Published by EH.NET (July 1, 2000)

Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Pantheon

Books, 2000. x + 435 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-679-44252-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. Bradford De Long, Department of Economics, University

of California-Berkeley.

Back in 1794 the Enlightenment philosophe Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat,

Marquis de Condorcet wrote his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the

Progress of the Human Mind — the boldest of the eighteenth-century

declarations that humanity had and was destined to see Progress with a capital

P. Condorcet was a powerful and convincing advocate– Malthus wrote his

Essay on Population explicitly against Condorcet. But that was the high

water mark of belief in Progress. By and large the past two centuries have seen

the reaction, and confidence in human Progress — technological, political,

humanistic, and moral — fell out of intellectual favor.

Now comes Robert Wright, previously author of Three Scientists and Their

Gods and The Moral Animal, with an excellent book accompanied by an

enthusiastic blurb by William McNeill. Wright’s purpose is to set out the

gospel of progress anew, this time using the language of game theory as his

principal mode of rhetoric. At its most basic level Wright’s point is that

interactions are positive-sum: there are gains from cooperation. Thus human

cultural evolution has an arrow and a direction: toward greater complexity,

toward higher civilization.

The direction arises at two levels. First, individual humans seek out things

that increase their own powers and capabilities. Cooperation tends to do this,

so people find ways to cooperate. But the most important form of cooperation is

one that is almost impossible to stop: the simple sharing of knowledge. Two

heads are better than one. The denser the population (and the better the means

of communication) the more ideas will be generated, the larger the number of

ideas that turn out to be useful, and the faster will be progress. People are,

Wright argues — in my view correctly — naturally acquisitive in that they

want useful things, and will eagerly copy new technologies they hear about.

Thus Wright sees inventions such as agriculture as inevitable — not as a lucky


Second, at the level of human societies, the societies that are more powerful

— have better technologies, more effective social arrangements, greater

population densities, and so forth — either swamp their neighbors or force

their neighbors to copy them in order to maintain their autonomy. In Eurasia,

where contact was constant from an early age — as Wright points out, in 200 on

one could travel from Gibraltar to the Yangtze River and cross only three

borders (p. 117) — a good innovation at one end would diffuse all the way to

the other in a matter of centuries. He believes that the wide spread of

religion in agricultural civilizations proves that its productivity-boosting

and division of labor-enhancing effects outweigh its exploitative side (p. 86):

those societies that did not have temples and priests did not flourish.

Wright dismisses gloomy talk of barbarian invasions and the fall of empires by

asserting that one goes from furs-and-swords to linen-and-pens in three

generations: “The Romans weren’t exactly hailed by the Greeks as cultural

equals when they happened on the scene…. Yet they were massively infiltrated

by classical Greek memes, which they then spread across the wider world. In

Horace’s phrase, ‘The Greeks, captive, took the victors captive’. And, anyway,

who were the Greeks to look down on intrusive barbarians? … The early Greeks

had a title of honor, ptoliporthos, that meant ‘sacker of cities’…. But

whether these ‘barbarians’ sack cities, or hover on the periphery and trade …

or ally with them in war or ally against them, one outcome is nearly certain:

win, lose, or draw, the ‘barbarians’ become vehicles for advanced memes…” (p.

131). For what truly matters are the basic technologies of agriculture and

craft, not the products of high civilizations. And even when you do have

significant regression — in the post-Mycenean Dark Age, in the post-Roman Dark

Age, or in the wake of the Mongols – Wright reminds us that “the world makes

backup copies.”

Wright also dismisses gloomy talk of the stagnation of Ming and Qing China, the

fall of the Mughal Empire, and the technological and organizational stasis of

the Ottoman Empire by arguing that the key unit is not Europe vs. Asia but is

instead Eurasia. Sooner or later, Wright argues, some part of Eurasia — it did

not have to be Europe – would have hit upon a superior social and technological

recipe to that of the mid second millennium empires, and when it did the rest

would have copied it. Wright is of the school that holds that China almost

broke through to modernity, writing of how paper and woodblock printing were

used to distribute useful texts — Pictures and Poems on Husbandry and

Weaving, Mathematics for Daily Use, and the Treatise on Citrus

Fruit (p. 159). The recipe that ultimately proved successful — what Wright

calls the economic logic of freedom — was stopped in many places: “indeed, on

balance, in the centuries after the printing press was invented, European

governments grew more despotic” (p. 185). But it only had to succeed once. And

given sufficient cultural variation, sooner or later a breakthrough was


But even if you buy all of Wright’s argument that forms of increasing returns

— non-zero-sum-ness, as Wright calls it — impart an arrow of increasing

complexity and division of labor to human social, cultural, and economic

evolution, this does not necessarily amount to Progress — at least not to

anything we would see as progress in human morality or human happiness. For why

should organizational complexity be Progress? As Wright puts it: “… it would

be hard to argue that there was net moral gain between the hunter-gatherer and

ancient-state phases of cultural evolution. The Egyptians had slaves — which

virtually no known hunter-gatherer societies had — and their soldiers returned

from wars of conquest proudly brandishing the severed penises of their slain

foes” (p. 206).

So in the end Wright is forced to play a game of three-card monte to reach

conclusions that support his belief in Progress. The card labeled “complexity”

must be switched for the card labeled “Progress” without our noticing. In the

industrial core, at the end of the twentieth century, we are inclined to

tolerate this switch — to say that it is obvious that a highly complicated and

productive civilization will have widely-distributed individual wealth, lots of

individual freedom, and soft forms of rule, and that social complexity is

civilization. But back in the middle of the twentieth century this switch could

not have been accomplished at all: “complexity yes,” people would have said,

“but progress no.” And who knows how things will look in a hundred more years?

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), was an

aristocrat, a mathematician, an official of the Academy of Sciences, and was a

friend of Voltaire (1694-1778). He strongly supported the revolution of 1789 as

an example of human progress. But the Committee of Public Safety turned on him:

he was arrested, and died in prison before he could be executed.


*The above review covers only the first two-thirds of the book. At that point

Wright asks the question: “Aren’t organic evolution and human history

sufficiently different to demand separate treatment?”

I think the answer to this question is “yes,” and that the book should stop at

that point. Wright thinks that the answer is “no,” and so the book continues.

He goes on to draw analogies between human cultural evolution toward greater

complexity and biological evolution toward greater complexity.

Wright’s argument that biological evolution has an arrow as well — tends to

produce animals with big brains that think — runs roughly as follows:

Life starts out simple. It then evolves, with variation and with the

conservation and spread of successful variations. Thus evolution generates

increasing diversity, and increasing diversity generates increasing complexity:

it is hard for a one-celled organism to become less complicated (although

viruses have managed), and easy for it to become more complicated.

But wait! Most of your environment is made up of other living creatures. Hence

the environment becomes more complicated over time too. And because the

environment becomes more complicated over time, there is increasing adaptive

value in information acquisition and information processing organs: better eyes

(and ears) and bigger brains. Random evolution creates increasing diversity and

complexity of life. Increasing diversity and complexity of life make for a more

complicated environment. And a more complicated environment generates strong

evolutionary pressure for eyes, hands, and brains.

Maybe his biological argument is right — I’m inclined to think it probably is

— but maybe not. Big eyes and big brains are expensive in terms of energy. Why

not go for bigger teeth or stronger legs? And large complicated animals seem to

be (so far) at a disadvantage in species survival when the asteroids hit.

J. Bradford De Long is a professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley, and is the

author of the forthcoming “America’s Historical Experience with Low Inflation”

(Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking), and the recently published

“Some Speculative Microeconomics for Tomorrow’s Economy” (First Monday)

and “The Triumph[?] of Monetarism” (Journal of Economic Perspectives).