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NONZERO: The Logic of Human Destiny.

NONZERO: The Logic of Human Destiny

by Robert Wright Pantheon, $27.50

FOR THE FIRST HALF OF THIS century, if not longer, to be an intellectual meant to be concerned with the meaning of life and history. Darwin, Freud, and Marx loomed large. Today, there seems to be little search for transcendence, and the meaning of history has become a question of whether the Dow will break 35,000. Robert Wright is a notable exception to these trends. As I learned when we were colleagues at The New Republic five years ago, he is interested in, even obsessed with, the big questions. His last book, The Moral Animal, was about the nature of humanity: how our animal pasts still live within us, not only as the lascivious and murderous id, but as impetus to what Wright called "reciprocal altruism." His new book, Nonzero, is even more ambitious. It is about whether history has a direction. It is a more difficult read than The Moral Animal, but it is well worth it. I am not qualified to comment on Wright's biological speculations, but I can say that his theory of history is defensible and provocative, and as far as I can tell, a genuine advance in our understanding of how we came to be, and where we are headed.

The attempt to devise a purely secular theory of history dates from Vico's cyclical New Science of History in 1725, but the attempt to envision history as a progressive succession of stages dates from Hegel's Philosophy of History in 1830. Hegel envisaged history as the unfolding of a world-spirit, divided within itself and in conflict through time, until mankind reached a point where consciousness, embodied in man, could achieve freedom through mastery of itself and nature. Marx put Hegel's theory in materialist terms: history, driven by class struggle and revolution, would lead finally, through the technological subjugation of nature, to a prosperous society in which human beings would no longer be divided into classes and thrown into war and revolution, but would control their own destiny. They would be truly free. Marx's vision of communism was fanciful, but his and Hegel's theory of history as stages of progress triggered often unwittingly by war and revolution has not been superseded.

Since Marx and Hegel, political philosophers from Spencer and Croce to Lenin and Spengler produced variations of these early theories, but after World War II, the effort was largely abandoned because it became identified with the nightmares of Nazism and Stalinism. Instead, the study of history became confined to eras and regimes--and later to the micro-exploration of social trends and fashions. As Wright explains, a similar development overtook anthropology: once the study of cultural evolution, it became the study of discrete cultures that existed on a purely horizontal and and Stalinism. Instead, the study of history became confined to eras and regimes--and later to the micro-exploration of social trends and fashions. As Wright explains, a similar development overtook anthropology: once the study of cultural evolution, it became the study of discrete cultures that existed on a purely horizontal and amoral plane of time.

Wright's work is an attempt to return to Hegel and Marx's progressive theory of history by drawing upon a dissident school of cultural anthropology and the work of evolutionary biologists, like Richard Dawkins, who have tried to extend the principles of natural selection to history. Wright employs the notion of a "nonzero-sum game" to explain his theory of history. In a zero-sum game, one contestant can only succeed on the basis of another's failure. In a non-zero-sum game, both parties can succeed or fail together. War is a zero-sum game, but commerce is, or can be (if one person is not cheated by another) a non-zero-sum game. Wright argues that human beings have been driven toward more complex forms of social organization and eventually away from imperial domination and war by the progressive adoption of non-zero-sum games. Sometimes, the impetus for such change has been war itself, which forces people to learn cooperation for their own defense. Sometimes, the impetus is the struggle for economic survival and betterment through the collective application of tools and technology. Just as natural selection favors certain genes over others, leading to the triumph of our large-brained species, its equivalent in history favors non-zero-sum games that lead to greater prosperity and social interdependence.

Wright's dialectic, like Marx's, pivots on an irony. Blind struggle leads finally to enlightenment and freedom. "Greed and the lust for status, for power over people, helped drive a technological evolution that granted people more freedom," Wright concludes. But where Marx and Spencer emphasized progress through the subjugation of inferior by superior peoples, Wright emphasizes the revolutionary impact of writing and the printing press on the acceleration of history and the spread of interdependence. Wright borrows from Dawkins in The Selfish Gene the concept of a meme--a unit of knowledge analogous to a gene--whose diffusion depends on its utility to human survival. By this analysis, understanding. Ancient Athens is often pictured as a zenith of civilization, but the Greeks of Pericles and Sophocles saw non-Greeks as being less than human and didn't hesitate to enslave or indiscriminately slaughter foreigners. The spread of global commerce brings a growing recognition of a common humanity. "You simply cannot do business with people while executing all their male citizens, and increasingly we do business with people everywhere," Wright writes. "In fully modern society, people now acknowledge, in principle at least, that out people are people, too." Wright applauds as well the move toward global kinds of political and economic cooperation, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization.

Wright concludes Nonzero with a discussion of theology, which I find the least impressive or persuasive part of the book. It is filled with the kind of analysis (for instance, about the "seeming superfluousness of consciousness") that once led Ludwig Wittgenstein to describe metaphysics as "language gone on a holiday." The fact that history has evolved in a certain direction--and a direction in which we can take a certain pride or pleasure--is no more evidence of a supernatural cause than the existence of gravity. Wright would deny it, but his speculations are a variation on William Paley's argument that if history, like the watch, has a design and structure, then someone must have designed and structured it. Fortunately, there is an answer to this question that doesn't require the invocation of the supernatural: We--the sorry mass of humanity--have made history, but we have often proceeded blindly and without the least understanding of the great project in which we are engaged. Wright should be content that he has described, better than anyone in recent days, the nature and scope of that endeavor.

John B. JUDIS is a senior editor at The New Republic. His most recent book is The Paradox of American Democracy.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Judis, John B.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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