Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

In Robert Wright’s first book, “The Moral Animal,” Wright examines how evolutionary forces influence the behaviour of individuals, and the impact this has on the human psyche. Though not necessarily billed as a follow-up to ”The Moral Animal,” in “Nonzero,” Wright explores whether there could be a scientific reason to believe that history is directional, and if human progression is inherently natural. By looking at the history of cultural and biological evolution, Wright debates whether society can expect the future to follow a certain path, or if the world is inherently chaotic and the future will be a result of mere chance. To test his thesis on directionality, Wright explores cultural evolution through the lens of “non-zero-sum games” and how the circular nature of these interactions has propelled society from hunter-gatherer tribes to its current state. As interactions in society become more complex, the need for higher-level non-zero-sum games increases, which helps bring about further interdependence. While some hunter-gatherer tribes “evolved” at a faster pace given a relatively more complex environment (e.g. tribes that hunted whales versus those foraging for nuts and berries in the forest), directionality was inherent regardless of the pace each culture evolved at. Even when looking at zero-sum games like war between neighbouring villages, these also give rise to non-zero-sum games as it forces villagers to band together to achieve a common goal (i.e. not being conquered by plundering bandits).

By exploring non-zero-sum games throughout history, Wright argues that increasing interdependence and globalization has made the world a more peaceful place. The disruption of global commerce now provides a high-bar when deciding whether war is a rationale way to go about settling differences between nation states. The author opines that as the world stage continues to stabilize through globalization, it is likely that society will see a further movement towards global governance organizations, such as the WTO and UN. Given the book was written 20 years ago, it is interesting to see things progressing in this direction until the recent rise in populism, which has given birth to a retrenchment in individualistic nation-state agendas, threatening the disruption of world economic growth. The conclusion of the book is devoted to the discussion around whether biological evolution can provide any clues to the future evolution of humans, and whether there is a higher meaning for society than passing genes into the next generation. While the weighty discussion around the cosmos and higher purpose of the human race isn’t one that is meant to have a finite conclusion, the questions asked by Wright stimulate the imagination, along with thinking deeply around what sentience means in the context of artificial intelligence. A really interesting read that will make you ponder the bigger picture, “Nonzero” will be enjoyed by those that are fans of “Sapiens” and Yuval Noah Harari’s books.