almost no sign of change at all, let alone progress toward social globalization. And when modern humans arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago, they drove Neanderthals into extinction in a thoroughly nonzero way!

Wright claims that had it not been humans or Neanderthals, then one of the great apes or monkeys would have triumphed. He’s wrong. Apes have never shown any inclination toward progressive cultural evolution, now or in the fossil record. And monkeys proliferated throughout Asia and the new world for tens of millions of years without any interference from hominids, yet they didn’t take step one toward developing culture. Humans are a contingent fluke, not a necessary triumph.

Wright has fallen into the oldest trap of all pattern-seeking, storytelling animals: writing yourself into the story as the central pattern in order to find purpose and meaning in this gloriously contingent cosmos. Wright’s thesis makes him, ironically, something of an accidental creationist. Despite all the ego-shattering discoveries of science that have shown time and again that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos or in evolution, it turns out that the whole point of the universe was to give rise to us. And if we continue to apply the nonzero process, as a bonus we can end war, poverty, and ethnic cleansing. “Life on earth was, from the beginning, a machine for generating meaning and then deepening it, a machine that created the potential for good and began to fulfill it. And, though the machine also created the potential for bad — and did plenty of fulfilling on that front — it now finally shows signs of raising the ratio of good to bad.” Chicken soup for the evolutionist’s soul!

Skeptical alarms should toll whenever anyone claims that science has discovered that our deepest desires and oldest myths are true after all. If there is an inevitability in this story, it is that a purpose-seeking animal will find itself as the purpose of nature.

(Bantam Books, 2006, ISBN 0679758941)
This review was originally published in Los Angeles Times

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5 Comments to “Chicken Soup for the Evolutionist’s Soul”

  1. annick laporte Says:

    Darn!
    I haven’t believed in gods or psychic powers since I was a little kid, but for a moment there, just a moment, I felt that warmth, that velvet euphoria that comes with belief of a higher purpose. Until you turned the lights back on four paragraphs from the bottom, my mind had extinguished the lamp of reason to bask in the warm and fuzzies. Funny. I know many deeply religious people (and one UFO nut) and never thought I could step into such obvious traps. Thanks, Michael. Slightly bitter though the moment was, I would rather march forward in the light than stand still in the dark.

  2. MaxD Says:

    Didn’t Bill Clinton say this was one of the most important books he’d ever read?

  3. TM Akashi Says:

    Since Robert Wright gave his take on the meaning of life in Nonzero, and annick laporte seemed to have wanted the answer, here’s my take:

    “The purpose of life is to help to have children and to help to raise them intelligently.”

    In case you didn’t realize this, no one can have a child without someone else’s help. All we can do is to help to have children. This fits with the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And if humans are sentient beings with a neo-cortex, then it seems reasonable to assume that raising children intelligently is part of our purpose. I think Mr. Shermer would agree that raising our children rationally and intelligently would be a most desirable goal. Because of the title of this thread, “Chicken Soup for the Evolutionist’s Soul”, I would like to add that it will take many generations of following this purpose, before we hopefully evolve enough to live and act more intelligently.

  4. J Pettibone Says:

    Sorry: I’m late to the party here.

    Are the examples really zero-sum? They exist in a closed system. For example: the vampire bat example is not really non-zero sum: While the bats are cooperating, the blood “donor” probably doesn’t see this as a positive outcome. By viewing only the bats, one has drawn a box around their environment.

  5. fourcultures Says:

    I noticed that the econometric economist Ed Leamer has written a book for MBA students inspired by this quotation about pattern-seeking story telling animals and I wrote about it at Fourcultures. The book is sceptical of truth claims in economics and suggests that for this particular discipline, ‘theory’ is really just patterns and ‘evidence’ is better understood as stories. Where he diverges from Michael Shirmer is his claim that the question of true/false is trumped by the question of ‘fit for purpose’.