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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  2,251 ratings  ·  199 reviews
In his bestselling The Moral Animal, Robert Wright applied the principles of evolutionary biology to the study of the human mind. Now Wright attempts something even more ambitious: explaining the direction of evolution and human history–and discerning where history will lead us next.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze
Paperback, 448 pages
Published January 9th 2001 by Vintage (first published 1999)
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Dec 25, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, history
There's a subtle difference between popular science books written by scientists, and popular science books written by science journalists. Compare Robert Wright's "Nonzero" to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel". Both are deep-thinking overviews of human history, largely organized along Darwinian lines- but Diamond's book is brain-shaking in a way that Wright's isn't. One hypothesis might be that scientists are just closer to the material, so their thinking is deeper and more nuanced. But I ...more
This is a pretty weak-hearted review.

When I picked up this book I was looking specifically for something and didn’t find it here. And I’d already figured out most of what this book is about, so overall I was disappointed. It might deserve more stars, but I can’t get away from that sense of disappointment.

What was I obsessing over?

Many years ago I stumbled on Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation and saw in it some astonishing insights. It is strictly about game theory, which tends to
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I will never understand why people don't like this book on here. I read this one after evolution of God and the Moral animal and still found it fascinating. Wright knows how to write! The story of cultural evolution from zero-sum to non-zero sum is fascinating. There are obviously plenty of counter examples, but as he says "follow the meme" not the individual cultures. So while America might be building walls, the meme of democracy and egalitarianism will survive. This is like Pinker's better an ...more
Apr 11, 2011 rated it liked it
Nonzero presents the type of reading eventuality that drives me to despair: a book eagerly imbibed some six or seven years ago—and recommended afterwards to a handful of friends—of which today, dredge the polluted and choppy canals of my memory though I might, produces but a hazy, shimmery image from which can be recollected naught other than an attractive blue, yellow and white cover, the authorial handle (one frequently confused with Richard of the shared surname), and a minute, fleshless skel ...more
Mar 12, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Published in 2000, Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destinty presents a big picture interpretation of history as a tale of rising collaboration. He seeks to defend cultural evolution from its critics and argues that societies become more complex by more readily engaging in non-zero sum games. Complexity is mostly understood as specialization of labor, the invisible hand, and a view of trade as a game that is competitive at first glance but which, on the whole, is actually collaborativ ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Feb 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
In game theory, a “non-zero sum” transaction refers to outcomes where one participants win, does not result in the other participants loss.

In other words, everyone benefits.

It’s the proverbial Win/Win (or no deal).

Stronger together if you will.

Non-zero sum transactions are posited to be the very engine of human progress.

How so?

I’m glad you asked.

Imagine we’re a couple of Stone Age folks who need to make stone axes to survive.

Let’s go ahead and say it takes both of us about (x1) hour to make (
Mar 15, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
I probably did Wright a huge disservice by reading his books essentially backwards. I hit NonZero and was like, yeah yeah yeah, read all this before. Anyway, I love the ideas he flushes out with: NonZero, Moral Animal, Evolution of God, etc. For me a lot of it rings very very true. I love how much of Wright's thinking is similar to Philo of Alexandria...

"He [God] has made none of these particular things complete in itself, so that it should have no need at all of other things. Thus through the
Jan Pomianowski
Nov 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Mandatory reading for every human being on the planet.
Jun 18, 2014 rated it liked it
This book came to my attention by way of David Brin, who claims it as mandatory reading for anyone interested in saving the world. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but the assertion that positive sum games play a critical role in biological and cultural evolution is definitely significant, especially insofar as it carves out a space for balance between competition and cooperation in discussions about evolutionary development. If pointing out this interesting facet of natural selection were Wrigh ...more
Nov 24, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
The book develops the interesting thesis that evolution tends to develop towards increasing complexity. It forces you to consider cultural and biological evolution from a different perspective. In the end though, the book is disappointing because much salient information is simply omitted and some facts are very unconvincingly massaged into the posited trend. The final part of the book, proposing natural selection shows signs of (intelligent) design suffers from misrepresentation of others' argu ...more
Not sure how to rate it.

The book has three section, related to:
1) changes over time in human societies (structure, complexity, production, etc.)
2) changes over time in Earth's life-forms (evolutionary aspects)
3) whether (1) and (2) suggest a divine goal or purpose

Section (1) is the largest part of the book. I kept thinking he's making good points, dispelling some myths - but at the same time he's skimming over or overlooking other aspects. I have no problem seeing hunter-gatherers as wanting fai
Erika RS
Sep 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wright's thesis is that human history has a destiny -- or at least a direction. This is not a mystic or supernatural direction. Rather, the history of matter, life in general, and humanity in particular tends toward complexity over time. This, in turn, is because there exist opportunities for nonzero sum interactions.

The rest of the book builds this argument starting with human culture and then discussing the origination and evolution of life. It's history through a particular lens in the style
Warren B
Jun 12, 2014 rated it it was ok
I actually loved the theory put forth about a non-zero-sum world in which humanity continually moves toward a more peaceful and unified existence as we grow larger and more complex. I even very much agree with many of assertions and predictions; however, for a book to purport to be scientific in its conclusions there is way too much soft science here, and many of Mr. Wright's conclusions seem to come by way of intuition and historical cherry picking.

Even with that said I did actually enjoy this
Holly Foley (Procida)
Jul 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is probably one the most challenging and rewarding books I have read in a long time. Robert Wright must be a brilliant researcher to have organized the amount of topics and references that he gathered to support his theories in this book. It provided an amazing perspective of the progression through time of human civilization. I teach a world civilization class and most of the concepts in this book are WAY too complicated for my students (6th grade) BUT it gives me many exciting examples an ...more
Joseph Raffetto
Feb 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Nonzero and zero game theories are two crucial concepts that everyone, particularly those in government, should always consider. Loved this book for making those two concepts clear in my mind.
Tejas Kulkarni
Dec 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
- This book is about principles underlying cultural evolution and makes a lot of radical claims. The main thesis of the book is to investigate whether evolution (genetic and cultural) has a purpose, direction or goal. The author says yes using the logic of non-zero-sum games, where all parties involve (mostly) mutually benefit as opposed to zero-sum games.

- One way to predict the future of evolution is to retroactively inspect the history of the biosphere to understand the present moment. How d
Apr 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great, optimistic vision of humanity's past and future. Using the concepts found in game theory, the author examines history and concludes that humanity has engaged in countless non-zero sum interactions (those that leave both "players" better off) that have pushed us in a forward direction. I find his arguments to be well-justified and quite compelling. The only thing holding me back from a five-star review is the speculation that Wright engages in towards the end of the book. I feel ...more
Kim Hammel
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book. This talks about Bin Laden and Al Queda long before 9-11. Sadly, his predictions for the future were not correct, and he likely didn't plan on the US having G.W.Bush in the White House who reacted with anger, rather than logic. We are still engaged in the longest running war in our nation's history because of Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq.
Oct 23, 2017 rated it it was ok
Pseudo-science meets a sort of cultural anthropology.
Non-zero: things work best when all players get some benefit.
Apr 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who has a shred of curiosity about the world around them
Recommended to Ed by: Joe Cutcliffe
This is another of those rare non-fiction "I couldn't put it down" books.

Using Game Theory, Wright develops a theory of Cultural Evolution that gives rise to optimism, while not ignoring those things that could go wrong. However, if history is any guide, the increasing complexity of human culture has always moved Homo Sapiens closer and closer to a culture of mutual collaboration and reciprocal altruism to the point that we might look forward to a global culture that would make war even more of
Jul 25, 2014 rated it did not like it
Thought provoking (generally thoughts of 'how could this selective interpretation be taken seriously by a publisher). Couldn't finish it, after battling for 250 pages. Premise: world history basically follows a pattern that produces the best for everyone. The world also apparently stands 'at its moral zenith to date'. With 85% of the world without adequate food, shelter and security, whilst the other 15% spend money on gastric bands and diabetes operations? Apparently all workers receive a decen ...more
Sep 08, 2012 rated it liked it
The book suffers from strong preconceived conclusions. They diminish many other good messages.

The concepts of cultural evolution and arc of history are good by themselves. Progress is defined - roughly - as ever quicker and cheaper movements of ideas and matter. Evolution of complexity in human affairs and their role in humanity's ever widening reach (in all sense) make a good theory. Author uses countless examples as he goes along in the first two-third of the book while explaining the thesis a
Avi Roy
Feb 13, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book exemplifies the unexacting/facile epistemological underpinning of social sciences as compared to the natural/hard sciences. Almost every hypothesis in this book is a "just so" story backed by non-falsifiable/cherry-picked historical data, and masked (ever so slightly) in the technicality of game theory. I do understand that it is hard to run an empirical experiment on history, but neither should we rely on it for high probability future outcome. The author does have some interesting wi ...more
Jul 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
The basic thesis is sound: communities that engage in non-zero sum exchanges will out compete communities that do not. As a result, the tendency over time will be towards increasingly complex societies that are increasingly able to benefit their members.

The weakness I see is that it pre-supposes an open system where the failure of one society does not impact the success (or survival) of other societies. Up until recently, this has been the case, but with increasing proliferation of WMD's and gl
Aug 30, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: own
Finally finished this one - I read it pretty slowly in between other books, which seemed like a good way to do it.

A pretty good book to read after reading The Selfish Gene, as both basically deal with game theory models.

The first part (human history) is great, with a lot of salient points. The second part (organic history) is weaker, and Dawkins says a lot of this better.

The third part of the book, admittedly speculative, didn't do much for me. I thought it was a really weak ending to a well th
Aug 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book blew me away. While highly ambitious and overreaching at times, Wright's take on biological and human cultural evolution gives plenty of room for the reader's mind to wander through the minutiae of what he's explaining and reach his/her own conclusions. Further extrapolation of his central thesis - that non-zero sum outcomes are the impetus behind most forms of evolution, and that communication and trust underscore the propensity for these outcomes - that he undertakes, as well as can ...more
Jun 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This author is now officially on my list of favorites. Does evolution have a direction or is everything just dust in the wind? or both? It's a huge undertaking to make a coherent and compelling argument out of subject matter which basically spans the history of the entire universe, the creation of life, the specifics of human evolution, and a side-by-side analysis of biological and cultural evolution. He nailed it.
Dave Peticolas
May 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
A brilliant survey of human history through the lens of game theory, though Wright tends to get a little light-headed towards the end when he's speculating about consciousness.
Apr 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Cultural Evolution via Game Theory - how things are incrementally getting better.
Good book, on my reread list.
Judy Kennedy
Mar 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
A great, well researched look at our destiny as a species from the point of view of game theory and evolutionary psychology.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

ROBERT WRIGHT is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and Three Scientists and Their Gods. The New York Times selected The Moral Animal as one of the ten best books of the year and the other two as notable books of the year.

Wright is a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and ha

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When you work at Goodreads, it's pretty tough to keep that Want to Read shelf under control. (And let's be honest, most of us don't even t...
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“Your brain may give birth to any technology, but other brains will decide whether the technology thrives. The number of possible technologies is infinite, and only a few pass this test of affinity with human nature.” 16 likes
“To be sure, there are hunter-gatherer societies that don’t exhibit the elaborately organized violence denoted by the term “war.” But often what turns out to be lacking is the organization, not the violence. The warless !Kung San were billed in the title of one book as The Harmless People, yet during the 1950s and 1960s, their homicide rate was between 20 and 80 times as high as that found in industrialized nations.114 Eskimos, to judge by popular accounts, are all cuddliness and generosity. Yet early this century, after westerners first made contact with a fifteen-family Eskimo village, they found that every adult male had been involved in a homicide. One reason the !Kung and most Eskimo haven’t waged war is their habitat.115 With population sparse, friction is low. But when densely settled along fertile ground, hunter-gatherers have warred lavishly. The Ainu of Japan built hilltop fortresses and, when raiding a neighboring” 0 likes
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