A few years ago, with "Moral Animal" Robert Wright caused a complete turnaround in my recreational reading habits from mostly fiction to mostly nonfiction. His style was easy and stimulating and generated a new interest in evolutionary science in general and evolutionary psychology in particular, and, perhaps with most consequence, introduced me to the current rennaisance in popular science writing. It was therefore with a keen sense of anticipation that I picked up a copy of his latest, "Nonzero".
The book is written in two parts, the first sociological in orientation and the second biological, and finishes up with a few guesses as to the future of mankind. The basic topic is a game-theoretical take on the positive consequences of mutually self-interested cooperation, which the author enshrines in the unfortunately ugly phrase "nonzero-summness". In a defensively apologetic appendix, Wright confesses he wanted to use this as the title. I'm glad he didn't.
The phrase "zero sum" is in fairly common use in the US, although I have not heard it much in Europe; it means an interaction where there is no overall, net gain for the parties concerned. A boxing match is a zero sum game, one man wins, another loses. In contrast, Wright's interest is in interactions whose results are positive for all parties, generating "progress". Examples are easy - consider the organisation between different people with different expertise it takes to, say, build a house.
In a necessarily thin history of the human race, Wright finds this nonzero-summness wherever he looks, elevating it, more or less, to the level of an over-arching principle of the development of life and, inevitably, the development of human society.
There is a great deal of high talk, provocative nudges, and suggestions of the perception of higher things. But Wright never seems to bite the bullet and take a controversial stance, preferring to adopt a generally optimistic attitude, rather like Rodin's thinker, looking upward, with a goofy smile on his face - cute, perhaps, but not nearly so interesting. The result is a vague sort of impression that because things have gone well in the past, Wright thinks it likely, possibly even (but not explicitly) necessary, that they will continue to go well in the future. (Perhaps only a modern American, even a Californian, could have written this book.)
A brief duel near the middle of the book with Popper's ideas on the inability of historical studies to predict future developments is unconvincing. Popper was surely discussing something considerably more refined than Wright's generalist approach - after all, one buys into mutual funds which have performed well in the past on the odds that they will continue to do so, but this still does not mean that the behaviour of the stock exchange is predictable.
This is an optimist's sociology book - read it for a nice, warm and fuzzy feel of an idea of the universe as a place built for progress, but don't expect any paradigm-changing revelations. Overall, I rate it an interesting read, but ultimately dissappointing.