Wright's 'Nonzero' -- naivete of evolution

February 20, 2000|By Kay Chubbuck | By Kay Chubbuck,Special to the Sun

"Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," by Robert Wright. Pantheon Press. 544 pages. $27.50 pages.

Already, Robert Wright has been inducted into the great Valhalla of evolutionary philosophy, with critics' hailing "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny" as a classic on the order of Charles Darwin. "Nonzero," they say, will change our view of life. Its emphasis on the design of history and the destiny of man makes it potentially one of the most important books of our time.

The book's appeal: its explanation of "cultural evolution," ranging from the warring chiefdoms of the past to the global economy of today. Such change, for Wright, proves that humanity is shooting like "an arrow" toward success, and to illustrate his theories, Wright devotes much of "Nonzero" to the story of the world.

Yet for this reader at least, "Nonzero" is passe. It is a cobbled-together version of outdated ideas that enlists a series of intellectual fads -- game theory, Polynesia, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin -- in the attempt to make it a hot ticket at the local Barnes & Noble (or at least the stuff of which Starbucks conversations are made). After all, the idea of history as "an arrow" went out with the corset and the horse-drawn carriage.

Part of the trouble with Wright's view of history is that he does what no legitimate historian would do: he views all of it. Beginning with single-celled organisms in the primordial slime, he gives an eccentric account of Alaskan hunter-gatherers, Native American rabbit-catchers and Sumerian fortune-tellers until he leaps to the New World Order. Each of his early examples (with the exception of feudal Europe, which, with the help of Europeans, "evolved") is stunningly taken from the nonwestern world. Yet it is this fallacy -- that Chinese, African or Native American civilizations did not measure up to those of Europe -- that motivated empire-builders to conquer the world.

Similarly, Wright's application of game theory is flawed. The book's title is derived from its concept of non-zero-sumness, yet Wright uses this term as simply a trendy euphemism for cooperative behavior. And von Neumann and Morgenstern's seminal "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" doesn't appear in his bibliography. Instead, Wright lists an entry from the "Encyclopedia Britannica."

This is not to say that "Nonzero" lacks appeal. Fascinatingly, it focuses on Teilhard de Chardin, a controversial Jesuit paleontologist who believed humanity is evolving, mentally and socially, toward an Omega Point. Not only does Wright privilege this vision of history, he also claims Teilhard de Chardin's "noosphere" was in fact a prescience of the World Wide Web. Yet not even here is Wright unique. Wired magazine hailed the Jesuit as the father of the Internet five years ago. Current online fanzines call him their patron saint.

Ultimately, "Nonzero" fails where it tries to succeed, in ousting thinkers who are more complex, and who dismiss these notions of "cultural evolution" that Wright holds dear. Yet if these flaws mean "Nonzero" will not electrify its age, it is valuable in its sunny portrayal of human life. Stressing such grand concepts as "destiny" and "purpose," Wright offers his readers a comforting cup of tea as they sit contemplating the mysteries of an ever-changing world. In Wright's eyes, our computers, our microwaves and our e-mail accounts have set us at the pinnacle of human achievement. History has meaning, life has focus. The only way is up.

Kay Chubbuck is an assistant professor of 19th century British literature at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has writen for Newsweek, Outside and other publications.

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