I recently finished Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal. The book explores at length how human nature can be understood through Evolution and Natural Selection. I found the book fucking fascinating. NonZero is the second book Wright has written but before I dive into it, indulge me and let me recap The Moral Animal
The Puppet and the Puppeteer
From a Darwinian view, humans are meat vehicles driven by our genes sole interest; recombining and extending themselves into the next generation. Our emotions, intuitions, and unconscious minds are energized by the interest of our genes.
The logical net one can weave applying this basic premise to relationships (sexual, social, and professional) is satisfying. I highly recommend his book if you are interested (and if enough of you are interested, I can dive into more detail about any of these in another post).
Back to NonZero
Wright took almost a decade to come out with his next book, and from reading the introduction, it is easy to see why. He is making huge claims. He wants to argue that History is moving in a direction (into higher interconnection and social complexity), and that this direction is actually good (and scary.)
He wrote this book in 2000 so his ideas may seem obvious but I think that is credit to the foresight he showed 16 years ago. His claim is essentially;
New technologies arise that encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interactions which shape social structures to evolve to realize this new potential.
Non-Zero-Sum is a term we get from Game Theory. It refers to any social interaction where both parties “win.” A Zero-Sum game is where there must be a winner and a loser. A basketball game is a Zero-Sum game. Driving a full car safely is Non-Zero-Sum, if the driver loses, the passengers lose; if the winner is successful, everyone can enjoy their fast-food.
In chapter three he compares two Eskimo tribes. The inland Eskimos are more “primitive” while the coastal Eskimos are more “civilized” (he defines the scale for civilizations by the amount of Non-Zero-Sum games the society allows.) The reason for this lopsidedness in cultures is due to the coastal Eskimos being dependent on hunting whales where the inland Eskimos survive off smaller animals.
In order to hunt whales, many different sapiens need to work together, managing several boats. When the whale is killed and harvested, the ship’s captains will share some of the spoils with others who weren’t able to help this time with the implicit agreement that should these captains need help in the future, these receivers will pay them back. This is a Non-Zero-Sum game.
Wright argues that Non-Zero-Sumness is built into our human nature and that our history will continue to move in the direction of greater social connectedness and increased Non-Zero-Sumness.
He wrote this book before social media, before Reddit, and before the beautiful technology that enabled Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and the like. He seems to have been onto something and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book.