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Insight Into Our Destiny : International edition : Tuesday, 12 December 2017 15:44 DT : a service of The Public Press
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With most men, unbelief
in one thing springs from
blind belief in another.
– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg



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Insight Into Our Destiny

     by Marshall Glickman

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
By Robert Wright
Pantheon
435 pages, $27.50

Reviewed by Marshall Glickman

Nonzero is an ambitious book. It evaluates world history and culture with an eye to understanding our cultural and spiritual destiny. As difficult, even grandiose an undertaking as that is, it succeeds impressively. Nonzero is the most interesting book I've ever read--and one of the more entertaining too. Wright has a light touch and a hip, sharp wit. This resounding endorsement doesn't mean everyone will be completely comfortable with Wright's analysis (I'll get to what many readers may see as a stumbling block in a minute), but on the whole his main argument seems so right-on and so important for further discussion that you have to feel grateful for what Wright has wrought. Rarely did a page or two pass without me thinking, "Wow" or "How 'bout that!" My wife probably feels like she's read the book along with me because I read so many passages out loud to her.

The tools Wright uses to unlock the meaning of history are game theory (remember "the prisoner's dilemma" from poly sci?) and evolutionary psychology. If this sounds a bit erudite for your blood, let me assure you it's not. Boiled down, game theory looks at how people behave when faced with competitive and cooperative situations (i.e. most of our interactions). Evolutionary psychology seeks to understand human nature as formed by the crucible of evolution. Both are legacies of Darwin's brainchild, the theory of natural selection. So if you believe evolution was/is the most powerful factor in creating us, then you'll find the reasoning in Nonzero compelling.

Used together, game theory (or, as Wright calls it, non-zero-sum interactions) and evolutionary psychology point to some powerful conclusions about the whys of history and, to a lesser extent, even our very existence. The reason it works so well for explaining historical and cultural trends is it that it accounts for self-interest and group dynamics under a variety of circumstances. When you think about it, this makes perfect, even obvious, sense: what else, after all, could history be but a playing out of human tendencies? Sounds simple, but the payoff is far-reaching.

Starting with tribal, family-unit-based cultures, Wright makes a convincing case that information exchange (largely in the form of increasingly sophisticated technology) and war (or the threat of war and danger) drive cultures to increasingly sophisticated levels. This push toward increasing complexity is painful, inevitable, and dangerous but, he believes, ultimately good. It's the part about it being good that is most likely to incite catcalls and shouts of debate. It's easy to see how we're now culturally and morally better off than the ancient Egyptians and Greeks who had slaves or than medieval Europeans who burned heretics and oppressed serfs. But is our situation improved from hunter-gatherers who roamed in extended families?quiet zone
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Clearly we're doing way better materially, but what about spiritually? This isn't a new question, but typically it gets a knee-jerk response: either that era is portrayed as a grisly quest for survival or as an ideal. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Life was no doubt simpler then, and an extended family can be nurturing. But before we wax poetic about group family living, let's reconsider some of the romantic notions we have about hunter-gatherers (a number of which have been promoted by anthropologists). Think about how people interact everywhere; think about the families you know. Many are rife with bullies and tension -- and that's when they don't live together. Imagine those families in more stressful situations (such as staying fed after your best hunters are injured or a when a drought hits) and remember they are likely to have less enlightened attitudes (remember, Gloria Steinem was several hundred generations away). With that in mind, then the thought of bunking next to Uncle Al isn't that appealing after all. Still, it's a question open to discussion.

If we're to accept that all the agony and craziness of our history is for some purpose or improvement, Wright should have looked more deeply at our collective spiritual development. He does accurately catalog a general trend toward more freedom and tolerance (take the long view here and accept that fits and starts are part of the process). But are these enough? As Wright shows, much of the impetus behind these moral improvements come from self-interest. "You don't have to love the people who built your Toyota," Wright quips, "but it's unwise to bomb them--just as it's unwise to bomb the people overseas who are buying the things you made." There's nothing wrong with practically initiated morality (even if lacks a certain elegance); tolerance and freedom are crucial benchmarks of moral progress -- good signs of more love and less hatred. Yet, they aren't the only indications of psychic and societal well-being either. It seems, for example, that greed is stronger than ever and that we're more anxious and existentially uncomfortable than ever. And these trends seem to be growing in almost inverse portion to greater respect for human rights. Compassion also hasn't swelled appreciably, if at all. So by some measures, the depth of our moral improvement and happiness is superficial or going in reverse. How does this fit with Wright's view of us moving toward a glowing and satisfying omega point?
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Wright briefly and mostly indirectly considers these issues. First, he recognizes the need for less greed and more spirituality: "...the [religious] admonitions against greed...could stand to get dusted off and read with an eye to (among other things) slowing the rate at which the planet becomes a giant cauldron of garbage dumps, melting ice caps, and Mercedes-Benz utility vehicles." He recognizes the importance of spirituality as a political force, citing the power of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Second, he's quite willing to concede that there's still plenty of room for things to go awry. Collectively we're playing for the highest stakes ever. Now that "more souls are crammed onto this planet than ever, there is the real prospect of commensurately greater peril." And as the likelihood of one world-governing body increases, it's more important than ever to get that institution right. After all, if a nefarious power takes control, there are no competing powers to unseat it. Wright is quick to admit that discerning destiny doesn't come with guarantees: "Obviously, a given poppy seed may not become a poppy." It could end up on a bagel, instead of as a flower.

Third, Wright acknowledges that hardship, like it or not, is part of our deal. Death and downfall seem to be built into the process of natural selection.

Last, Wright seems willing to accept modest moral improvements as signs worth noting. As he puts it: "I've spent so much time pondering the horror intrinsic in the past that I'm grateful for small things. I gave up so long ago on an omnipotent and benign deity that I'll take a few wisps of good karma and hope they signify something larger."

If really pushed, perhaps what Wright, ever the pragmatist, would ultimately say is that definitively concluding we're improving morally doesn't really matter. The steam engine of cultural change is chugging forward, moving us toward world governance and global trade. The most important question isn't whether we've left behind something better or whether we're definitively improving our souls, but how are we going to make what's coming up worthwhile? For a societal pessimist like myself, Wright's work is uplifting. He not only gives reason for realistic, if cautious hope but shows us where we should be focusing our energies. If Wright is right (and if you read Nonzero I think you'll find it hard to disagree with him), it's crucial that we try to slow the pace of economic change (protecting ecosystems and increasing the wages of downtrodden workers are perfect for this) and demand with a tenacity appropriate of a death struggle that the World Trade Organization (WTO) include environmental and humane laws in its trade matrix. The likelihood of some sort of de facto world-governing body seems so high that it's crucial to get it right.

One of the quotes on the book's dust jacket praises Nonzero as "the book to start off the millennium." Before reading it, I assumed that was promotional hype. It's not.


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