(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Robert Wright is an award-winning essayist and journalist. His 1994 book, The Moral Animal, argued that genetic evolution created human morality. Although this earlier work is an interesting presentation of the evolutionary view of human beings, it is essentially a popularization of views held by many evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists. In Nonzero, Wright again takes up the subject of the evolution of human society, but this time he develops an original and farsighted theory.

Many contemporary social and physical scientists reject the view that evolution implies progress. The prevailing view in biology is that species differ because they develop different means of adapting to different environments; thus, the human brain and the bird’s wing are specialized adaptations, not properties of “higher” and “lower” animals. In cultural anthropology and sociology, a similar perspective presents the hunting and gathering culture and the modern urban culture as two different but equal strategies for organizing human social life. Scholars and researchers frequently reject the idea that life is somehow moving onward and upward as a remnant of nineteenth century progressivism—an ideology with imperialistic attitudes toward nonhuman creatures and non-European cultures. The ideas of priest, paleontologist, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who argued that evolution is teleological, or directed toward a goal, tend to be written off as fuzzy mysticism by most scientists.

Wright maintains that there is indeed progress in both organic and cultural evolution. His theory, unlike that of Teilhard de Chardin, is based on purely physical principles, and it is entirely consistent with mainstream Darwinian concepts. Wright draws on game theory to explain progress in human and natural history. Game theorists have long argued that games can be either zero-sum or non-zero-sum in character. The first are those in which one player or set of players benefit at the expense of another player or set of players. Non-zero-sum games, on the other hand, are those in which all participants benefit from their interaction.

Societies, like organisms, take shape as adaptations to environments. A society is a cooperative enterprise. It exists because human beings rely on one another for survival. The more elaborately cooperative a society is, the more efficiently it can meet the demands posed by its environment. There is, then, a push toward what Wright calls “non-zero-sumness” built into the dynamics of social life. Further, human groups compete for resources with other human groups as well as other animals. More highly organized and cooperative groups generally have the competitive advantage over others, so that a form of natural selection favors non-zero-sum characteristics in societies. In addition, human beings learn from others, even from their rivals, so that hostile as well as friendly interaction between sets of people promotes social progress.

Part 1 of Nonzero, which makes up about two-thirds of the book, is dedicated to interpreting human history as the product of cultural evolution, driven by the adaptive advantages of non-zero-sum activities. Wright cites the Shoshone of North America as one of the least complex human societies, since their cooperative social units only rarely extended beyond single families. Still, even the Shoshone came together in larger and more complicated groups when they needed to in order to hunt jackrabbits. The relative simplicity of Shoshone social life was not due to any genetic characteristics of the Shoshone but to the fact that they lived in a sparsely populated environment that offered only small game for hunting and did not demand complex organization.

When an environment or a competition with others pushes a group toward greater cooperation than the occasional hunts of the Shoshone, the result is a “Big Man” culture. The big man is an individual who has achieved special prestige and power and can coordinate the tasks of others and the distribution of resources. War functions as a zero-sum activity, a competition between groups, that has non-zero-sum consequences, since wars tend to unite people and promote the authority of big men. War, the desire of big men to acquire wives and property, and the struggle to overcome scarcity all promote agriculture as a means of acquiring a surplus of resources. The resulting increase in social complexity turns the big man culture into a “chiefdom,” a society containing more than one village and organized around a leader with sacred authority. Larger and more interconnected political forms require increasingly efficient means of communication, leading to the development of writing and money.

The trend of history, Wright...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)