Is Humanity Getting Better All The Time?


The Logic of Human Destiny

By Robert Wright

Pantheon 435pp $27.50

If you plan to tackle Robert Wright's challenging new work, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, consider reading the last chapter first. Wright has produced an erudite and optimistic book, much of which reads like a scientific argument. But at heart the book is about ethics and destiny, not science. If you do turn to the conclusions first, it may be easier to see where the scientific and moral arguments fight each other. Then you can put all that aside and savor the graceful writing and the rush of rose-tinted ideas.

Here's what Wright spells out in the last chapter: Society and culture are the product of an evolutionary process that mirrors biological evolution. But the results are not random. The human race is fulfilling its "destiny," which may even be the work of some higher power. Biological species and human civilization are both moving inexorably toward greater interconnectedness and complexity--which is a good thing, according to this author. (Think brain, or the Internet.) What's more, in Wright's view, social complexity leads to morality--and to something that even resembles redemption. "It may literally be within the power of our species to swing nature's moral scales...decisively in the direction of good," he writes. "Maybe it ten brutally. When it's non-zero-sum, neither side is an abject loser, and both may win big. As societies evolve, Wright believes, non-zero, as in the book's title, triumphs over zero-sum.

The author, a former senior editor at The New Republic whose earlier books include the acclaimed The Moral Animal, deflects serious criticism by delivering difficult arguments in a flippant writing style. In the early chapters, he dances through six or seven millenniums of human history, exploring as he goes the rise of agriculture, written language, commercial contracts, and the anthropology of primitive societies. Wright's goal is to prove that even the most violent twists and turns don't divert civilization from its upward course. He doesn't succeed. But his glib style moves the debate along at a jaunty clip. Roman emperors, for example, are found in one chapter bribing Attila the Hun to stop his pillaging. After that, says Wright, he does "what any normal human would do after getting a big paycheck: go shopping."

Wright's discussion turns implausible, however, when he piles example upon example of how nearly everything in human history contributes to the greater good: war, barbarism, pestilence. "Encouragingly," he writes, "people seem to grasp all of this non-zero-sum logic. Nuclear powers tend not to have wars with one another." And a bit further: "Barring a reversal of time-honored trends, poor nations will get richer, making war a remote prospect in an ever-larger part of the planet." One hopes that India and Pakistan are paying close attention.

When it comes to proving the existence of divine purpose or destiny--especially an uplifting one--Wright fares no better than his intellectual nemesis, biologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom he takes to task here and in other writings. In his own books, Gould oversteps the boundaries of scientific debate when he argues, in quasi-scientific terms, that human and cosmological events are random and not predestined. As both writers should know, the point can never be proved either way.

In the second half of the book, Wright tackles the origins of life, the evolution of complex animals from single-celled organisms, and the emergence of consciousness--all of which seem to reinforce the model of social and cultural evolution laid out earlier. The good news is, we're on turf that is much friendlier to the scientific method. And Wright has a comfortable grasp of both Darwin and molecular biology. But the moral arguments still don't wash. Neither does the pat, mystical digression about the unknowable nature of consciousness. "A truly scientific perspective," says Wright, "shows be a profound and possibly eternal mystery, and a suggestive one to say the least. And divinity isn't the only thing it suggests.... A strictly empirical analysis of both organic and cultural evolution, I've argued, reveals a world with direction...."

The theories of cultural evolution that Wright defends in this book have a long history and many well-known flaws. For one thing, when it comes to culture--music, art, language, theology--there is no obvious aesthetic hierarchy. (Is Bach of a lower order than John Coltrane, or Plato lower than Kant?) And for all their objective veneer, Wright's categories of complexity and "non-zero-sumness" carry strong evaluative assumptions. If the social evolution he espouses had a moral dimension, then tribal societies would be not merely underdeveloped but morally backward as well. This has always been a problem with Social Darwinism. And by equating non-zero-sumness with moral behavior, Wright lands right in the thick of it.

Finally, there is the problem of survival, which is the purpose and the proof of evolution as Darwin saw it. In the 19th century, humans lacked the technology to destroy life on earth. Today, we have that ability. Is that progress? I want to share Wright's belief in destiny. But I would never ask science to provide the evidence.