Essay Reviews from Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Cooperation as the Genesis of Design

Ben M. Carter*
Marbletree Apartments #2030
4077 N. Beltine
Irving, TX 75038

Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Vintage Books, 2001). 435 pages. Paperback; $15.00. ISBN: 0679758941. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999). Hardcover; $27.50. ISBN: 0679442529.

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 53 (June 2001): 107-110.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright, whose earlier work includes Three Scientists and Their Gods and The Moral Animal, proposes to explain history by using game theory as formulated by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in the middle of the twentieth century. Game theory distinguishes between "zero-sum" games where the players compete against one another and there are winners and losers, and "non-zero-sum" games where the players' interests overlap. This overlap of interest creates a situation where competition is subsumed by cooperation. Wright's thesis is that the history of life, including humans and all other organisms, evidences an increase in complexity, and that this complexity can be attributed to the proliferation of "ever larger, and ever more elaborate non-zero sum games" (p. 6). He is not talking about how life began. He is arguing that once it began, game theory, because it is a vehicle for evaluating competition and cooperation, can explain the emergence of "larger and richer webs of interdependence," (p. 6) that is "the accumulation of 'non-zero-sumness'" (p. 7).

Two ideas are basic to his thesis. The first is that non-zero-sumness exists as potential and that its potential is unlocked through competitive zero-sum games. The second is the idea that

organic evolution and human history ... constitute a single story, ... that the two processes have common dynamics ...; [that] at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery, ... the same fuel; the energetic interplay between zero- sum and non-zero-sum forces ... [and that] the two process have parallel directions--long- run growth in non-zero-sumness, and thus in the depth and scope of complexity" (p. 243).

There is also a third concept, not so central as the first two, but important to the way Wright develops his argument: the belief that human beings everywhere "are genetically endowed with the same mental equipment, that there is a universal human nature ... [a] psychic unity of humankind" (p. 19), and that this unity explains why cultural evolution tends to move in the same direction across the world, though it occurs at different rates. It also explains why the modern world was all but inevitable. This basic unity is revealed through universal feelings like greed, hatred, generosity, gratitude, obligation, empathy, and trust. We express it in our moral indignation, or in our sense of just grievance occasioned by things like laziness, stinginess, and cheating. We discern it in our innate curiosity, in our tendency to develop social hierarchies, in our predisposition to be competitive and status hungry, and in our universal propensity to build things, a proclivity Wright believes is tucked away in our DNA. Taken together such a universal genetic heritage means that "people are good at finding zones of mutual self-interest and striking deals of mutual obligation" (p. 114), despite our not being designed to live in close proximity to many of our own kind.

In opposition to evolutionists like Stephen Gould to whom he often refers, Wright thinks that humans are not chance products of a process dominated by randomness, but were destined and have a destiny. Therefore, he has subtitled Nonzero, "The Logic of Human Destiny," and in its pages he seeks not only to describe how we got where we are, but also to predict where we might be going. Of course such predictions are not detailed. Rather they are extrapolations of his conviction that both past and future are contained in the present, that as yesterday lives in today, so tomorrow lives in them both. For Wright, randomness, if it is to have any effect beyond itself, needs order, and order, if it is to transcend mere stasis, needs randomness. Randomness and order braided together are creative. Thus Wright does not want to argue that the world in which we find ourselves was "literally inevitable." He believes it was highly likely.

As Wright describes it, life is a machine that generates and deepens meaning, and creates and fulfills the potential for good (p. 331). Thus, for Wright, history has seen moral progress but not inevitable moral progress. Material prosperity has made it easier for people to acknowledge the humanity of others. Humankind seems to be moving away from tyranny and toward freedom. However, there is no guarantee that good will prevail. Evil in the form of tribalism combined with "the growing power, compactness, and accessibility of lethal technologies" (p. 231) could triumph. Wright believes that in a sense the fundamentalists are correct. We have reached a pivotal juncture in the destiny of the world. Our age is justifiably obsessed with eschatology.

Having said all this, it might be helpful to integrate Wright's theme within its philosophical tradition. There is a millennia-old argument over whether human history is distinct from or an aspect of natural history. Can human history be reduced to a set of laws that, if known, would render it predictable? Or are humans uniquely free, and in the end does that uniqueness make their history unpredictable? The first position can be traced to Herodotus (484-425 BC), the second position to Homer (eighth century BC). Herodotus, as he described and catalogued cultures, sought evidence of unifying themes that would not only render cultures mutually comprehensible but would fix them firmly in the natural order. For this reason, he is known as "the father of history." But history as a natural process is not the only possibility. A view of history as a heroic endeavor also has its champions, one of the earliest of whom was Homer. Homer envisioned history as the creation of heroes who through fortitude changed the course of events. Because events were ultimately at the command of individuals, there was nothing inevitable about human history. It would always be quintessentially idiosyncratic.

Wright is firmly in Herodotus's camp. Indeed, at one point he says:

Far be it from me to minimize mathematics--or science or technology. But we should certainly minimize the importance of any one person in these fields, because all three are on autopilot. The bent for innovation is so deeply human that progress doesn't depend on anyone in particular (p. 119).

Of course history is more than scientific discovery and technological progress, but those endeavors tend to inform much of Wright's analysis, which means that there is a certain Marxist quality to the book, a tendency to reduce people to Homo economicus. Indeed, Wright, though he does criticize Marx on occasion, generally has positive things to say about him.

Historically Christians have taken an intermediate position in the debate over history as a natural process or history as the interplay of persons. Via the logos doctrine, Christians have affirmed that the God who created the world presides over both the processes of the world and the lives of his creatures, so in that sense natural and human history share much with one another: they are created, sustained, and guided by God. However, Christians also have affirmed that the logos is not a rational or natural principle or set of principles but is a person, and that as such the logos is engaged in a personal relationship with his world and his creatures. In that sense, human history is much as Homer imagined it: the interplay of separate personal wills. Therefore, Christians can affirm with Wright that there is human destiny but we would insist that it is not as impersonal as he imagines it to be.

Wright's overall thesis then is hardly new. What is new (as least so far as I know) is his use of game theory to explain variety in biology and culture. To ask if Wright is convincing at this point is to ask the wrong question. It is better to ask if Wright's thesis is plausible. On one level the answer is yes. The idea that competition results in cooperation has appeal, and, with selected examples, we can certainly illustrate that development. But, as Emil Cioran once observed, history, because it contains everything, proves nothing. Thus on another level the answer is a qualified no. This qualified no is not just because other examples support the counter idea that competition, rather than fostering cooperation, causes coalitions to break down. It is because variety in biology and culture has been explained so many times in other ways.

It seems plain to me that there is a certain direction to history, that things, though they endure, are not as they were, and that a particular technological complexity plays a significant role in accounting for that. However, it is less obvious that human history and natural history are really powered by the same basic dynamic. Nor is it obvious that game theory would be the best way to account for that shared direction. It may be that humans have learned to cooperate, but why should we believe that in doing so we are simply following principles expressed eons ago by slime mold? Were that all there was to it, why should we have to learn to cooperate? After all, we do not have to learn to fall.

Wright addresses this objection in a very arresting way via teleology. To justify his assertion that history, whether natural or human, is teleological, Wright adopts Richard Braithwaite's definition of teleology: "persistence towards the [hypothesized] goal under varying conditions" (p. 312), but modifies it by adding the caveat that the adjustments must reflect the activity of information processors. Then he nominates genes (and by implication memes) for the role. Organic evolution and cultural evolution are to be distinguished from a falling object or the flow of a river because organic evolution and cultural evolution derive their directedness from the activity of information processors (genes or memes) while that which falls or flows simply passively obeys the law of gravity and follows the path of least resistance.

Modifying Braithwaite's definition as he does enables Wright to differentiate the directedness he sees in life and culture from the directedness evidenced in phenomena like falling or flowing. At the same time, it enables him to embrace Dawkins' terminology and convert it into an argument for design. Living organisms are precisely what they appear to be. They look as if they are designed because they were. They appear to have a teleological dimension because they do. Evolution itself is a teleological process, and hence it has not only expressed that reality in the obvious design of living creatures, but eventually was able to lift information processors like genes to the level of information processors like brains--brains that allow for far greater flexibility, far more rapid responsiveness, and far greater adaptive complexity than genes. The value of cooperation lies embedded in the very fabric of nature waiting to be exploited. Genes can utilize it through random mutation structured by reproductive success, or animals like us can discover it by learning about it.

If his argument seems to be just a bit too neat, perhaps it is. Wright admits that there are more difficulties with his thesis than he has bothered to enumerate, and that his terminology "has been a bit loose" (p. 281). These weaknesses do not seem to concern him. What he wants to do is to initiate a discussion, to argue that such questions are not as wrong-headed as philosophers like Popper or Kant might have imagined.1 To an extent he has succeeded, but there remain several issues he fails to address adequately. I will discuss two.

First, let us consider what Wright terms "the weirdness of consciousness" (p. 323). He identifies the question of consciousness with "the question of subjective experience in general" (p. 307) and observes that "a truly scientific perspective shows consciousness ... to be a profound and possibly eternal mystery" (p. 331). Adopting "the hard core scientific view that consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon, lacking real influence," Wright says: "If consciousness doesn't do anything, then its existence becomes quite the unfathomable mystery" (p. 307). "[If] subjective experience ... lacks a function; it is redundant, superfluous" (p. 321). This is an insightful observation and one that gives rise to exactly the right question. That Wright fails to give an adequate account of such a mystery is unsurprising. To date no one has come close, and Wright himself, by suggesting that the question may be shrouded in eternal mystery gives us reason to suppose that he doubts anyone ever will. Nevertheless, he recognizes that consciousness is key to the mystery of us and is key to grasping the nature of our morality.

Second, there is the issue of what Wright means when he talks of meaning. Though he admits to using less precision than he might when addressing other questions, when it comes to defining what he means by meaning, Wright tries to speak with some precision. He borrows his definition for meaning from the philosophical pragmatist Charles S. Peirce who claimed that the meaning of a message lies in the behavior it induces. However, Wright qualifies Peirce's observation by advising us that the behavior induced must be appropriate to the information in the message. By inserting "appropriate" as a qualifier, Wright reminds us that information, if it is not comprehended, can result in inappropriate behavior. It is also true, though Wright does not say this explicitly, that the meaning of messages can be misunderstood even if one grasps their information content. (For example, poetry or allegory conveys information on one level and meaning[s] on others.) Thus meaning cannot be reduced to behavior or even to information. Wright, though he tips his hat in their direction, never really acknowledges either of these problems, yet they illustrate why the chemical reactions initiated by DNA and those stimulated in brains are fundamentally different. At the very least, the former requires no comprehension, the latter does.2

William Dembski captured this problem very neatly in his own review of Nonzero which appeared in the August/September 2000 issue of First Things and was appropriately entitled "The Limits of Natural Teleology." He points out that because it leads to increasing complexity, Wright's "nonzero dynamic ... confers a direction on biological and cultural evolution" (p. 47). Dembski argues that the two are in fact quite different since intelligence would seem to be required for the one but not for the other (p. 50). And there, Dembski says, lies the problem with Wright's thesis: in an effort to avoid resorting to an intelligent agency to account for design in biology, Wright puts inordinate weight on natural selection (p. 51). However, I think the position adopted by Wright is even more implausible than Dembski allows. If the same mechanism that generates biological variety also generates cultural variety, if consciousness is not required to explain the cunning variety in the biological realm, and if mathematics, science, and technology are all on autopilot and sending us toward a predestined end, then it is not easy to see how the world would differ significantly from the way it is now were we unconscious automatons. It is not only that Wright puts an inordinate weight on natural selection to explain design in biology, he puts an inordinate weight on natural selection to explain human culture as well, and in doing so he reveals the problematic nature of thoroughgoing materialism.

Nonzero then is a long argument that attempts to account for design in nature and even implicitly in human culture without assuming an intelligent agency behind design. Though Wright frequently refers to the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who combined his religious and paleontological training in an effort to develop a Christianized version of evolution, there is little to suggest that Wright was positively influenced by the religious side of Teilhard de Chardin's thesis. Instead Nonzero reads as though it was intended as a refutation of Teilhard de Chardin's theism.

One cannot finish Nonzero without marveling again at how readily our universe lends itself to interpretation. Confronted with it, we sense a profound enigma and cast about for plausible solutions. They abound, and their abundance increases our sense of mystery. If Nonzero did nothing more than add yet another teleological interpretation to the dozens available, it would still be worthwhile. But it is also thought provoking, full of information, and great fun to read.


1It is interesting in this context that Wright rejects Popper but appeals repeatedly to Kant's essay, "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose." He particularly likes Kant's reference to the "unsocial sociability" of humans. The "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" was an essay Kant published in 1784, three years after he published his Critique of Pure Reason, a year before he published his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Ethics, and four years before his Critique of Practical Reason came out. In this essay and his subsequent work, Kant strove to lay the foundations of an ethic that would stay viable in the absence of transcendental imperatives. While it is true that Kant remained drawn to the teleological perspective, even after he had done so much to debunk it, it is also true that by and large he resisted its attraction and that his philosophy is far more sympathetic to Popper's position than to Wright's.

2At one odd place Wright seems to touch on this in a very oblique way. Though he argues repeatedly (indeed it is fundamental to his book) that cultural and genetic evolution are aspects of the same phenomenon, he observes en passant while discussing memes that cultural evolution in fact is quite different from genetic evolution (p. 90). He is correct but for reasons that have nothing to do with the speed or neatness of the respective processes.