Robert Wright

Nonzero

Vintage Books 2000



pg 3

Keywords:
Point Omega - noosphere - Can the trends rightly noted by Bergson and Teilhard - basic tendencies in biological evolution and in the technological and social evolution of the human species - be explained in scientific, physical terms? - John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern made a basic distinction between "zero-sum" games and "non-zero-sum" games -






"zero-sum" games and "non-zero-sum" games

A great many internal and external portents (political and social upheaval, moral and religious unease) have caused us all to feel, more or less confusedly, that something tremendous is at present taking place in the world. But what is it? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg once ended a book on this note: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Far be it from me to argue with a great physicist about how depressing physics is. For all I know, Weinberg's realm of expertise, the realm of inanimate matter, really does offer no evidence of overarching purpose. But when we move into the realm of animate matter—bacteria, cellular slimemolds, and, most notably, human beings—the situation strikes me as different. The more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and, especially, the drift of human history, the more there seems to be a point to it all. Because in neither case is "drift" really the right word. Both of these processes have a direction, an arrow. At least, that is the thesis of this book.

People who see a direction in human history, or in biological evolution, or both, have often been dismissed as mystics or flakes. In some ways, it's hard to argue that they deserve better treatment. The philosopher Henri Bergson believed that organic evolution is driven forward by a mysterious "elan vital," a vital force. But why posit something so ethereal when we can explain evolution's workings in the wholly physical terms of natural selection? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian, saw human history moving toward "Point Omega." But how seriously could he expect historians to take him, given tbat Point Omega is "outside Time and Space"?

On the other hand, you have to give Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin some credit. Both saw that organic evolution has a tendency to create forms of life featuring greater and greater complexity. And Teilhard de Chardin, in particular, stressed a comparable tendency in human history: the evolution, over the millennia, of ever more vast and complex social structures. His extrapolations from this trend were prescient. Writing at the middle of this century, he dwelt on telecommunications, and the globalization it abets, before these subjects were all the rage. (Marshall McLuhan, coiner of "global village," had read Teilhard.) With his concept of the "noosphere," the "thinking envelope of the Earth," Teilhard even anticipated in a vague way the Internet—more than a decade before the invention of the microchip.

Can the trends rightly noted by Bergson and Teilhard—basic tendencies in biological evolution and in the technological and social evolution of the human species—be explained in scientific, physical terms? I think so; that is largely what this book is about. But the concreteness of the explanation needn't, I believe, wholly drain these patterns of the spiritual content that Bergson and Teilhard imputed to them. If directionality is built into life—if life naturally moves toward a particular end—then this movement legitimately invites speculation about what did the building. And the invitation is especially strong, I'll argue, in light of the phase of human history that seems to lie immediately ahead—a social, political, and even moral culmination of sorts.

As readers not drawn to theological questions will be delighted to hear, such speculation constitutes a small portion of this book: a few cosmic thoughts toward the end, necessarily tentative. Mostly this book is about how we got where we are today, and what this tells us about where we're heading next.

THE SECRET OF LIFE

On the day James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Crick, as Watson later recalled it, walked into their regular lunch place and announced that they had "found the secret of life." With all due respect for DNA, I would like to nominate another candidate for the secret of life. Unlike Francis Crick, I can't claim to have discovered the secret I'm touting. It was discovered—or, if you prefer, invented—about half a century ago by the founders of game theory, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern.

They made a basic distinction between "zero-sum" games and "non-zero-sum" games. In zero-sum games, the fortunes of the players are inversely related. In tennis, in chess, in boxing, one contestant's gain is the other's loss. In non-zero-sum games, one player's gain needn't be bad news for the other(s). Indeed, in highly non-zero-sum games the players' interests overlap entirely. In 1970, when the three Apollo 3 astronauts were trying to figure out how to get their stranded spaceship back to earth, they were playing an utterly non-zero-sum game, because the outcome would be either equally good for all of them or equally bad. (It was equally good.)

Back in the real world, things are usually not so clear-cut. A merchant and a customer, two members of a legislature, two childhood friends sometimes—but not always—find their interests overlapping. To the extent that their interests do overlap, their relationship is nonzero

Sometimes political scientists or economists break human interaction down into zero-sum and non-zero-sum components. Occasionally, evolutionary biologists do the same in looking at the way various living systems work. My contention is that, if we want to see what drives the direction of both human history and organic evolution, we should apply this perspective more systematically. Interaction among individual genes, or cells, or animals, among interest groups, or nations, or corporations, can be viewed through the lenses of game theory. What follows is a survey of human history, and of organic history, with those lenses in place. My hope is to illuminate a kind of force—the non

The survey of organic history is brief, and the survey of human history not so brief. Human history, after all, is notoriously messy. But I don't think it's nearly as messy as it's often made out to be. Indeed, even if you start the survey back when the most complex society on earth was a hunter

This isn't to say that non

This basic sequence—the conversion of non

I don't mean to minimize the interesting details that populate most history books: Sumerian kings, barbarian hordes, medieval knights, the Protestant Reformation, nascent nationalism, and so on. In fact, I try to give all of these their due (along with such too

After surveying human history, I will briefly apply to organic history the same organizing principle. Through natural selection, there arise new "technologies" that permit richer forms of non

In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of evermore

You might even say that non.

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