Jack's Reviews > Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Nonzero by Robert Wright
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's review
Aug 06, 2011

bookshelves: politics-and-social-thought

Wright writes a book that turns out to be about what one would expect from a non-academic writing on a huge metaphysical question with the soaring ambition of an articulate journalist. Wright's thesis is self-consciously modest in scope; he argues for the directionality of biological and cultural evolution towards greater complexity and non-zero-sum character. Wright however, seems undecided on how far he wants to take this argument. On the one hand he constantly reminds the reader that he does not support mystical claims of a higher purpose, but on the other hand he almost bashful defends these claims as "not crazy." Wrights approach entails devoting the bulk of the book to a whirlwind account of human cultural history putting special emphasis on examples of cooperative behavior progressive emerging and evolving independently in many civilizations. Although he does not go into enough detail to make an academically satisfying argument for the overall trend (he does after all, uses anecdotal evidence very selectively) this part of the book is the strongest. If you find well-presented and well-packaged anecdotal evidence persuasive (a la Gladwell) you will enjoy this book. However, for me, Wright's claims are neither original nor for the most part significant. Many logical links he makes are rather obvious (cooperation is biologically favored, hence evolution towards greater non-zero sum activity, isn't this something you learn in high school biology?). Wright also eventually wanders into the treacherous realm of morality in the last few chapters. While perhaps the venture into the moral realm had the greatest potential for a book on the meaning of life, Wright makes a half-hearted (and ultimately unfruitful) attempt at it. The lack of a rigorous framework for what constitutes moral or ethical progress doesn't help. There also seems to be an abrupt disconnect between his last few chapters on the morality of cultural progress from his primarily materialist reading of increasing non-zero sum interactions in human society. Additionally, Wright also skirts the issue of a possible human societal singularity (a highly integrated societal organism) as the inevitable product of cultural evolution. He argues for this through a watered down definition of what constitutes an organism, focusing on the ability of organisms to process information. This however strikes me as a fallacy, especially given that he defined information processing and intelligence earlier based on resulting behavior. Through this circular logic, if you see a correlation between behavior and stimuli, you can claim information and processing, and in turn some kind of ultimate teleogical purpose. Applying this logic to Wright's own example, it seems that a river does indeed have the "purpose" of flowing downstream in some deep metaphysically meaningful sense. Overall, I found that the book offered some interesting thoughts, but was for the most part unoriginal and not very deep.

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