I believe in nonzero

Dave Belden
8 February 2005

Progress rules!

Academic historians would choke on their coffee if you suggested it, but there is an arrow to history. Before you choke, let me explain what I don’t mean, and then what I do.

Recognising that I like mega-scale theorising about history and am “a fellow, open-minded skeptic”, author and openDemocracy reader Larry Taub sent me his book, The Spiritual Imperative all the way from Tokyo. Taub classifies world history according to eras: from the early spiritual-religious, through the warrior, merchant, and worker ages to the second spiritual-religious era now beginning. To illustrate, he uses models based on caste, gender and age, drawn from ancient Hindu and Chinese philosophy.

On the age model, we humans have reached our late adolescence; on the gender model, we are just coming out of a yang (male-dominated) phase and entering an androgynous yin/yang stage; and – as the warrior, merchant and worker castes’ power fades – we are moving towards dominance by a spiritual-religious caste.

It all sounds totally wacky, but it’s actually a good read for anyone who likes grand theories of history. Larry Taub knows his history and sociology. He is full of interesting insights.

Unfortunately what starts out as a nice metaphorical way of looking at the past (like the “birth, childhood and adolescence” of the human species) mysteriously morphs into a prescription for the future.

But just because humans become adult, doesn’t mean the human race will. The mechanism for the individual is in the DNA. What is the equivalent for the species? Larry Taub doesn’t say.

I do agree that if affluence continues – it’s a big if – then more “spiritual” (replace that with secular words if you prefer, like artistic, philosophical, eco-sensitive) concerns may increasingly drive our choices in economics and politics. But that hope is a long way from proof that a new “spiritual” age is dawning.

My thanks to the author for a thoroughly stimulating, enjoyable and annoying book: what more could one want?

The more that I want is to read an author whose optimism convinces. I am a recovering pessimist, who discovered after wallowing in the slough of despond for thirty years that the doomsters’ predictions had not come true: no population bomb (Paul Ehrlich) or limits to growth (Fred Hirsch) yet.

So the dates for Armageddon have only been put off, not abolished. But I still want to know why in so many cases things were getting better while I was told they were getting worse. Why should I believe the doomsters now when they were wrong before?

I want to know the worst. But I am realist enough to want to know the best too. However unfashionable, it’s the only route to a balanced view.

One of the best elucidators of large-scale history, Jared Diamond, offers the tools for just such an understanding. His Guns, Germs and Steel is a brilliant explanation of how ecologies and geography have shaped the modern world. It is culture, resources, and habitat – not genetics – that distinguish a New Guinean from a New Yorker. It was ecological luck that made possible their respective cultures. If you haven’t read the book, an exciting intellectual voyage awaits you.

Now, Jared Diamond has shifted into warning mode with his new book, Collapse. It traces the environmental factors that have contributed to the deterioration and then eclipse of many human civilisations throughout history. The Pacific outpost of Easter Island, and the melancholy story of its decline through deforestation and resource wars, is the author’s paradigmatic example. Although Diamond concludes his account by expressing “cautious optimism” about the future, his many examples of societal collapse cannot but feed our love of imagining the worst.

Gregg Easterbrook, a conservative eco-journalist, whose A Moment on the Earth (1995) provided a useful critique of environmental pessimists’ excesses, draws from Collapse (in his New York Times review) a valid, if predictable, conclusion: that eco-doomsters have continually underestimated the ability of modern market economies to respond to resource shortages and other environmental constraints.

If Collapse, and other recent works like Martin Rees’s Our Final Century, make it possible for humans to imagine the worst of which they are capable, I want to know who imagines the best – realistically – and who provides balance between the two?

The answer is Robert Wright, whose Nonzero has given me more insights and hope than any other book in the last five years. Wright is no Dr Pangloss. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of collapse. But he points out that the “memes” of culture, and technologies of communication, transport and materials, have always survived and formed the basis of civilisation’s next advance. He is less concerned with ideas than with technology. The more that people defeat distance and isolation, the more they interact and trade for self-interest with a widening circle, the more they learn to respect the other.

He doesn’t think human nature is a blank slate, to be written on by social engineers. He knows we humans are and have always been status-seekers. We are not always or uniformly pleasant animals. But we are – in general, and without ignoring terrible individual or collective examples to the contrary – behaving better towards each other than we used to.

Robert Wright helped convince me of this by starting his book with the very origins of life on earth, and asking why there is complexity at all.

The vast preponderance of life on earth is and always has been microbes. They got on fine without us for aeons and still do. We couldn’t live a minute without them. So why did some of them bother to evolve into more complex organisms, like us? And once you have humans running around in tribes howling to the gods, why in relatively short order do you get big chiefs, then empires, Tokyo, and the internet?

Wright answers by demonstrating that cooperation-plus-competition outperforms competition alone – from the first living cells that found symbiosis and merged to form a bigger cell right through to the world wide web. Unlike Larry Taub’s book, Nonzero makes its mechanism of progress clear. Nonzero-sum encounters in which both sides profit, however unequally, are more productive than win-lose encounters. That productivity is what gives history a direction. Despite all setbacks, the arrow points towards complexity and interdependence.

If you haven’t read Nonzero, well – you now have two treats in store. Until the unfortunate mystical bit at the end, it’s a luminously rational explication of the case that humanity will weather its current troubles, by adapting in the short term and recovering from major catastrophes in the long term. No consolation to those real, individual human beings crushed in its path – but in the perspective of life itself, progress rules.

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