Robert Wright gets cosmic

The author of "Nonzero" on God, his feud with Stephen Jay Gould and whether women are good for anything but childbearing.


David Bowman
April 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Robert Wright is the Martha Stewart of the human history. Famine? It's a good thing! Because of famine, hungry barbarians were motivated to invent the plow. As for barbarism itself, it's a good thing, too. After all, Genghis Khan ran his own pony express, the "fastest large-scale information-processing technology of his era." What about those Dark Ages? Forget about 'em! Feudalism possessed "fractal beauty" because it "kept food on the table without relying on a sound currency or on trade with distant people."

Wright begins his book by using game theory to divide human relations into zero-sum games where "one contestant's gain is another's loss" and non-zero-sum games where "the players' interests overlap." Wright convincingly argues that history has always been dominated by non-zero-sum events rather than zero-sum ones. More important, evolution itself functions as a non-zero-sum game. Wright writes, "Non-zero-sumness, I'll argue, is something whose ongoing growth ... defines the arrow of the history of life, from the primordial soup to the World Wide Web."

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Wright digresses in the middle of his book to metaphorically rough up Stephen Jay Gould, America's "evolutionist laureate" and advocate of zero-sum reality. This wonderful bit of hard-boiled anti-Gould rhetoric was excerpted in the New Yorker in December and seems to have overshadowed the rest of Wright's book.

Has most of the publicity on "Nonzero" been about the battle between you and Gould?

Well, certainly most of the book isn't about that, but a fair amount of the publicity has been.

Did the New Yorker choose the excerpt?

No. I suggested it. I thought it was one of the few parts of the book that excerpted well.

How hot is this literary fracas?

Gould is not holding up his end of the feud! He continues to insist I'm beneath his notice.

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Thinking like Oskar Morgenstern [one of the founders of game theory], what is the zero-sum/non-zero-sum relationship between you and Gould?

Heh-heh. The jury is out on that one. In terms of psychological well-being, I suspect it's been a negative-sum non-zero-sum game. I haven't especially enjoyed it and I doubt he has. In terms of other things -- like reputation -- it's just too hard to calibrate. I have no idea how many people are sitting out there who have heard of this at all. There is just a very serious issue here: I think Gould has systematically misled the reading public about evolution -- that he literally sets out to confuse people.

You must have debated whether you wanted to ignite a conflict.

Not really. Remember, I've written three pieces critical of him, and the first piece was in 1989. I was young and carefree. I remember people saying that it must have taken courage to attack such an icon. I had no idea what they were talking about. I just didn't think things out that far in advance. Now I see what they mean because this time around some fairly nasty things have been said about me by Gould's defenders.

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So let me make sure I got your book: If God rolled the dice, the same things would happen here. Sentient beings would be running the planet.

I think so, yes. I think biological evolution naturally creates more complex and intelligent and complexly sentient forms of life.

So just how powerful is the other view -- that evolution is just dumb luck?

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There are certainly many evolutionary biologists who agree with me that the evolution of complexity and intelligence was likely. That's not to say that we don't think chance plays a big role. A large part of what Gould has done is just confuse people about where exactly chance does come into play and in what sense it matters. For example, he has spent years saying the evolution of our species was the result of chance. It wasn't in the cards. Well, obviously. We all know a chance event can wipe out an entire species. The question is, was some species likely to obtain a human level of intelligence? And I, like a lot of people, answer yes. But the point is this: Gould has spent much more time obscuring the fact that this is the question than addressing it.

I'm ignorant about quantum physics, but do we even know that there is such a thing as chance?

That's a deep question that I'm not capable of answering. I know what Gould means by chance. He means if a meteor crashes into Earth, things change. The deeper question of whether we live in a truly deterministic universe, so the crashing of the meteor was inevitable, is not something we're arguing here.

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But are we sure randomness exists?

We know that genetic mutations are in effect random. For purposes of evolutionary analysis it makes sense to think of them as random. Are you asking the question: When I flip a coin is it not the case that given the force my thumb imparts and local atmosphere conditions and so on, that makes it inevitable how it's going to land?

I'm being spacier. Is flipping a coin truly an example of chance? The coin is going to land either on heads or tails or on its side. It's not going to turn into a fish.

A statistician's definition of chance is: Given what we know, we cannot say anything more about the outcome of a coin toss than that the chances are 50/50 each way. That's a practical definition of chance. It doesn't get into any of the deeper questions you're asking. For purposes of this conversation, I think that's enough.

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Maybe. The flipping of the coin is an example of chance, but maybe in the bigger picture it doesn't matter if only one of two things happens.

In that sense, chance is swamped by the larger patterns of evolution. I think it doesn't matter if our own lineage got wiped out 3 million years ago because powerful forces were moving various lineages in the direction of higher intelligence -- powerful Darwinian forces, I want to qualify that. I'm not talking about something mystical or divine intervention. The nuts-and-bolts appreciation of natural selection makes it very likely that on this planet you would get a roughly human level of intelligence.

I buy your argument. But I'm also a nihilist. I'm not sure that I bought your claim that barbarians are pro-evolutionary with regard to history and culture.

If you were a nihilist I'd think you'd love barbarians.

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Genghis Khan is cool, but I have a bleak view of human nature. Consider the Khmer Rouge: They wiped out the best in their culture -- how anti-evolutionary can you get?

But that reign got wiped out. They're no longer the governing ideology of Cambodia. There is no doubt that history is full of horrible catastrophes. I'm not saying history is a wonderful process by any means.

If I thought like Gould, I'd say that it was only a toss of the coin that some Khmer Rouge doesn't become a global force -- and all of us who wear glasses end up in death camps.

My argument is: So long as there are lots of states around the world, cultural evolution in the long run works against highly repressive states. In the long run they cannot be very prosperous and thus powerful -- and that's especially true as new information technologies come along. And to be prosperous you have to give your citizens broad access to those information technologies. But in the book I do say that as the world approaches a global level of organization, it is conceivable that a single political reign could take over the world. We need to pay very close attention now to what sort of forces do obtain global power.

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Then the end result of evolution could be Armageddon between one global power of enlightened people wearing glasses and a global Khmer Rouge?

Or the divine plan could be to get an intelligent species at least to the point where it gets to make the choice whether good or evil prevails.

To be devil's advocate, couldn't evil be the divine point?

Yes. One thing that seems clear to me is that if there is a God, it is not an omnipotent and infinitely good God. As I say in the book, I've ruled out that possibility. And certainly given the amount of evil that is built into natural selection ...

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Do people ask you if you believe in God?

Not on an everyday basis. My mother used to ask me.

Do you have a public stand?

My public stand is that my private beliefs are irrelevant to this book in the sense that this book argues for evidence of higher purpose solely on an empirical basis. It talks about the facts on the ground. Now, as for my private beliefs, I do believe that there is more than meets the eye. I do suspect that there is some larger point here that we as mere humans do not entirely understand. I don't go to church. There's no particular theology that seems to make complete sense to me.

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Is fundamentalism taking over the world, or does it just seem that way?

I think rapid social change often indicates a backlash that is in some sense or another fundamentalist. And I think that's probably what's going on today both in the United States with Christian fundamentalists and in the Islamic world and elsewhere.

Does it stand to reason that the Divinity would give us instruction books (i.e., the Bible or Koran)?

It depends on the type of divinity. I personally only have the vaguest clues on what type of divinity may be out there, if there is one. Certainly if it was a benign divinity that wasn't just playing some huge practical joke on life on earth, you might hope there would be clues. You know, I guess in a sense my book is partly about trying to find clues about what the whole point of this exercise is.

But you don't know yet?

There are suggestive clues. For example, I argue that it's in our own self-interest to care for people around the world -- in other words, a certain type of moral enlightenment. It sure didn't used to be the case that people considered all human beings worthy of at least minimally humane treatment. This is a recently developed view. I argue that history favored it all along.

Robert Wright's history of the world is just about men. Monkeys evolved because they wanted to get more women. Are women only good for having sex and bearing children?

It is a fact that women have not exerted a direct and conspicuous influence on political and military history. The guys who stormed Rome were indeed ... guys. That's a fact of history.

Were there any substantial matriarchies?

I'm not aware of any. It's a myth that there was a golden age of matriarchs.

So can we say evolution favors men as the impetus of civilization?

That reminds me of the question, who is in charge in any given marriage ...

Ha! You've been married long enough to know the answer to that one!

I know the answer is, "The question is just too complex to address." The interplay of influence in a marriage is so subtle that the issue of who wields the power is almost unreasonable. That's part of my point here. There are more ways to exert influence than to lead an army battalion. But macrohistory consists of army battle fronts and politicians. The narration of that history highlights their roles, but that isn't to say in some ultimate sense that's where the power resides.

How evolutionarily important is love?

Love is in a way integral to evolution. Certainly, love among kin was very likely to evolve. The social organization of the family in which that love congeals is in turn the foundation for larger social organizations in social species such as ours.

Now romantic love is a very different kind of love -- a rarer thing. It follows less directly from the basic logic of natural selection. In our species, males invest in their children. They try to get a sense of which kids are theirs and they invest in them. That's why romantic love exists.

So the purpose of life is just the survival of one's genes?

It's possible that that purpose is subordinate to a larger purpose that is still unfolding. A species that begins to evolve culturally can eventually lead to who knows where.

Culture is like clothing. The purpose of clothing is to keep us warm. Its fit or design is just secondary. In the same way, the primary and secondary issues of culture can get confused.

Yes. Historians spend too much time talking about the superficial differences in cultures and not enough time talking about their fundamental similarities. One thing my book tries to show is that people around the world are fundamentally the same and at some level their cultures are too -- so that as alien as some Western observers find Asian culture, I argue that China 800 years ago was on the brink of a scientific and industrial revolution. But for a few historical flukes, they would have had those revolutions before the West.

Our new global age is the first point in human history where the species really has the opportunity to blow things big time and reverse the direction of history in a more fundamental way than ever before. Until very recently, the whole system has been immune because the setbacks by definition were local setbacks. Now the stakes are higher.

World government has been a myth for centuries -- the Knights Templars secretly control everything ...

The myth of the global elite. I don't get into that in the book.

I don't think that global government can ever be anything more than just an archetype.

You don't think it can really happen?

No.

Well, that's a view; many people agree with you. That's OK. We're in a moment of history where it is in our profound self-interest to become more morally enlightened in the sense of becoming more tuned in to the needs and aspirations of people all around the world.

Did I miss the point of your book? My sense was you were saying, "Don't worry! It's all going to work out. Because it's all worked up to now."

You absolutely must have napped through a few paragraphs. I'll show you some pages early in the book. This is on Page 9: "We could blow up the world. Remember, even poppy seeds don't always mange to flower." Blah blah blah.

I didn't take that seriously.

You thought I was kidding?

No. Your tone is not dire. Using the arguments you present in the book, it's probably impossible to kill off the human species. So no matter what apocalyptic event happens, people will still be around being barbarians or building civilization like Martha Stewart.

Is that sufficient consolation for you, to know that if I wipe out your friends and family there will be other people left standing? It's not for me. Our interests go beyond just sustaining the process of history in some minimal sense. We want ourselves to live long and happy lives, right? And the other two chapters I should point you to are 15 and 16 ["New World Order" and "Degrees of Freedom"]. There is a very real threat that biological weapons will kill tens of thousands of people in a major American city before we get around to building supernational institutions. And I'm not cheery about that.

Now I'm feeling critical. The tone of your book is, "Don't worry about the Dark Ages. Don't worry about the plague. It all worked out."

I'm not saying they weren't bad things.

Right. But you're glib about it.

I have a lighthearted tone in general when I write. That may explain why people have depicted this book as being more optimistic than I actually feel. But I just write about everything in that way.

So you don't believe that it's all destined to work out?

It's not all destined to work out in the sense that the people alive today will be happy. It's true that the wheels of history will continue to turn and will move history in the same direction it's moved in, but we all have a profound interest in making sure the wheel runs smoothly and we're not ground up. I think I'm reasonably explicit on this point. [Pause.] Although I increasingly wonder -- the more I get depicted as a someone who's just whistling a happy tune, the more I wonder if I spend enough time on this subject.

I think you should consider that.

Well, I'm trying to correct the record.


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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