Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
February 2019
Fred's Rating: 
Robert Wright
Total Pages: 

Robert Wright is a contributing editor of The New Republic, a columnist, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the cofounder of and runs the web-based video project (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

I bought the paperback edition but I give here the Amazon website for the Kindle edition, for it contains all pages of the 8-pp Introduction – The Storm before the Calm , the 5-pp Chapter One – The Ladder of Cultural Evolution, and the 11-pp Chapter Two – The Way We Were. (Reading these three convinced me that I must also own this book.)

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this book's covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary that is very good (use the ‘Read more’ option to get all of this summary). In addition , I recommend reading two Custorer reviews – (1) by ‘German’ entitled “Yet here we are, with our Brains switched on,” and (2) by ‘Davidicus’ entitled “He’s Wright about Cultural Evolution.”

The following Editorial Review goes directly to Wright’s ‘logic basis.' “In a book sure to stir argument for years to come, Robert Wright challenges the conventional view that biological evolution and human history are aimless. Ingeniously employing game theory - the logic of 'zero-sum' and 'non-zero-sum' games - Wright isolates the impetus behind life's basic direction: the impetus that, via biological evolution, created complex, intelligent animals, and then via cultural evolution, pushed the human species towards deeper and vaster social complexity. In this view, the coming of today's independent global society was 'in the cards' - not quite inevitable, but, as Wright puts it, 'so probable as to inspire wonder'. In a narrative of breathtaking scope and erudition, yet pungent wit, Wright takes on some of the past century's most prominent thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Wright argues that a coolly specific appraisal of humanity's three-billion-year past can give new spiritual meaning to the present and even offer political guidance for the future. This book will change the way people think about the human prospect. “ (Since no source was given for this review, I can only assume it was an Amazon review.)

This book has two appendices : a 7-pp Appendix 1 – On Non-zero sumness and a 4-pp Appendix 2 – What Is Social Complexity. Both can be read by using the ‘Search Inside’ option after using the ‘Look inside’ option for the hardcover edition. (This is weird, for when I first logged on this morning, the paperback edition had the same cover that I have and also had the ‘Look inside’ option. But when I went back to the paperback edition it was a ‘new' edition with a different cover that it no longer had the ‘Look inside’ option. This has never happened to me before.) Both of these two appendices omit one page, thus are not as useful as I had expected them to be.

If you have never seen how game theory works, Here’s an example I remember from college days – call it ‘old game theory’ if you want to label it. My example has two table-top merchants in an outdoor plaza. Merchant One sells fancy earthen-ware vases that cost him $6 to make, and he sells a vase to tourists at $10. Merchant Two wants to buy one as a wedding gift, but he wants to pay less than $10 for it. So he and Merchant One 'discuss' price for a short time. They end up agreeing on $8. So Merchant One makes $2 more than his costs and Merchant Two pays $2 less than tourists did. So both are content. The 'old' game theory told me that this was a win-win (or positive nonzero sum.) But ‘new' game theory uses math that calls this a zero-sum situation. I don’t see it that way. Contentment, not math, should apply. Here’s a current situation to ponder. If my daughter pays $10 less than the normal price for an item at a '1/3 off' sale price, she claims that she saved $10, thinking of it as $10 of real money. I’ve told her if it were real money, then she should put this $10 in a bank account. She knows it is not ‘actual’ money but is money ‘not spent,’ so she doesn’t put the ‘saved’ $10 into an actual account. But she still thinks it was win-win (or a positive nonzero sum) because a '1/3 off' price usually leaves the seller with some profit, albeit it small.

Now back to the book Nonzero: Robert Wright describes how win-win situations provide the logic for positive human destiny. He shows that: (1) the stages of human growth to better cultures are the result of finding new win-win outcomes; (2) zero sum situations don’t result in advancements; (3) negative sums, or lose-lose situations do not advance culture but are a sign of a backslide of the current culture to the past of that culture (or cultures); such lose-lose situations don't last long. He does this logic quite skillfully and is enjoying his many examples.

I found this book hard to put down. He convinced me that cultural improvement due to a win-win situation seems to work reasonably well, often unusually well. I rate this book at five stars, but with my added comment to ‘think six stars.'