Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In Nonzero Robert Wright argues convincingly that certain patterns in biological and cultural evolution cannot properly be attributed to contingency or accident but rather point to an underlying teleology”for him, a fully naturalized teleology. Most teleologies of the past have looked to some entity or principle beyond the strictly material and physical. Bossuet’s universal history guided by providence, Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit, Bergson’s élan vital, and Teilhard de Chardin’s omega point”all invoked quasi“mystical elements. Wright wants none of this. Instead, he wants a teleology acceptable to the most hard“core of scientific materialists.

Wright’s naturalized teleology unites two theories: Darwinism and game theory, the latter a mathematical theory widely employed in the social sciences (especially economics). Wright is neither a biologist nor a mathematician, and he never ex­ plains or justifies these theories, being content to presuppose them and apply them as broadly as possible.

Wright’s naturalized teleology works as follows. Organisms, whether evolving biologically or culturally, face pressures that can hinder them from leaving offspring. For biological evolution the offspring are genes; for cultural evolution they are “memes” (this coinage by Richard Dawkins denotes a basic unit of cultural information, e.g., a religious doctrine). The essential characteristic of organisms is reproduction, and what they reproduce are genes (through biological reproduction) or memes (through cultural dissemination). Genes and memes, according to Wright, constitute an organism’s enduring heritage.

Now the question most on Wright’s mind is how specific genes and memes emerge, become prominent, and ultimately dominate a gene or meme pool. For Wright the answer always devolves to the interplay between Darwinian natural selection, zero“sum games, and non“zero“sum games. According to Wright there is a well“defined logic to this interplay. Initially there’s a zero“sum game, that is, an interaction between organisms where one’s loss is another’s gain. Zero“sum games place enormous stress on an organism and lead it to seek support from fellow organisms that are, as Wright puts it, “in the same boat.”

Organisms in the same boat, facing common external pressure, do best by rowing in sync”in other words, by cooperating. In the language of game theory, they now need to play a non“zero“sum game where what benefits one benefits others. Those non“zero“sum solutions that best benefit the group will then be selected since they lead to the survival and flourishing of the group. Such solutions include novel biological structures and technological innovation. Accor­ ding to Wright this is how novel genes and memes are generated.

Let us call this interplay between Darwinian selection, zero“sum games, and non“zero“sum games Wright’s “nonzero dynamic.” According to Wright, the nonzero dynamic confers a direction on biological and cultural evolution by leading to increased complexity over time”the teleology in Wright’s scheme.

To see how complexity emerges from Wright’s nonzero dynamic, consider his favorite metaphor to describe the nonzero dynamic: an “arms race.” An arms race is a zero“sum game between two (or more) nations that leads to a non“zero“sum game within a nation as it desperately seeks to produce the most effective countermeasures against its common enemy. For Wright all biological and cultural progress consists in innovating successful countermeasures according to the nonzero dynamic.

Let’s look at one example of this dynamism at work in biology. Bombardier beetles squirt a hot noxious fluid at predators, a trick that evolved under pressure from predators who would otherwise devour them. But what about the predators who can now no longer devour these beetles and whose livelihood is now in jeopardy? In some cases they evolved novel behaviors for causing the beetle to discharge its fluid harmlessly and thus render it vulnerable. The next round in the arms race may feature an adaptation that improves the beetle’s hot“noxious“fluid delivery system.

This example concerns biological evolution, but according to Wright his nonzero dynamic applies equally well to cultural evolution. Everything from political systems to religious ideas to technological advances is explained by the nonzero dynamic. One political system gives way to another because it cannot handle new challenges. One religion gives way to another because it can no longer make sense of the world. One technology gives way to another because it can no longer keep pace with our needs. According to Wright, the nonzero dynamic drives innovation and thereby continually enriches and regenerates the world.

Wright sees the nonzero dynamic as a positive force in history. In purchasing increased complexity over time, biological and cultural evolution also purchases increasingly complex networks of what Wright calls “non“zero“sumness.” (For Wright this word, more than any other, captures what his book is about”he even wanted to make it the title, though prudence, and editors with an ear for the English language, ultimately dissuaded him.) Complex innovations require complex organizational structures to produce them. Thus, according to Wright, the nonzero dynamic leads inexorably to increasingly larger webs of interconnectedness, of which the World Wide Web is currently our most notable example. Moreover, once a web of interconnectedness playing a non“zero“sum game becomes global, some degree of universal cooperation is achieved.

But Wright is not a utopian. Although the push of the nonzero dynamic is toward increased cooperation, historical contingency can always derail non“zero“sumness in any given instance. The nonzero dynamic is probabilistic and statistical; it says where history as a whole is heading without guaranteeing where any item of history may end up. According to Wright, humans may well destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust. But if so, a new species will take its place, one that attains our level of intelligence but is more adept at enabling universal non“zero“sumness to prevail. The message of Wright’s book is, to paraphrase John Lennon, “give non“zero“sumness a chance.”

Here, then, is Wright’s grand vision. What can be said about it by way of criticism? Perhaps the most well“known criticism comes from Stephen Jay Gould, who in works that predate Wright’s argues that biological and cultural evolution is thoroughly contingent”that if the tape of history were replayed, not only would we not be here, but nothing like us would be here. Nonetheless, the pattern of convergence in biological and cultural evolution seriously undermines Gould’s contingency claim. The same sorts of biological structures and cultural artifacts keep being reinvented. Eyes have been reinvented dozens of times in the course of evolutionary history. And how many times has the wheel been invented in human history?

A different line of criticism begins with what philosopher David Lewis calls an “incredulous stare.” Whatever the arguments pro or con, it is simply too much to believe that the nonzero dynamic can explain the totality of biological and cultural evolution. Wright’s nonzero dynamic is a universal problem“solver that purports to explain everything and thus explains too much. The skeptic in us shies away from such universal problem“solvers.

Even so, an incredulous stare is not an argument. What specifically is wrong with Wright’s nonzero dynamic? In a recent debate at Baylor University between Wright and professional skeptic Michael Shermer, Shermer tried to run through some examples from biological and cultural evolution where the nonzero dynamic failed. The problem is that the nonzero dynamic is incredibly plastic. Indeed, by being fundamentally probabilistic, it is able to accommodate apparent exceptions by dismissing them as failed experiments that do nothing to undermine the ultimate success of non“zero“sumness.

Although there is a flaw in the nonzero dynamic, it can’t be shown through historical counterexamples. The subtitle of Wright’s book is, after all, “The Logic of Human Destiny,” and it is here that the weakness in his argument appears”though perhaps the problem is not so much logical error as oversight. Wright is on to something with his nonzero dynamic, but it is not the complete explanation of natural and historical development he takes it to be. Wright argues that the nonzero dynamic is sufficient to account for biological and cultural innovation. I would argue that it forms a necessary backdrop for biological and cultural innovation, but that besides Darwinian natural selection and game theory a tertium quid is required”namely, intelligence.

The indispensability of this tertium quid becomes evident when we compare Wright’s treatment of cultural evolution to his treatment of biological evolution. Although the nonzero dynamic is supposed to assimilate both to a common framework, Wright’s treatment of the two is actually quite different. Over and over we read that a non“zero“sum situation leads to some cultural innovation because it was a “good idea.” But good ideas only come from idea“makers, namely, intelligent agents. Non­ zero dynamics set the stage for innovations to occur, but they are not sufficient. A telephone may be a good idea given a certain stage in cultural evolution, but it still takes an Alexander Graham Bell to invent it. This is obvious for cultural changes, but Wright overlooks the fact that biological innovations also require intelligent agents to actualize the conditions made possible by the nonzero dynamic. A bacterial flagellum may be a good idea for propelling bacteria through watery environments, but who or what is the designer of such bi-directional outboard rotary motors?

Wright would have us believe that any addition of intelligent agency to his nonzero dynamic is superfluous. For Wright, natural selection is an incredibly creative force that produced the very human intellects that in turn guide cultural evolution. The “good ideas” needed to make biological and cultural evolution work are, for Wright, ultimately explained by natural selection. If natural selection is not the creative force that he makes out, though, then Wright’s argument is in trouble. He assumes without argument the strongest claims on behalf of Darwinism and from there develops his nonzero dynamic. But the capacity of the Darwinian mechanism to generate complex, information“rich biological structures is increasingly coming under fire, and not just from members of the burgeoning intelligent design movement. Complex self“organization, as developed by the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific think tank, is also challenging the completeness of Darwinian natural selection as a mechanism for generating biological innovation. Complex systems, according to the Santa Fe paradigm, can emerge from purely physical properties of an underlying physical substrate”e.g., hexagonal frost patterns emerge spontaneously by water condensing on a cold window pane.

To sum up, this is an intelligent and well“written book that should be read by anyone interested in whether history has a direction. It is an ambitious book, and somewhat predictably tries to do too much, assimilating the grand sweep of history to an ultimately inadequate framework. In particular, by placing inordinate weight on natural selection, Wright fails to address adequately the challenge posed by intelligent agency. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly implausible that all the good ideas in history ultimately derive from natural selection”non“zero“sumness notwithstanding.

William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Seattle“based Discovery Institute. His latest book is Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.