THE WHOLE BALL OF NON-ZERO-SUMNESS
Interview with Robert Wright
by Dike Blair
Over a twelve year span Robert Wright wrote three books which, cumulatively, touch on most of the hard and soft sciences, history, ethics, philosophy, and theology. In his first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information (1988), he profiles computer scientist Ed Fredkin, sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, and philosopher Kenneth Boulding. Toward the end of the book he integrates his subjects' research and thinking into a larger pattern and then makes conjectures around how this pattern may hold keys to "the meaning of it all."
In The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (1994), he describes the science of evolutionary psychology and maps the (then) current thinking in that field. He argues that morality is, at least in part, a product of natural selection. And the book is also a very neat biography of Charles Darwin rendered from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000), Wright's latest is a big-idea book about the entire sweep of human history and the evolution of life. Nonzero employs the language of game theory to argue that man's history has evolved in a non-zero-sum direction--that, over the long-run, civilizations have grown into a rich and complex interdependency that has made things, on balance, better for everyone. Then he argues that biological life also evolved in a direction--toward one of greater complexity and a higher capacity to store and analyze information. Finally, he proposes that all of this is suggestive of some bigger meaning, and he returns to, and extends, the metaphysical speculations he initiated in Three Scientists. Because a teleological, or directional, approach to history and evolution suggests beginnings and endings, it's inevitable that in two of his books Wright has ends up asking the questions that both science and religion converge around, issues of grand design, meaning, and God.
Wright's style is casual, engaging, and accessible. He almost seems to have internalized the approaches inherent to the disciplines he writes about--his writing embodies scientific precision and humanistic compassion. Sometimes his thinking and writing are so precise as to seem simple, and to belie the complexity of his arguments. When Wright takes the late Stephen Jay Gould, a non-directionalist in evolutionary matters, to task, there's no mistaking his disdain for imprecise science and writing.
Wright was born in 1957 in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs and soon after went to work at "The Sciences" magazine. He's a contributing editor at The New Republic, Time magazine, and Slate; and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Magazine. In 2001 he created the web site, meaningoflife.tv (also reviewed in this issue). He graciously consented to this phone interview.
Dike Blair: Was the search for meaning something you grew into? It was certainly part of your first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods? Did it go back further?
Robert Wright: The search itself probably starts when, having been brought up as a Southern Baptist, I encounter the theory of natural selection in adolescence. The theory makes sense on one hand, on the other, the Southern Baptists that I was associating with didn't believe in evolution. That created a kind of tension that provoked further thought about a reconciliation of science and meaning. As far as the type of solution implied in Three Scientists and made more explicit in Nonzero, that was probably taking shape not long before I started working on Three Scientists, during college and a little bit afterwards. I wouldn't say that after that book I've any major transformations really. Expect for maybe putting both biological and cultural evolution in the language of game theory; that occurred to me later in the 1980s. Still, the belief that there is directionality in both biological and cultural evolution, and that that is a fruitful place to look for meaning, was pretty firmly in place before I started writing Three Scientists.
Dike Blair: How do you describe your job? Do you consider yourself a theoretician?
Robert Wright: I'm not sure that I have any claim to being an original theorist. I would say that "synthesizer" is a better word. I have moved from implicit, humble synthesis, like in Three Scientists where I humbly interview the scientists and meld their views together, to the more explicit, less humble, synthesis of Nonzero. Nonzero is not a "meet the scientist" kind of book, but one in which I purport to handle the analysis on my own. It's almost more of a genre change than a change in what I'm actually doing. Perhaps I've become less journalistic and more academic in my voice, even though I'm not an academic in the traditional sense of having a Ph.D.
Dike Blair: Is that possibly a life pattern--one grows into making grander analyses?
Robert Wright: I know an academic who complains that a lot of his colleagues, as they move into middle and old age, become afflicted with something he calls "philosopause," which is this compulsion not just to do science but to reflect on the meaning of it. I can't be accused of that, because I was reflecting on the meaning of it in my twenties (laughter).
Dike Blair: Speaking of big-picture thinking, Edward O. Wilson's recent book Consilience, felt extremely pessimistic. Nonzero on the other hand feels guardedly optimistic?
Robert Wright: I'd emphasize guarded. In the paperback version of Nonzero I ratcheted up the guardedness a little-this was before 9/11. I stressed the kind of threat that was subsequently manifested in 9/11. One misunderstanding of the book, more from people who haven't read the book than those who have, is the idea that I am optimistic without qualification, or that I believe a rosy outcome is inevitable. The optimistic scenario is dependent on our understanding of how grave the situation is and the outcome is far from assured.
As for Ed Wilson, he's optimistic in the intellectual realm. He is more confident than I am that science will answer the big questions. The older I get, the more confident I get that science will not be able to answer all the big questions.
Dike Blair: Without moral guidance?
Robert Wright: First of all, some parts of science are getting extremely weird. Take quantum physics. It's been during my lifetime that so-called quantum entanglement has been experimentally demonstrated.
Dike Blair: You need to help me here.
Robert Wright: This is where you send two photons off in opposite directions and you measure one and force it to assume a definite state. The state it assumes leads the other photon, which is now far away, to instantaneously assume the same state. This, to a layperson at least, seems remarkably like influence traveling faster than the speed of light, which is precluded by the theory of relativity. So, I'm more cognizant of the weird implications of modern physics. Even in Three Scientists I talk about the mysteriousness of consciousness, but I'm as convinced as ever that consciousness is really weird and not adequately explained by any of the people who think they have an explanation for it. And I guess this is one reason why I think there's a place for what you could call a religious or spiritual point of view--even in the mind of someone who is completely conversant in modern science. The other thing is that some parts of science are actively suggestive of a kind of higher purpose.
Dike Blair: Could you give an example?
Robert Wright: Actually, as far as "actively suggesting" a kind of higher purpose, I think what I had in mind was the last couple of chapters of Nonzero--the fact that biological and cultural evolution together exhibit not just a directionality, but a morally rich directionality. I don't think I'd say quantum entanglement actively suggests any particular spiritual dimension; I'd just say it reminds us how little we understand about the fabric of reality and leaves room for metaphysical speculation with a spiritual flavor. I'd say the same thing about the problem of consciousness.
Dike Blair: Can you, or do you, label your religious beliefs?
Robert Wright: I certainly can't label them concisely, as none of the short labels quite apply. I guess, strictly speaking, "agnostic" applies, since I'm not sure of anything. But I'm more religiously inclined than the average agnostic at least in the sense of thinking there's a good chance that there's some overarching purpose, some point to this whole exercise.
Dike Blair: Could there be a scientific explanation for consciousness?
Robert Wright: Well, in a way consciousness can never be amenable to scientific study in the way a lot of things are because it's not publicly observable. What it's like to be me is not something that anyone else can observe. They can observe the neurons that are correlated with my states of experience, but they can't observe the state of experience. Science, by definition, deals with things that are publicly observable. More than one person can look through the microscope and agree on what's there. Subjective experience, by its nature, resists that kind of inquiry. It's another realm, and I don't think that's something everyone appreciates.
Dike Blair: You say in Nonzero that we're at a historical threshold. What makes this point in time singular?
Robert Wright: We're at a point where social organization, having started at the level of hunter-gatherer village, is now approaching the global level. We have the option of either sustaining this direction and, in principle, ushering in an era of some degree of peace and order; or of blowing the whole thing apart. Those are the two options we face and which route we go depends, to some extent, on our further moral development. Certainly we need political development as well, but what's more interesting is that history has driven us to the point of a moral crossroads.
There is a growing sense of a community of nations, and I don't just mean the UN. I mean the degree to which nations are economically intertwined and the extent to which that forces people from other cultures to acknowledge the legitimacy of one another. That's a very hopeful dynamic and we're not as far as some people think from getting all nations to join that economic, political, and moral club. I think becoming a true embedded member of the global political and economic community tends to lead citizens to a more cosmopolitan moral outlook in which they're more inclined to tolerate people of different religious beliefs, different races, and so on.
At the same time there are parts of the world in which you wouldn't call this the central story line right now. That's the great challenge that was crystallized by 9/11.
Dike Blair: So accelerated commerce forces tolerance?
Robert Wright: In the long run, economic integration does encourage tolerance. In the short run, economic modernization is so culturally unsettling that it can have the opposite effect. That's the dilemma. I think you have to go with the long run effect for the most part. The goal has to be continued globalization and economic integration, although because of the unsettling dynamic of rapid change I think we should learn to live with things that will slow globalization down. Regulating the global economy in areas such as labor and environment laws would slow globalization, but probably to good effect, on balance.
Dike Blair: Do you talk about your new book?
Robert Wright: It will be about the evolution of religion and will assume the form of a historical narrative about the origins and development of religion. But, it's going to be motivated by a couple questions about the contemporary world. First, can religion be reconciled with modern science? And, secondly, can the religions be reconciled with one another in an era of globalization? And then, what kinds of doctrinal accommodations would they have to make in order to reconcile themselves with one another?
Dike Blair: Would it be prescriptive on any level?
Robert Wright: Not quite prescriptive, no. But at the end of the book I'll sketch out my conception of a kind of spiritual, if not religious, world view that I find consistent with science--a world view that could, in principle, have appeal to people of various cultural and national backgrounds. A lot of the book will be looking at how in the past religions have been called upon to make the kinds of accommodations that they're now being asked to make again. Historically, religions have encountered one another and adjusted to one another, sometimes peacefully and gracefully. They've encountered scientific knowledge, or other forms of secular knowledge, and responded to it, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. A lot of the book will be developing a kind of database for what kinds of future evolutionary paths are open to the world's religions.
Dike Blair: In Nonzero you pretty much predicted a 9/11 type incident. How do you think we, the US, are doing in dealing with our post-9/11 global policies?
Robert Wright: Pretty badly. The war in Afghanistan was handled pretty capably and I think a lot of the police work including the international police work, is being done pretty well. I don't think the administration understands the extent to which hatred is the enemy. I don't think they understand how easily in the future, for technological reasons, hatred is going to morph into the death of lots of Americans. It isn't just the weapons of mass destruction, although they're also a problem, it's the way information technology is going to make it so easy for a few intensely disgruntled people to organize and wreck havoc. I don't see much attention at all being given this issue.
There are a lot of policies that have the downside of generating hatred, whether it's rounding up people from Islamic countries in America and having them fingerprinted, or lobbing missiles at cars in Yemen. I don't know that either of those things is a bad idea all things considered because both of them obviously have an upside. But they both have a downside in terms of sewing the seeds of future discontent and, possibly, future terrorism. As far as I can tell, this is getting almost no attention or discussion. I think the Bush administration is almost completely oblivious to this dimension of the problem. That's really bothersome.
All of this gets back to this whole thing about the direction of history. As depressing as I find our current situation, I can still step back and say, it's interesting and almost beautiful that history has, in my view, almost inexorably pushed us to this point where our own future wellbeing depends on our worrying about the discontents of people all over the world, and to whom we don't have any superficially obvious connection. I think this was built into the very logic of history.
To the extent that technology connects you to people globally, you do share their problems. We're in a nonzero sum relationship with these people. A nonzero sum relationship is one in which your future fortunes are, to some extent, positively correlated; what's good for them is good for you, what's bad for them is bad for you. It's scary because if we don't get the picture, the result is bad for everybody.
Books by Robert Wright:
Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information (1988)
The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (1994) Also available in French from Michalon.
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000)