Robert Wright lays out quite a comprehensive view of human history for his arguments on cultural evolution. He paraphrases the book in this TED talk Robert Wright on Cultural Evolution.
Reading through the actual book though it seems like Wright has a set of great arguments hiding behind a poor thesis. He actually has spendid arguments for universal darwinism, but tries to tie them up in this idea that evolution has a “direction”. This is silly for several reasons. One, it confuses the whole idea of evolution in the first place, and two it opens up the book to criticism from those who will take this as a “justification of civilized culture”. To say that culture is subject to principles of mutation selection and retention of evolutionary theory is fine. Wright is even justified in looking backwards and identifying a trend line towards more complex social structures. As soon as this is extrapolated forward towards some ideal however, that is where he misses. It would be like saying that evolution was directed towards larger body size because of the trend in dinosaurs. Evolution is just a word for how environmental pressures lead to changing features- and the envinronement is always changing.
Nevertheless. The book is wonderful because it bring forward one of the most complete arguments for universal darwinism I have seem (without ever mentioning the term). Wright revives the view of groups as organisms with cultural and technological identity. What we in fact see when we look at history is a biological, cultural and technological co-evolution.
In nature we see mostly biological evolution which relies on fitness and competition for reproductive success. Humans differ in that we use technology to improve our chances for survival and these technologies too change over time. Wright pulls in the organism theory of groups to show how culture has evolved to strengthen to survival of an overall group by finding mechanism for reinforcing altrusitic behaviors or “groupishness” (to use a term he does not).
The title concept of the book is a nod to game theory. Games with a winner +1, and a loser -1 are said to be non-zero sum games. Despite this awkward phrasing it is effective, but Wright points out some important subtle features of “non-zero sum-ness”. Importantly it is also lose-lose as well as win-win. Also, NZS games often arise from alliances in playing zero sum games. For example in the TED talk Wright says that Tennis is an example of a Zero Sum Gam (ZSG), but doubles includes NZS-ness in the sense that there are teams. So, peaceful alliances may be more likely to form to prevent war, or as part of shoring up one side in a battle. I’m left thinking that we need more cold wars to encourage innovations and collaboration through an external threat, while minimizing actual deaths. In the end NZS-ness is just an added feature that encourages the proliferation of cultural innovation.
Yet – how do large groups that necessarily have lower status members prevent disintegration? Why would low status members continually participate in a system that does not offer them a pathway towards higher status? This is a question for another post.