Logic and Human Destiny

I’ve toyed for several years with using “complexity theory” to understand human interactions. It really does work and in some very powerful ways. Meanwhile, Robert Wright independently applied the ideas to human social evolution and wrote Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, recently published by Pantheon. Thus, I’ve reacted to his ideas and dry wit as if meeting an old friend for the first time. “Aha! Of course, that’s the way things are!”

In The Moral Animal, Bob gave us 3 tales, woven in a braid, about Charles Darwin, Victorian England, and evolutionary theory. Nonzero also gives 3 tales but in seriatim and in a complex book about complexity and evolution and the logically inevitable development of intelligence and, by extension, of meaning and values. In the first major section (16 chapters), Wright describes “zero-sum” games in which one player can only win if the other loses. Rivalry and competition (sexual selection) churn the mix so that something new is always introduced and there is an ever more complex broth of ideas and tools. Competition and personal selfishness are the driving wheels of zero-sum contests.

“Non-zero-sum” games allow both parties to win through cooperation and inventiveness that keep rivalries and competition within nonlethal boundaries. This is not idealism on Wright’s part; the logic is that large, interconnected networks of competing interests are less reactive than small independent ones. Larger trading networks usually allow a wider variety of goods to the participants; conflict disrupts those exchanges.

Wright traces the two kinds of game through human history and at ever larger scales that emerge — from family units to villages to chiefdoms, to states, to empires, to world enterprises and world governance if not government. Nonzero is generous with cultural detail and he makes his point by describing cultures in the New World, Europe, Africa, and Asia. In all of these arenas, if you look across a wide time span, coherence is always the outcome from confusion.

Technology produces not mismatch but a magic, one that allows each of us to gain more while working less. And technology is the partner of increased population density; pulling more people together creates more ideas and the utility of these ideas allows greater populations. Thus, technology coevolves with population growth, each makes the other possible and sustainable.

The gains from technology allow ever larger cooperative networks; people give up selfish options in return for better food, warmer clothing, safer sleeping, healthier children, and perhaps a wider choice of mates. Communication (cheap transportation, printing, electronics, currency) build trust — an accretion of mutual gains and a monitoring of compliance so that more extensive networks become stable.

War? On p. 61, Wright quotes a New Guinea resident, “War is bad, nobody likes it. Sweet potatoes disappear, pigs disappear, fields deteriorate, and many relatives and friends get killed, but one cannot help it.” However, war’s function is to pull and to push groups into nonzero solutions. Wright’s logic is that the possibility of war pulls cultures into the technology that both supports a population of fighters and arms them for victory; fear of war also pushes peoples into alliances and cooperative exchanges with neighbors and even with potential enemies. (Bob is not an uninformed optimist; he acknowledges the synergistic destructive potentials that lie with disgruntled groups of people, their access to lethal tools, and the electronic possibilities of forming varied “tribes” of special interests that are dispersed over very wide geographic areas. Thus, some of his book is about how things could go rather than how they have to go.)

Too much managerial corruption (and high taxes!) often leads to revolt, assassination, or conquest by outsiders. Growth and collapse alternate, the second cleaning up excesses of the former. Even barbarians had the useful function of introducing new ideas (e.g., stirrups and a harness that didn’t pinch the windpipe of a draft animal) and scattering them widely while dismantling prior organizations. Again, over the longer term, social stability benefits the exchange of goods and ideas; everyone benefits and peace is reinstated, often over wider areas than before.

The second unit (4 chapters) summarily describes evolution as the result of zero and nonzero outcomes. Information leads the organization of energy into structures, whether we call them organisms or steel factories. Structures always become complex to the limits of resources and information, a process that other thinkers have described as the “edge of chaos.” Structures that resist technical and other niche changes go extinct.

The premise is simple and robust: Stir a mix of juices — biomolecular or conceptual — and some of them will build more complicated juices. (George Williams recognized this in his 1966 book; Lynn Margulis used a yogurt-like, middle eastern food, “Kefir,” as an example of this process wherein the whole is far richer than any sum of its components.) This self emergence does not HAVE to happen, it simply does when mathematical relationships and chemical interactions are applied recursively. That is, if the output from each computation becomes the input for the next computation, then elaborate structures grow whether on a page of math or in a Chicago neighborhood.

Bob’s version is consistent with those of Stuart Kauffman, Maynard Smith & Szathmary, or Brian Goodwin who also addressed the emergence of complex organization in a universe that usually impresses us with its movement towards entropy. Intelligence, somewhere, somehow, is perhaps inevitable in these models. (Bob takes his customary swipes at S. J. Gould who once announced that humans are a unique experiment and if we humans blow it, intelligence may never recur in all of Cambridge.)

The last section, (2 chapters — a square root progression downward from the opening 16 through the middle 4!), deals with sentience and morals. Bob dislikes the notion of special creation but is impelled to discover “right.” I sense that he wants to believe in a purpose, that life and the universe are too magnificent to have no purpose and the formation of a global brain seems to meet that need. He defends his argument on p. 302 & 305. From p. 302,

“I’m not saying these things are true — at least, I’m not saying it confidently, the way I’ve been saying that organic history and human history have a direction. I’m just saying these things can’t be dismissed with a wave of the hand. They don’t violate the foundations of scientific thought, and they even gain a kind of support, here and there, from modern science.”

And on p. 305, “my aim is more modest: to convince you that, if I did make this argument, it wouldn’t be a sign of insanity. The question of transcendent planetary consciousness, whatever the answer, is non-crazy.”

Part of his step from organization to purpose to meaning is his inability to account for sentience. That is, why has self awareness evolved of joy and suffering, good and bad? Not how but why? It occurs, therefore, it must have a purpose. Given sentience as an evolved outcome, morality could be its function. “Given the apparent connection between information processing, sentience, and meaning, it seems fair to say that evolution by natural selection was from the beginning a veritable machine for making meaning.” (p. 322)

I think that we can get to morality without repeating Huxley’s stance that argued that good is an anomaly in nature but we “make” it happen “because we’re human.” (Wright seemed to take this approach in The Moral Animal.) However, “good” can be understood as the social equivalent of an electrostatic bond. Morality, like culture, helps to stabilize human behavior and I suggest that it certainly has genetic foundations. (Hints of such are seen in cross species comparisons and in the writings of David Haig and others on genomic conflict. Indeed, there is some evidence for a set of genetic biases towards conservation or towards expenditure, cooperation or selfishness, cortical or hypothalamic development, and perhaps towards feminine or masculine response styles.)

Wright summarizes on p. 331,

“… A strictly empirical analysis of both organic and cultural evolution, I’ve argued, reveals a world with direction — a direction suggestive of purpose, even (faintly) suggestive of benign purpose. Life on earth was, from the beginning, a machine for generating meaning and then deepening it, a machine that created the potential for good and began to fulfill it. And, though the machine also created the potential for bad — and did plenty of fulfilling on that point — it now finally shows signs of raising the ratio of good to bad; or, at the very least, of giving the human species that option, along with powerful incentives to exercise it.”

In regard to Nonzero, one must imagine Bob happy and justifiably proud.

Other thoughts on theories about complexity and evolution:

Maynard Smith (1998) and Coen (1999) traced complexity models back to Goethe (1749-1832) and comparisons of physical and biological form through the writings of D’Arcy Thompson (1860-1948). However, such thinking has occupied a branch outside of biology for a good while, perhaps because of our preoccupations with neoDarwinian explanations.

Recently, Maynard Smith (1998) called for new communication between mathematics and developmental biology and sanctioned our entry into territories already explored by Brian Goodwin (1994), Stu Kauffman (1993, 1995), and Lynn Margulis (1998). Nonzero fits neatly into this alternative domain.

Models similar to Wright’s and descriptions of their shared logic are available in several other popular books such as the one by Gleick (1987). Waldrop (1992) vividly described the mix of physicists, economists, and other scholars at the Santa Fe Institute. In particular, conversations between Brian Arthur (economics) and Stu Kauffman (decision theory and computer simulation of genetic networks) anticipated Wright’s more sensitive analysis but without the anthropological details. Thus, you can get similar information about complexity either in biographical form by Waldrop or expressed in cross cultural material by Wright. The agreement between all these very different sources is impressive and validates the word “logic” in the title of Bob’s text.

JMS and Wright are pivotal in they are respected by evolutionists and look to mathematics for some larger understandings whereas Kauffman, Langton, the Santa Cruz project, and the Santa Fe Institute started with mathematics and physics and worked into evolution. The resulting cross talk between the complexity theorists and the developmental biologists becomes exciting, intricate, and satisfying.

Further reading for evolutionists:

Sigmund is probably the most systematic and the most analytical but he, Waldrop, and Gleick all have lively styles and provide lots of mental coathooks that anchor major concepts. I found Goodwin and Kauffman to be a bit rougher as introductions; if you want to be insulted, Lynn Margulis hates all NeoDarwinians and presents complexity as an outcome from symbiosis. The Global Brain, by Howard Bloom, is due out from Wiley in August of this year and will have a home page that supplements his extensive notes.


Bloom, H. The Global Brain. NY: Wiley, 2000.
Coen, E. The Art of Genes: How Organisms Make Themselves. NY: Oxford, 1999. Gleick, J. Chaos: Making a New Science. NY: Penguin, 1987.
Goodwin, B. How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity. NY: Touchstone, 1994.
Haig, D. Genetic conflicts and the divided self. A talk given at Hunter School of Social Work, Manhattan, May 6, 1999.
Kauffman, S. Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution. NY: Oxford, 1993.
Kauffman, S. At Home in the Universe: The Search for Self-Organization and Complexity. NY: Oxford, 1995.
Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution. NY: Copernicus, 1997.
Maynard Smith, J. Shaping Life: Genes, Environment, and Evolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
Maynard Smith, J. & Szathmary, E. The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language. NY: Oxford, 1999.
Sigmund, K. Games of Life: Explorations in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. NY: Penguin, 1993.
Waldrop, M. Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Complexity and Chaos. NY; Touchstone, 1992.
Williams , G. Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Current Evolutionary Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

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