Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Summary of: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Wright applied to the history of civilization the same game theory that Axelrod had used to explain biological and social phenomena, concluding (controversially), that humans throughout history have learned to play progressively more complex non-zero-sum games with the help of technologies like steam engines and algorithms and metatechnologies like money and constitutions.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Pantheon
Date
1999

Findings

  • Social complexity evolves because it brings benefits to those who participate, and one of those benefits is the capacity for increasing social complexity
  • Humans have built societies of increasing power and complexity by creating technologies, institutions, and social contracts that enable us to cooperate in new ways, on larger scales, to produce greater benefits to more people: zero-sum games. The evolution of human capacities for inventing, elaborating, diffusing nonzero-sum games is a lens for looking at a powerful driver of history.
  • Technologies, from plows to alphabets, have produced both physical power and new opportunities for complex collective action.
  • Metatechnologies such as capital markets, constitutions, and science have created both concentrations and decentralizations of wealth and power – zero-sum games don't make zero-sum competition go away. The two modes co-evolve.
  • Nonzero-sum games influence the environment to become more conducive to nonzero-sum games.
  • Nonzero-sum games are tools for overcoming obstacles to collective action.
  • Innovation, exploration, investment, persuasion, politics are tools for initiating, maintaining, increasing cooperative game-playing.
  • The evolutionary advantages of reciprocal altruism on the biological level are potentiated when they drive the development of human mental capacities such as remembering who owes you and who is a friend; increases in the mental capacity for social complexity enables the elaboration of more complex forms of social cooperation: tit-for-tat plus emotion plus mental capacity equals alliances, friendships, societies.
  • Emotions like friendship, love, and envy; traits such as trust, cheating, and punishment; and concepts such as justice and fairness can be seen as the mythic narratives humans tell ourselves to explain mechanisms we've invented for inventing, elaborating, and maintaining cooperative arrangements.
  • Just as other biologically-originated traits, such as evolution itself, have become the objects of reason, knowledge, nonzero-sum games have moved from unconscious to reasoned and planned. Understanding technologies and metatechnologies of cooperation makes it possible to design more powerful forms.

Humans have taken the cooperative arrangements that benefited organisms and species at the biological level to the cognitive and social levels: the capacity to play cooperative social games that benefit all was a driver of the evolution of human intellectual capacity; increased intellectual capacity manifested in both the concrete sphere of tool-making and the abstract sphere of social relationships. Once enhanced cognitive capabilities made complex social arrangements like status, reputation, gossip, persuasion, punishment, alliance possible, human social capacities became a tool for ratcheting up cooperative game-playing capacity.

Certain technologies push human societies to reorganize at a higher level of cooperation. As an example, Wright offered the Shoshone, a Native American tribe that lived in a territory with no big game to hunt but an abundance of jackrabbits at certain times of year. Because of their stark environment, the Shoshone normally existed at a simple level of social organization, with every extended family foraging for itself. When the rabbits were running, however, the families banded together into a larger, closely coordinated group, to wield a tool too large for any one family to handle or maintain — a huge net. Working together with the net, the entire Shoshone hunting group can capture more protein per person than they could working apart. Wright declared that "The invention of such technologies — technologies that facilitate or encourage non-zero-sum interaction — is a reliable feature of cultural evolution everywhere. New technologies create new chances for positive sums, And people maneuver to seize those sums, and social structure changes as a result."

Wright noted that people who interact with each other in mutually profitable ways are not always aware that they are cooperating; he cited evolutionary psychologists to assert that unconscious underpinnings of cooperation — like affection and indignation — are rooted in genetic traits:

"… natural selection, via the evolution of 'reciprocal altruism' has built into us various impulses which, however warm and mushy they may feel, are designed for the cool, practical purpose of bringing beneficial exchange."

"Among these impulses: generosity (if selective and sometimes wary); gratitude, and an attendant sense of obligation; a growing empathy for, and trust of, those who prove reliable reciprocators (also known as "friends"). These feelings, and the behaviors they fruitfully sponsor, are found in all cultures. And the reason, it appears, is that natural selection "recognized" non-zero-sum logic before people recognized it…Some degree of social structure is thus built into our genes."

"In the intimate context of hunter-gatherer life, moral indignation works well as an anti-cheating technology. It leads you to withhold generosity from past nonreciprocators, thus insulating yourself from future exploitation; and all the grumbling you and others do about these cheaters leads people in general to give them the cold shoulder, so chronic cheating becomes a tough way to make a living. But as societies grow more complex, so that people exchange goods and services with people they don't see on a regular basis (if at all), this sort of mano-a-mano indignation won't suffice; new anti-cheating technologies are needed. And, as we'll see, they have materialized again and again — via cultural, not genetic, evolution."

The cultural innovations that reorganize social interaction in light of new technologies are "social algorithms governing the uses of technology." Wright called these social methodologies "metatechnologies.". In the Middle Ages, the metatechnologies of capitalism — currency, banking, finance, insurance — pushed the hierarchical machinery of feudal society to transform into a new way of organizing social activity, the market. "The metatechnology of capitalism then combined currency and writing to unleash unprecedented social power." Wright claimed that the emerging merchant class pushed for democratic means of governance, not out of pure altruism, but in order to be free to buy and sell and make contracts. Throughout this process, powerful people always seek to protect and extend their power, but new technologies always create opportunities for power shifts, and at each stage from writing to Internet, more and more power decentralizes: "I mean that new information technologies in general — not just money and writing — very often decentralize power, and this fact is not graciously conceded by the powers that be. Hence a certain amount of history's turbulence, including some in the current era."