Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny - by Robert Wright

You can capture history's basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer form of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential--that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth. In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of evermore-numerous, ever-larger, and ever-more-elaborate non-zero-sum games. It is the accumulation of these games--game upon game upon game--that constitutes the growth in biological and social complexity that people like Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin have talked about. I like to refer to this accumulation as an accumulation of "non-zero-sumness." Non-zero-sumness is a kind of potential--a potential for overall gain, or for overall loss, depending on how the game is played.


After the Second World War, two of the most famous thinkers of this century--Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper--took up arms against theories of historical directionality. In the slim volume Historical Inevitability, Berlin attacked the notion "that the world has a direction and is governed by laws, and that the direction and the laws can in some degree be discovered by employing the proper techniques of investigation." Popper, in The Poverty of Historicism, announced that he had proved--literally proved--that predicting the future is flat-out impossible. After Berlin and Popper wrote, the kind of "bigthink" they opposed--"speculative history," or "metahistory"--became an endangered species.


One premise of cultural evolutionism is "the psychic unity of humankind"--the idea that people everywhere are genetically endowed with the same mental equipment, that there is a universal human nature. The psychic unity of humankind is the reason that around the world, on every continent, cultural evolution has moved in the same direction. The Shoshone and Fuegians observed by Twain and Darwin weren't "living fossils"--they were anatomically modern human beings, just like you or me--but their cultures were living fossils.

Hunting big animals encourages sharing not just because leftover meat can spoil but also because hunting is a chancier endeavor than gathering--so using current surplus to insure against future shortage pays especially big non-zero-sum dividends. All told, then, it is not surprising that social complexity tends to be higher among hunter-gatherers who rely heavily on big game. The more important big game is, the more non-zero-sumness there is, the more society organizes to harness that non-zero-sumness--to turn it into positive sums.


Capital investment and division of labor are things we take for granted. They happen naturally in an economy with a currency, a stock exchange, and a bond market. The Northwest Coast Indians didn't have a capitalist economy, or even a currency, yet they managed to play the same basic non-zero-sum games capitalists play. How? Through the great enemy of Adam Smith aficionados: centralized planning.

The more recent the hunter-gatherer remains in a given region, the more likely they are to speak of social and technological complexity. And in particularly lush spots--along rivers, lakes, and oceans--the complexity often approaches that of the Northwest Coast Indians.

A mature evolutionary theory is bolstered, not undermined, by the parallels between complex hunter-gatherer societies and modern economies. To deny any directionality in cultural evolution is to say that the aborigines, or the Shoshone, or the !Kung, left to their own devices, would show no natural tendency toward higher levels of technological sophistication and social complexity. This is of course ridiculous. Every known hunter-gatherer culture embodies a technological evolution that speaks of stubborn ingenuity focused on the resources at hand. All of these cultures show longstanding, incremental progress. That this trend would continue indefinitely, had it not been interrupted by outsiders, is a central tenet of cultural evolutionism--or, more precisely, of the kind of cultural evolutionism championed in this book: a hard-core kind that sees the coming of the modern world as having been all but inevitable. To deny that tenet is to deny, explicitly or implicitly, the unity of humankind, the fundamental equality of aptitude and aspiration among people of all races.


If surplus isn't the ticket to wealth, what is? What did create all the specialization and trade found in "complex" hunter-gatherer ocieties? What did the Northwest Coast Indians have that the Shoshone didn't have? What was the key to prehistoric economic development? Two factors, Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, are especially conducive to the growing division of labor that characterizes economic advance. One is cheap transportation. The second is cheap communication. The costs of finding out what buyer want--and the cost to buyers of finding out what's available, and at what price--have to be bearable for transaction to ensue. At all levels, the movement of Smith's "invisible hand" gets smoother as information and transportation costs drop. The lower these costs, the more highly non-zero-sum the relationship among the players--the more each can gain via interaction, the more productive, per capita, the web of exchange. How to keep these costs low if your communications and transportation technologies are primitive? One way is to stay near your customers and suppliers. In other words: live in a society with high population density.

Guiding any invisible hand there must be an "invisible brain." Its neurons are people. The more neurons there are in regular and easy contact, the better the brain works--the more finely it can divide economic labor, the more diverse the resulting products. And, not incidentally, the more rapidly technological innovations take shape and spread. As economists who espouse "new growth theory" have stressed, it takes only one person to invent something that the whole group can then adopt (since information is a "non-rival" good). So the more possible inventors--that is, the larger the group--the higher its collective rate of innovation.

Even if new ideas flow mainly from the synergy of a large, dense invisible brain, environmental stress could also spur innovations--and, in any event, could make people more receptive to them. So whether or not stress often triggers the birth of technologies and social structures, it could certainly hasten their spread. To borrow some terminology from biological evolution: stress raises the rate at which cultural "mutations" proliferate; it raises the "selective pressure."

Whether people are trying to add to their wealth or avert disaster, their rational pursuit of self-interest is leading to economic cooperation and social integration that make them better off than they otherwise would be. So either way, you expect population growth to foster upward cultural evolution. And since the human population has grown with few interruptions ever since it was human, the impetus behind cultural evolution would seem to be strong. Technological, economic, and political development spur population even as population spurs them. In this symbiotic growth lies the inexorable power of cultural complexification.

A hunter-gatherer is a vast and general data bank, featuring arcane knowledge about local flora and fauna and a basic grasp of all known technology. The average European in Columbus's day knew much less about nature, and very little about most European technology. He or she used the cerebral space thus saved by specializing in one narrow economic task. It was the synergy of many such specialized European brains that created the technology with which Columbus and other such men intimidated Indians. Individual native Americans weren't stupider than individual fifteenth-century Europeans--they just had the disadvantage of being Renaissance Men.


A good rough-and-ready index of non-zero-sumness: the extent to which fates are shared. War, by making fates more shared, by manufacturing non-zero-sumness, accelerates the evolution of culture toward deeper and vaster social complexity. As Spencer observed, war, "requiring prompt combination in the actions of parts, necessitates subordination. Societies in which there is little subordination disappear." Again and again, societies have chosen subordination over disappearance. Faced with war, they fall in line.

In the short run, this impetus for aggregation may seem aimless. Alliances shift, tensions come and go, and large social structures dissolve almost a often a they form. But in the long run, over millennia, the worldwide trend has been toward consolidation, toward higher and higher levels of political organization. And one reason is war--intense, essentially zero-sum games that generate non-zero-sum

One could describe the congealing effect of war by saying it pushes people together into organic solidarity; it poses an external threat that impels them into closer cooperation. And one could describe the causes of solidarity emphasized in previous chapters--the economic causes--as pulling people together; opportunities for gain originate within the society and draw people into closer cooperation.

Note how war--or at least the threat of it--narrows the range of choice. In the previous chapter I more or less assumed that people tend to harvest the fruits of non-zero-sumness; they just naturally like to raise their standard of living and to insulate themselves against risk. This fondness for bounty and security assures that they will try to realize positive sums, experimenting with new technologies and new forms of social organization; and this realization sustains the basic directional drift of history. Whether I'm right in this claim about human nature certainly matters, but in a context of war--the context of human history--it matter less. For in that context people have little choice but to pursue economic and organizational advance. After all, unproductive societies tend to get squashed. All of this brings us back to Kant's emphasis on "unsocial sociability." The realm of "sociability"--the geographic scope within which peace reigns--has grown massively since our hunter-gatherer days. And commensurately massive quantities of unsociability have been overcome. Yet they are often overcome under the ironic stimulus of higher-order unsociability. To put this dynamic of cultural evolution in the Darwinian language of natural selection: what is "selected for" is larger and larger expanses of non-zero-sumness, but one of the main selectors is the zero-sum dimension of war. In this sense, waging war, in the end, is waging peace.


Misconception number one: that cultural evolutionists believe change is guided by farsighted reason. Actually, cultural evolution has involved little advanced planning. The question isn't why hunter-gatherers "chose" farming, but why they chose the long series of tiny steps leading imperceptibly to it. Part of the answer is that these hunter-gatherers were people. People are innately curious. They fiddle around with nature and try to bend it to their will.

The assumption that primitive culture are static is grounded in misconception number two: the idea of intrinsic equilibrium--the idea that cultures stay the same unless jostled by such outside forces as retreating glaciers or sudden drought. It is the assumption of equilibrium that compels archaeologists to seek an external "cause" for any development as dramatic as agriculture. As we've seen, the main impediment to farming isn't thought to be a lack of inventiveness, but rather a lack of necessity. As Marvin Harris has put it, "What keeps hunter-collectors from switching over to agriculture is not ideas but cost/benefits. The idea of agriculture is useless when you can get all the meat and vegetables you want from a few hours of hunting and collecting per week." Here, aiding and abetting the "equilibrium" fallacy, is misconception number three: that human societies are fundamentally unified, devoted to meeting their collective needs. The mistake gets back to the romantic notion of hunter-gatherer societies as oases of communal bliss. All for one and one for all. And if all are getting enough food, then why should anyone bother trying something new? The answer is that hunter-gatherer are in truth just like us. They're competitive, they're status-hungry, and, above all, they are individuals. In those hunter-gatherer societies that are proto-agricultural, the cluster of cultivated wild foods aren't typically community property; usually they are owned by a particular family or extended family that dispenses the harvest as it sees fit. Once you start thinking of hunter-gatherer a driven by the physical and psychic needs of themselves and their families, there is no shortage of reasons why they might cultivate plants in their spare time.

The problem with scholars mystified by agriculture's origins isn't that they are unaware of status hierarchies in horticultural and fully agrarian societies. The problem is that they tend to view the hierarchy as a product of domestication--in which case it couldn't be a cause. Hence, misconception number four: the notion of the "egalitarian" hunter-gatherer band. The layperson's common-sense notions about life among prehistoric hunter-gatherer is on target: adversity was part of life, shortage loomed over the horizon, and fortune favored the prepared. Between the quest for status and the quest for sheer survival, we have a powerful impetus behind the evolution of agriculture.

In the end, then, the claim that agriculture is "not yet satisfactorily explained" is misleading at best. If anything, the coming of farming was "overdetermined"--there is a surplus, not a shortage, of plausible explanations: the struggle for status within societies, armed struggle between societies, and the struggle against scarcity. Of course, "excessive" explanatory power is no scientific vice when the three explanations are logically compatible.

This long, clear trend--the ever-more-intensive search for food--is rather at odds with the image of hunter-gatherer sitting around picking their teeth until some external change created a sudden need for agriculture. More specifically, it is at odds with the assumption that a hunter-gatherer band wouldn't embrace new food techniques unless they were clearly less arduous than the old ones. As the scholars T. Douglas Price and James A. Brown have noted, additions to the hunter-gatherer diet during the millennia preceding agriculture were often "more costly in terms of procurement and processing" than were existing foods. All of this leaves agriculture looking less revolutionary than evolutionary. Hunter-gatherers had long been working hard to intensify their yield, getting more and more food from a given acre of land. Farming was "no great conceptual break with traditional subsistence patterns," in the words of Mark Nathan Cohen, one of the first anthropologists to voice doubts about the notion of a natural "equilibrium." To be sure, agriculture would ultimately prove revolutionary, a technology that would restructure society. Indeed, the rate of social change after agriculture so surpassed the more sedate pre-agricultural rate that it is fair to speak of a kind of "equilibrium" being disrupted. But the point is that the disruptor wasn't some external and whimsical force, such as drought or retreating glaciers, but rather internal and inherent forces, such as social striving and population growth.

At the outset of this chapter, we suggested that perhaps farming arose simply because it was a "good idea." But "good" in what sense? In the sense that it helped people avoid starvation? In the sense that it helped people win wars? In the sense that it helped people gain status? Yes--in the sense that it helped people do the things that people try to do. And, by virtue of thus satisfying people, the idea of farming was "good" in another, very fundamental, sense: it was good at getting itself spread; in cultural evolution's war of all against all, the concept of farming was a survivor.


So far as we can tell from the archaeological record, all the ancient state-level societies were preceded in cultural evolution by chiefdoms. So far as we can tell from the ethnographic record, the leaders of chiefdoms have routinely claimed special access to divine force. And, remarkably, their people have typically considered this claim plausible.

Chiefdoms seem to have flourished in part by harnessing large quantities of non-zero-sumness. The chief, like the Northwest Indians' Big Man, orchestrated much of the necessary coordination. But the orchestra was larger--thousands, even tens of thousands of people, sometimes spread over diverse landscapes, with diverse resources. So economic integration could be deeper and broader, with more division of labor and larger swaths of regular economic intercourse. Capital projects could be more ambitious--irrigation systems, even the occasional dam. Sounds wonderful. But it poses two puzzles. First, how could the cold logic of non-zero-sumness thrive in a hotbed of ridiculous superstition? How, if at all, did things like sun worship and ritual strangulation translate into economic efficiency? The second puzzle is how the stereotypical chief could be a faithful steward of the public good. Chiefs, after all, aren't known for their sensitivity to the welfare of others.

One standard response to this puzzle is simple: Chiefs actually didn't serve the public; they duped the public into serving them, and religion was part of the duping. In this view, a chiefdom's division of labor and its public works did yield positive-sums--more output than the same people could have produced working alone--but the chiefs then appropriated the gains rather than returning them to the people whose synergy created them. Chiefs, in short, were parasites. Here we revisit a venerable debate we've already touched on, a debate that applies to much of human history: the question of exploitation by ruling elites. At one extreme are Panglossian optimists, often of a rightward political bent, who can find the sunny side of the most gratuitous social inequality. At the other extreme are those--typically on the left, and sometimes Marxist--who see exploitation everywhere they look.

The question isn't so much why chiefs weren't wholly equitable as why they bothered with equity at all. What might keep a chief on moderately good behavior, notwithstanding his awesome stature and the greed inherent in human nature? For starters: fear. Surprisingly, demigods can lead a precarious existence. As Elman Service put it, "the ‘rise and fall' of chiefdoms has been such a frequent phenomenon that it seems to be a part of their nature." There are two main sources of chiefly demise. One is losing war . The second source of chiefly demise: popular discontent. One of the great misunderstandings about evolved human nature is that people are sheep; that, because we evolved amid social hierarchy (true), we are designed to slavishly accept low status and blindly follow the leader (false). People by nature seek the highest status they can attain, under the circumstances, and they accept leadership only so long as it seems to serve their interests. When it doesn't, they start to grumble.

Nash's work--and the Natchez class system--is a reminder that non-zero-sumness, though a mainly good thing, isn't goodness itself. That it tends to grow naturally during history doesn't mean that common conceptions of justice and social equality will magically prevail "in the end" without extra guidance. Still, human nature does tend to place some limit on injustice. For a tiny elite to monopolize the fruits of mass labor is not generally feasible. The commoners grow restless. This is why leaders serve the public interest: not because they are public-spirited, but because neglecting the public welfare can diminish their own welfare.

Scholars who stress only the exploitative side of chiefdoms underestimate the difficulty a chief faces in trying to get things done in a moneyless economy--the difficulty of being a one-man invisible hand. It has become fashionable to write--as in the textbook quoted above--as if a chief's self-aggrandizement entailed no public service, but this is manifestly not the case.

The standard cynical view of religion in chiefdoms--that, as one archaeologist put it, chiefs simply "invent supernatural sanctions . . . to strengthen their authority"--make the theologizing, and the politicking, sound easier than they were. Human brains, having spent the last couple of million years of their biological evolution in a cultural milieu, are pretty good at selectively retaining memes that are good for them, while aggressively repelling memes that are bad for them. This is one problem with the idea of ruling elites whimsically imposing whole ideologies on brain-dead common folk.

The casual ascription of "viral" or "parasitic" properties to religion often rests on the conflation of two separate issues: truth and value. Religious doctrines have indeed often entrenched themselves in people's brains notwithstanding the fact that they are probably false. (Heaven and hell, for example.) But being false is not the same as being bad for the believer. Though all religions can have unpleasant side effects (neurotic aversion to "sin," say), it is hardly clear that religious belief is on balance worse than the various alternatives (heroin addiction, say). A premise of this book is that memes which manage to pass through the gauntlet of cultural selection, and come to characterize whole societies, often encourage non-zero-sum interaction. After all, a common reason that groups of people get emulated--families, clans, villages, baseball teams, corporations, sects, nations, whatever--is their productive and (relatively) harmonious interaction. So memes that bring productive harmony get admired and adopted. Consider, again, the heaven and hell memes. Almost all religions have the functional equivalent: good or bad consequences that are said to result from good or bad behavior. And, almost invariably, the "bad" behavior includes cheating in one sense or another: stealing your neighbor's property, lying about your contributions to the communal effort. By discouraging such parasitism, these religious memes help realize non-zero-sumness.


If there is even rough validity in equating writing with civilization--and there is--it lies along a different plane. "Civilization," in a more technical sense of the word, is sometimes used to denote societies that have reached the state level of organization. And while writing doesn't guarantee statehood, it is a helpful ingredient. It opens up whole new realms of non-zero-sumness, and greatly lubricates the transition from chiefdom to state. Around the world, the evolution of state-level societies was intertwined with new ways to record and transmit information.

Societies that fail to use writing to solve various dimensions of the "trust" problem, that fail to create space for non-zero-sumness, typically fall, often at the hands of societies that better harness writing's potential. In the long run, ancient states had no more "choice" about whether to adopt new information technologies than they had about whether to adopt chariots, bronze shields, or iron words. In all such cases, you use it or lose.


Archaeologists speak of six "pristine" civilizations--states that arose indigenously, and weren't merely copied from a nearby civilization, or imposed on the populace by conquest. The standard six are: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mesoamerica, South America, China, and the civilization of the Indus River valley (about which relatively little is known) in south Asia. Some scholars throw in West Africa as well.

THREE PETRI DISHES Archaeologists speak of six "pristine" civilizations--states that arose indigenously, and weren't merely copied from a nearby civilization, or imposed on the populace by conquest. The standard six are: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mesoamerica, South America, China, and the civilization of the Indus River valley (about which relatively little is known) in south Asia. Some scholars throw in West Africa as well. Calling West African civilization pristine is something of an exaggeration, given earlier contact with states to the north. Then again, calling some of the standard six "pristine" states pristine is a bit of a stretch. Indus script (still undeciphered) may have been inspired by Mesopotamia, which was exchanging memes with Egypt as well. And some diffusion, however thin, probably linked South America (the Inca and their cultural ancestors) and Mesoamerica (Aztecs, Maya, and others). Still, even after granting these early and occasionally momentous contacts, we are left with three large realms of ancient civilization, quite removed from each other: China, the Near East, and the New World. The scholarly consensus is that each developed its energy and information technologies--farming and writing--indigenously. And each then underwent its early civilizational history in essential isolation from the others.

Commerce was of growing importance not just among states but within them. Rulers increasingly found that trying to minutely control the creation of wealth was not the way to maximize it. By the first century A.D., McNeill observes, military and political power had come to depend heavily "on materials and services supplied to the ruler by merchants who responded to pecuniary and market motives more readily and more efficiently than to bureaucratic command." Slowly and fitfully, the basic chiefdom model of top-down, state-controlled economics, which seems to have lingered into the early phase of ancient civilization, was ceding ground to the logic of the market.

In ancient times, commerce persistently ventured beyond political bounds. (When an official from Han China ventured past the western border into terra incognita, he was shocked to find, on reaching Afghanistan, Chinese goods for sale.) And political control often caught up with commerce, strengthening its logic. By making passage easier and safer and extending the reach of a uniform legal code, governance lowered both the communications and trust barriers. Indeed, it is largely the surmounting of these two barriers that separated the dominant civilizations from the rest of the pack. Ask a historian to name two things that made Rome great, that served as paragons for posterity to emulate, and there's a fair chance you'll hear: "Roman roads and Roman law."

Pirates, however you handle them, are just one example of how turbulence and chaos often turn out to be harbingers of new forms of order.


We have to remember that the annals of this warfare between "civilization" and "barbarism" have been written almost exclusively by the scribes of the "civilized" camp.
—Arnold Toynbee

Did barbarians stand a real chance of ending the world's basic movement toward vaster and deeper social complexity? No. Indeed, the existence of barbarians, far from impeding cultural advance, may have, on balance, promoted it. This fact is illustrated even by the most famously devastating barbarian triumph: the fall of the Roman Empire.


  1. Barbarians are less "civilized" than their neighbors in a moral sense--less decent, less humane.

  2. Barbarians lack culture.

  3. Barbarians are beyond true edification. Granted that they've thought up a few neat ideas (often related to riding horses and killing people), when it comes to imparting culture to barbarians, you might as well be talking to a stone. When thinking about cultural evolution, don't get wrapped up in the particular people and peoples. Instead, keep your eye on the memes. People and peoples come and go, live and die. But their memes, like their genes, persist.

  4. Barbarians are by nature transient and chaotic.

  5. Barbarians were a peculiar affliction that for some reason materialized in the age of Rome (and then recurred occasionally, as with the Mongol maraudings of the late Middle Ages). If you explore the murky recesses of just about any famously civilized people, you'll find this dark secret: they started out as barbarians. As William McNeill wrote in The Rise of the West, "The history of civilization is a history of the expansion of particularly attractive cultural and social patterns through conversion of barbarians to modes of life they found superior to their own."

  6. Barbarian eruptions, in their chaos and destruction, are ironic punctuation to the supposedly progressive flow of cultural evolution. We've seen that barbarians, in the long run, fall in line, assisting the upward flow of memes. But there's a second sense as well in which barbarians, however defiantly they may seem to wim against the stream of cultural progress, are in fact going with the flow: The reason they're so well equipped for the brief display of defiance in the first place is because the flow of memes is so inexorable. This is a general dynamic in history: the very advancement of advanced societies can bring the seeds of their destruction. As Elman Service put the matter: "The precocious developing society broadcasts its seeds, so to speak, outside its own area, and some of them root and grow vigorously in new soil, sometimes becoming stronger than the parent stock, finally to dominate both their environments." The point can scarcely be overemphasized: the turbulence that characterizes world history is not only consistent with a "progressivist" view of history; it is integral to it. The turbulence itself--including the sometimes devastating empowerment of barbarians--is a result of the fact that technology evolves, with the fittest technologies spreading rapidly. Hegemony can bring stasis, such as the Pax Romana, but in the long run such imbalances of power naturally undermine themselves, and stasis ends. The ensuing turbulence may look for all the world like regression, but it is ultimately progressive; it reflects--and, as we've seen, often furthers--the globalization of new and improved memes, on which the next stasis will rest.

  7. Barbarians prey on innocent victims. Roman principles of law and administration were lasting paragons, even if in practice they were progressively adulterated. Still, once these principles were on paper, and Roman engineering had left its mark, the Romans had little else to give posterity. Whether you are a champion of moral improvement or just of cultural evolution, you might defensibly conclude that, by the time the barbarians descended on the western Roman Empire en masse, it deserved to die.

THE VERDICT OF HISTORY: So thank heavens for barbarians! If dominant civilizations are stagnant and decaying, contributing little if anything to the march of non-zero-sumness, it is just as well (from cultural evolution's standpoint) to have troublemakers nearby. Better to tear the system down and start over. And because barbarians turn out to be so partial to civilized memes, you don't have to start from scratch! The barbarian role of cultural demolition crew is especially important when you consider how often cultural reconstruction is needed. Many of Rome's glaring defects--exploitation, authoritarianism, corrupt self-aggrandizement--flow from deeply human tendencies. Time and again they've transformed promising civilizations into decaying, oppressive monstrosities. Time and again, history seems to cry out: Bring on the demolition crew! And time and again barbarians cheerfully respond to the call. But wait. When did exploitation and authoritarianism suddenly become political liabilities? Didn't most of the early states, as well as their precursors, the chiefdoms, employ terror when useful, take slaves when possible, and claim the mantle of divinity, or at least of divine blessing, to nudge the masses into compliance with central dictate? However morally reprehensible these tactics, why should they have become ineffective by Rome's day? Part of the answer, as we've seen, may be that technology changes the rules of governance.

The historian Chester Starr once wrote, "Every so often civilization seems to work itself into a corner from which further progress is virtually impossible along the lines then apparent; yet if new ideas are to have a chance the old systems must be so severely shaken that they lose their dominance." This may strike some as teleological, even mystical--as if the god of progress looks down and weeds out civilizations that aren't prepared for coming ideas. But Starr's point sounds more reasonable once you view technological evolution as an active force in history. It is metaphorically true that cutting-edge technologies--economic technologies no less than military technologies--punish societies that don't embrace them and use them well, leaving those societies at risk of being "severely shaken." It is also metaphorically true that those technologies reward societies that employ them more profitably.


The first step toward appreciating the inexorability of the west's resurgence in the later Middle Ages is to drain the early Middle Ages of the melodrama given them by the "skin of our teeth" view of history. And the first step in this melodrama reduction is to repeat the mantra from the last chapter: Keep your eye on the memes. In deciding whether a culture has collapsed in the first place, ask not what has happened to a particular people or a particular land; cultures can hop from person to person and place to place, leaving ruin behind yet staying healthy themselves.

Feudalism's nested structure, its long chain of mutual obligation, gave the system a kind of resilience. Each link in the chain was a simple and direct non-zero-sum relationship; a lord and his vassal both benefited from the deal, and had consecrated this interdependence with ornate oaths of devotion. So if for any reason the bonds at the highest level broke, the lower levels of the hierarchy tended to stay intact out of mutual self-interest. When kingdoms collapsed, they broke up into regional or local polities, not into anarchy. Moreover, because larger units were structurally identical to the smaller units constituting them--mathematicians call this a "fractal," or "self-similar," structure--subsequent reassembly could proceed readily. Though European feudalism was peculiarly resilient, human society in general is good at regrouping under duress. When centralized authority has collapsed, true anarchy has seldom ensued. Political and economic reconstitution at some level is typically immediate.

To an observer in Italy or France in A.D. 650, it might have seemed as if there was what we would now call a "total system failure"--as if the whole world's hard drive had crashed. But from a global perspective there was no cause for alarm, because the world makes backup copies. Useful memes replicate themselves en masse, insuring the planet against regional crashes.

What made the later Middle Ages a bridge between ancient times and the industrial revolution was the rudimentary metatechnology of capitalism. A general problem faced by ruling classes. To stay strong, a society must adopt new technologies. In particular, it must reap the non-zero-sum fruits they offer. Yet new technologies often redistribute power within societies. (They often do this precisely because they raise non-zero-sumness--because they expand the number of people who profit from the system and so wield power within it.) And if there is one opinion common to ruling classes everywhere, it is that power is not in urgent need of redistributing. Hence the Hobson's choice for the governing elite: accept valuable technologies that may erode your power, or resist them so well that you may find yourself with nothing to govern. Maybe it was western Europe's freedom from ancient elites that helped hasten the coming of capitalism. The winning of freedom by medieval towns, the quelling of pirates by the Hanseatic League, and the humiliation of Frederick I by the Lombard League (albeit with papal assistance) were all early examples of a process that would continue for centuries and continues today: capitalism making the world safe for itself. The power of this information metatechnology would time and again prove irresistible.

When medieval burghers carved out some breathing room for themselves, winning the right of self-governance, they were not spurred by the writings of Demosthenes, nor trying to revive their classical western heritage. They were just indulging their instincts for self-interest and collaboration, and embracing a productive information metatechnology: freedom. Freedom to buy and sell, to make contracts, to use one's savings as one sees fit--and the freedom of towns, more broadly, to define and fine-tune these freedoms--all these were fruitful algorithms of governance; they were the political technology that best energized the ascendant economic technology, capitalism. The Greek and Roman writings that championed freedom and democracy are wonderful things. The freedom and democracy that dawned on western Europe are also wonderful things. But in the end there is no good reason to attribute the latter to the former.

This basic drama--the aggrandizing instincts of powerful people versus the decentralizing tendencies of technology, especially information technology--would play out again and again. By that I don't just mean that free markets would clash recurrently with old regimes, and would win and finally permeate the world (though that seems to be one story line of the past half-millennium). I mean that new information technologies in general--not just money and writing--very often decentralize power, and this fact is not graciously conceded by the power that be. Hence a certain amount of history's turbulence, including some in the current era.


This is one irony of globalization. The impetus behind it is strong largely because individual states see that their long-term interest lies in plugging into the system. But when the system hits a downturn, they would be better off if somehow they could magically become less plugged in--temporarily, at least.

Large, unified polities are two-edged swords. On the one hand, they offer big, low-friction zones for trade--an especially valuable thing in ancient times, when marauders often lurked beyond state bounds. But this day-to-day benefit coexists with a long-run liability: imperial governments have often resisted changes that are key to continuing viability amid technological flux. We've already seen this logic at work in medieval Europe, where feudal fragmentation, for all its day-to-day downsides, had the upside of encouraging experimentation with economic and political algorithms. At the end of the Middle Ages, as monolithic China turned inward, Europe was crystallizing into a land of nation-states, and so its contentious dynamism persisted. By their nature, Europeans were just as capable of formulating self-defeating policies as Ming emperors were. It's just that, in a more immediately competitive environment, someone else was bound to try a better policy, so bad policies came back to haunt you sooner. And once somebody did try a good idea, it could spread to competing polities fast by emulation.

Memes in general exploited the political landscape of Europe. In this hothouse of interstate competition, technologies of energy, of materials, of information--including algorithms of capitalism and of political governance--were bound to keep sprouting and spreading. For example, patent rights, which helped make initiative worthwhile, were granted in Venice in 1474 and diffused to much of Europe by the middle of the next century. In this light, Europe's eventual triumph is not just consistent with a directional theory of cultural evolution; the theory virtually predicts such a triumph. After all, the speed of any evolutionary process depends heavily on two factors: how fast potentially fruitful novelties arise, and how fast manifestly fruitful novelties spread. Europe in the fifteenth century, teeming with competitive but mutually communicative polities, scored higher in both categories than any other part of Eurasia. In such a setting the "sail westward" meme--and profitable memes in general--were (a) likely to take root in one polity or another; and (b) having proved their worth, likely to spread. All told, if the key to the "European Miracle" lies in geography, it is not so much Europe's and China's relative proximity to America as it is Europe's and China's political geographies. Europe comprised lots of independent laboratories for testing memes, while China possessed political unity--an asset, to be sure, in matters of everyday commerce, but a handicap in any long-run race for technological preeminence.

The idea that westerners exploit nature while easterners commune with it is akin to a larger fallacy that has long haunted the study of economic history: religious determinism. In the standard version, western religion--whether the "Judeo-Christian ethic" or the narrower "Protestant work ethic"--explains why full-blown capitalism and industrialization first appeared in the west. While Christians are putting in a good day's work, Buddhists sit under trees. It's true that Buddhist doctrine, as laid out by the Buddha, doesn't sound like fuel for material acquisition. Then again, the teachings of Jesus Christ aren't a capitalist manifesto, either. But religious doctrines evolve. China's first pawn shops were run by Buddhist monks. In seventeenth-century Japan, a Buddhist monk advised that "All occupations are Buddhist practice; through work we are able to attain Buddhahood"--an utterance that has rightly drawn comparison with the Protestant work ethic. Meanwhile, over in the cities of Mughal India, purportedly otherworldly Hindus were, as the historian Paul Kennedy has put it, "excellent examples of Weber's Protestant ethic." In the thirteenth century, when Eurasia was spanned by a commercial web of unprecedented density, commerce was abetted by Confucians and for that matter by Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians--a transcontinental patchwork of spiritual traditions, all with one thing in common: their adherents were human beings, and thus liked mutually profitable exchange. Economic ecumenicalism.

The key to the pattern of history isn't the fixedness of everything that people do. The key is the pattern's long-run imperviousness to the lack of fixedness.


The roots of the European nation-state can be seen at least as far back as the twelfth century, in the ongoing economic recovery from the "dark ages." Though towns had gained a measure of freedom from rural dominance, liberating commerce locally, the landscape was still strewn with obstacles to long-distance exchange. The main problem was the motliness of feudal government. Laws and regulations differed from place to place, jurisdictions overlapped, and disputes, even battles, cropped up between neighboring lords, or between town and country. In this atmosphere, a monarch could win gratitude by performing the public service of harmonizing law and settling disputes. Indeed, by bringing trust and predictability to the system, he could unlock enough economic non-zero-sumness to pay his salary in the form of taxes. In essence, what was happening was the oldest story in the book: as commerce expands, governance follows, clearing the way for smoother and stronger commerce.

The press reinforced the drive toward national rule in two ways. First, it unified the cultural base of large swaths of land, standardizing custom and mythology and, above all, language. Second, the press began to foster a kind of day-to-day national consciousness. In no nation did the printing press cause national governance. Amid economic recovery and expansion, the logical scope of governance was growing with or without the press. But the press strengthened the logic and gave nationhood a particular cast--a coherence, a basis in shared language, culture, and feeling. And this nearly tangible unity, in turn, made nations naturally formidable units, resistant to conquest. In a sense, the printing press was less important in carrying centralized governance up to the national level than in stopping it there--keeping it from rising higher, to the level of empire. With the modern age, tiny polities became less and less economical, and vast monoliths became less and less tenable. The nation-state, with a cultural and political integrity crystallized by the press, emerged at the expense of both.

Political freedom, notwithstanding its setbacks, seems to be the basic direction in which the world has been headed for centuries now. And, at the risk of oversimplifying, the main reason is ever cheaper and more powerful information technology, as represented by the printing press. By carrying the cost of mass publication to lower and lower levels, the press allowed less and less privileged groups to mobilize against repression.

The lower the cost of transmitting information, the more broadly and intricately productive a society's invisible brain can be, both in the short-run sense of everyday economics and the long-run sense of technological advance. But realizing this potential means empowering a commensurately broad swath of the population to serve as nodes in that brain: fostering literacy, for example, and giving people some leeway in what they read and write.

Pluralism beats despotism, but it isn't nirvana; by making parasitism more of an equal-opportunity endeavor, it complicates the challenge of keeping the society's overall non-zero-sum gains robust.


Several trends span all of human history: improvement in the transport and processing of matter, improvement in the transport and processing of energy, improvement in the transport and processing of information. We know that these trends will continue, even though we don't know the technical details that will sustain them. Or, at least, we know with, say, 99.99 percent confidence that these trends will continue. That's good enough for me. Of course, predicting the persistence of technical trends is a long way from predicting their social consequences. When we move from the former to the latter, our confidence drops below 99.99 percent. Still, it doesn't get anywhere near zero. There are trends in social and political structure that more or less follow from trends in technology. Finding predictive value in trends makes me guilty of "historicism." According to Popper, historicism involves the belief that insight into the future can be had by discovering "the ‘rhythms' or the ‘patterns,' the ‘laws' or the ‘trends' that underlie the evolution of history." Popper considered historicism not just misguided, but dangerous.

Whether the world of tomorrow will indeed be a logical outgrowth of today's trends is, of course, a question we can't settle today. The (fleeting) beauty of any predictions made in the next two chapter is their temporary unfalsifiability. But one thing we can do today is see whether the world of today is a logical outgrowth of yesterday's trends. If it is, then maybe extrapolating from trends isn't quite the muddled and heinous endeavor that Popper alleged it to be. Consider seven basic feature of the contemporary world that have gotten much attention from social and political analysts. All of these feature are genuinely important--even, in some cases, as important as the analysts claim. But none of these feature is new. All, indeed, are grounded in very old, very basic dynamics of cultural evolution. Their past stubbornness is valid reason to expect their future persistence.

  1. Not-so-new feature #1: The Declining Relevance of Distance.

  2. Not-so-new feature #2: The "Ideas" Economy.

  3. Not-so-new feature #3: The New, Weightless Economy.

  4. Not-so-new feature #4: Liberation by Microchip. Seeing history as the unfolding of human liberty is one symptom of being a "Whig historian." According to Herbert Butterfield, who coined this pejorative, a Whig historian is someone who tends "to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present." But the fact is that things can work vice versa--the present can ratify a particular story about the past. When Butterfield wrote, in 1931, various historians--the classic nineteenth-century Whig historians--had depicted history as the unfolding of freedom. But they hadn't suggested a plausible mechanism to explain why exactly freedom tended to triumph later in history rather than earlier. The present age--the information age--has suggested the mechanism by letting u watch it work in real time. Every year, advances in information technology are making Stalinist economics less tenable (and, by some accounts, are making centralized organizational hierarchies in general less tenable). From this fast-forward vantage point, we can look back and see the same basic dynamic at work, albeit more slowly, in centuries, even millennia, past.

  5. Not-so-new feature #5: Narrowcasting. Suddenly we have moved from the age of "broadcasting," featuring a few TV networks offering mainstream fare, to the age of "narrowcasting," featuring lots of more specialized channels. This is truly a new development--new, at least, for this particular medium. But an analogous thing happened with print as the costs of publishing dropped in the fifteenth century and continued to drop thereafter. As publishing got cheaper, publishers could serve narrower and narrower slices of the populace.

  6. Not-so-new feature #6: Jihad vs. McWorld. This phrase, popularized by the political scientist Benjamin Barber's book of the same name, refers to a paradox. On the one hand, the world is growing more "tribal," breaking up by ethnicity or religion or language, as when Yugoslavia dissolves into factionalism; or when French-speaking Canadians push the secession of Quebec; or when fundamentalist Muslims oppose secularists in Turkey. On the other hand, there is the globalization of economics and culture, as represented by a McDonald's in Moscow, say, or MTV airing in Europe. Thus, says Barber, the planet is "falling apart" yet "coming together," and the tension between the two forces has sent the world "spinning out of control." Or, in the formulation of an earlier but less famous analysis, there is at once fragmentation and integration--"fragmegration." What is really happening here is, at its core, neither new nor deeply contradictory. It is the story of the modern age, going back to the printing press. Information technologies, by lowering the cost of data transport, are making it easier for entities with a common interest to coordinate. Sometimes the result is "McWorld." TV broadcasters in various countries hare an interest with their viewers and with the owners of MTV and the musicians MTV features--an interest in sustaining the phenomenon of MTV. In a somewhat different way, information technologies (and transportation technologies and other technologies) give McDonald's owners and managers and workers around the world a common interest in sustaining the phenomenon of McDonald's--an interest they share with their customers. Meanwhile, the other half of Barber's paradoxical dichotomy--"Jihad," the "fragmenting" force of "tribalism"--is also lubricated by the declining information costs of coalescence. In that regard, modern tribalism is like such earlier, print-fueled Jihads as the Reformation or the surging Serbian nationalism of the nineteenth century.

  7. Not-so-new feature #7: The Twilight of Sovereignty. This is the title of one of many books about forces that seem to be eroding the nation-state's control over its destiny. In a way, the basic idea is a corollary of not-so-new-feature #6. McWorld--globalization--is the great crippler of national governments.

The point of this exercise goes beyond cliché demolition. The point is that trends can be of predictive value. If a century or two ago you had looked around and observed, "In the long run, disseminating information tends to get cheaper, and so does transporting products, so that the world becomes a smaller place," you would indeed have observed trends that could be validly extrapolated into the future, notwithstanding Karl Popper's views on the intractable epistemological problems associated with such a maneuver. There is a deep unity between past and present. In fact, the unity goes one level deeper. All seven of the above not-so-new features boil down to the growth of non-zero-sumness; they either cause it, or are caused by it, or are it. Thus: (1) To say that distance has become less and less economically relevant is to say that relationships can be non-zero-sum across larger and larger distances. (2 & 3) To say that the ratio of value to mass has risen is to note one of the causes of this declining relevance of distance, this expanding web of non-zero-sumness. (4) To say that new information technologies ultimately encourage liberty is to say that oppressed groups--dissidents in an authoritarian state, say--can more easily unite in pursuit of freedom, realizing positive political sums among themselves. It is also to say that the allure of the positive economic sums promised by new information technologies is what ultimately leads governments to grant broad, liberating access to them. (5) To say that casting gets narrower is to say that smaller and smaller communities of common interest can pool their resources to realize positive sums. Thus literate gun buffs, in effect, pool their resources to sponsor Guns and Ammo magazine, and the Golf Channel is underwritten by duffers. (6) Both sides of the Jihad vs. McWorld paradox are non-zero-sumness in action. Quebec's "tribalism" consists of people seeking a common goal that they can gain only in concert. Bonds of mutual benefit also unite McDonald's far-flung web of businesspersons and customers. (7) Even the "twilight of overeignty," which sounds so lacking in the cheery properties often associated with non-zero-sumness, is fairly brimming with the stuff. Consider the most famous overeignty sapper, the globalized economy. Obviously, the flow of goods and services across borders, and the piles of money pushed across those borders by financiers and currency traders, are the result of zillions of non-zero-sum interactions each day. But perhaps more interesting are the larger non-zero-sum games that result from the disruptive effects of this commerce. With economic downturn more contagious than ever, nations see common cause in forestalling regional collapse, and in dampening turbulence.


THE LOGIC OF UNITY: The reason to expect the eventual triumph of global governance lies in three observations. (1) Governance has always tended to expand to the geographic scope necessary to solve emerging non-zero-sum problems that markets and moral codes can't alone solve. (2) These day many emerging non-zero-sum problems are supranational, involving many, sometimes all, nations. (3) The forces behind this growing scope of non-zero-sumness are technological and, for plain reasons, bound to intensify.

With economic organization reaching the global level, and governance showing faint signs of doing the same, that great historical congealer of governance--an external enemy--disappears by definition. Meanwhile, a whole slew of non-zero-sum problems arise that are rather like an external enemy; they push people together, to escape common calamity, rather than pulling them together for common gain.

Some chaos theorists suffer from a skewed view of modern "tribalism." They fret about its disruptive effects without realizing that, for every newly empowered, destablizing "tribe," there are scores more "tribes" emerging that are harmless if not benign--tribes that will help bring order to the new world. Note the pattern: Again and again, supranational "tribes"--environmental groups, labor groups, human rights groups, trade groups, multinational corporations--abet order, not chaos. Their narrow but long reach moves law and regulation toward global harmony. These different tribes don't stand in paradoxical contrast to globalization, any more than myriad kinds of cells stand in paradoxical contrast to the larger organism they constitute. In both cases, the fine-grained diversity is integral. The body politic couldn't reach the global level if interest groups didn't get there. To say that social complexity grows in depth and scope is to say that division of labor, including division of political labor, grows more fine-grained yet of broader reach. In that sense, supranational "tribalism" is a natural outgrowth of the whole history of humankind.

The loss of sovereignty isn't some novelty dreamed up by bureaucrats at the UN or the WTO. If we define sovereignty broadly--as supreme control over your fate--then the loss of sovereignty is a fact of history, one of the most fundamental, stubborn facts in all of history. Indeed, to observe that history has eroded sovereignty time and again is simply to restate the thesis of this book: that history has elevated non-zero-sumness time and again. For to say that you have been cast into a non-zero-sum situation is to say that you have lost unilateral control over your future--that your destiny has to some extent been taken out of your hands and spread among other people, just as part of their destiny now rests in your hands. Both you and they can regain some measure of that control, some portion of that lost sovereignty, but only through cooperation--a cooperation that involves sacrifices of control, of sovereignty, in its own right. The question is never whether you can keep all of your sovereignty; history says you can't; all along it has been the fate of humankind to have its fate increasingly shared. The question is in what form you want to lose your sovereignty.


In general, history has shown a healthy indifference to the strengths and weaknesses of particular political leaders. Blunders and oppressions in any one part of the world have tended not to be broadly ruinous; there have always been whole continents full of other polities where more enlightened policies could prove their mettle. The basic path of cultural evolution, toward broader and deeper social complexity, has been safe from the ravages of evil and incompetence.

TIP #1 ON SAVING THE WORLD: There are two basic keys to saving the world. The first is to recognize the inevitable and come to terms with it. The present information revolution is comparable in consequence to the print revolution and carries the same basic lesson. Denying self-determination to homogenous, determined groups will get harder and harder, be they Kosovars, Corsicans, or Tibetans. Call this Inevitability Number One--the inexorable spread of technologies of tribalism. Inevitability Number Two: the growing power, compactness, and accessibility of lethal technologies. Disgruntled men (and women) aren't going away. Indeed, the source of their grievance--the globalization of capital and technology broadly--is so basic as to constitute Inevitability Number Three. So there you have it: three inevitabilities, all part and parcel of globalization, and all with disruptive tendencies, at least in the short term. What to do?

TIP #2 ON SAVING THE WORLD: The early-twentieth-century sociologist William Ogburn attributed many of the world's problems to "cultural lag." Cultural lag happens when material culture (technology, basically) changes so fast that non-material culture (including governance and social norms) has trouble catching up. In hort, the disruptive part of culture gets out ahead of what Ogburn called the "adaptive" part of culture. Ogburn's general prescription was to speed up the latter--"make the cultural adjustments as quickly as possible." But there is another option: slow down the former--cut the rate at which material technology is transforming the world; make the inevitable unfold at a more sedate pace.

The idea is simply to tolerate various supranational efforts that are starting to take shape and that, as they solidify, will naturally have a sedative effect. As first-world and third-world workers unite to raise third-world wages (and thus keep first-world wages from free-falling), industrialists will complain that this dulls the market's edge, slowing progress. Yes, it does--but that's okay. As environmentalists unite to save rain forests, or tax fossil fuels, the same complaint will be heard--and the same answer will apply. In the age of the superempowered angry man, and the quite disgruntled man, the slowing down of deeply unsettling change is a benefit, not just a cost, because anger and disgruntlement are world-class problems. Note that these two particular forms of slowdown--supranational labor and environmental policies--have the added virtue of directly addressing specific sources of anger and disgruntlement: the rapid exodus of blue-collar jobs from developed nations; and the ecological damage that can radicalize environmentalists and that, more broadly, deepens cultural dislocation in such already polluted places as Mexico City and Bangkok. In a sense, then, these policies address both halves of the "cultural lag." Rather than choose between slowing the "material" change and hastening the "adaptive" change, we can slow the material change by hastening the adaptive change. In a way, it's a misnomer to call this a "slowing" of globalization. After all, the things that might do the slowing--supranational labor groups or environmental groups, supranational bodies of governance--are themselves part of globalization. What is really happening is that the further evolution of political globalization is slightly slowing the evolution of economic globalization.

A creepy irony of the coming world: even though information technology's basic drift in recent centuries has been to expand freedom--to bring political pluralism to more and more nations--it can, at another level, shrink freedom. As the world comes to resemble a giant superorganism, with a fiber-optic nervous system, we could come to identify with Winston Smith, who, in Orwell's 1984; is asked by a totalitarian goon: "Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell?" But, unlike Smith, we'll have chosen the life of a cell. The trade-off between liberty and privacy on the one hand, and order and security on the other, is a hardy perennial. What is new are two things: the growing technological ease of invading privacy, and the growing technological ease of disrupting order. These are what threaten to cast the trade-off in new and severe terms.

With the world's ecosystem already under stress, and billions of additional people apparently on the way, mindless materialism grows more dubious. With society finally globalized, we don't need war to push political organization (that is, the realm of peace) to broader expanse. And with nuclear and biological weapons at hand, full-fledged war--and for that matter full-fledged terrorism--are less palatable than ever. Hatred just isn't what it used to be. War has contained the seeds of its own demise all along. This primal form of zero-sum energy, through the very logic of history that it helped impel, was bound to grow more and more negative-sum until finally its downside was too glaring to ignore. In retrospect, it looks almost like planned obsolescence. If war can indeed be turned into a relic, then the virtue of greed will recede further. From a given society's standpoint, one big upside of wanton material acquisition has traditionally been the way it drives technological progress--which, after all, helps keep societies strong. In the nineteenth century, Russia and Germany had little choice about modernizing; in those days stasis invited conquest. But if ocieties no longer face conquest, breakneck technological advance is an offer they can refuse, and frugality a luxury their people can afford. God knows greed won't vanish. Neither will hatred or chauvinism. Human nature is a stubborn thing. But it isn't beyond control. Even if our core impulses can't be banished, they can be tempered and redirected. Or, more accurately: some impulses can be used against others. People will always seek social status, and revel in the esteem of their peers, but this very thirst can be used to dampen other thirsts. In defining the kinds of behaviors that do and don't win esteem, communities have great power over how human nature expresses itself. Among the things that can in principle become prerequisites for social status (and, indeed, in some communities already are): not engaging in conspicuous consumption; not saying hateful things about whole national, ethnic, or religious groups, or even about other people. Franz Boas, though not big on generalizing about history, once stated as "one of the fundamental characteristics of the development of mankind" that "activities which have developed unconsciously are gradually made the subject of reasoning." The example he cited was the maturation of scientific inquiry, but one might also cite the maturation of history itself. As the people of the world come to constitute a single invisible brain, they can purposefully guide their course, consciously seeking the worthy goals they were once blindly, often painfully, driven toward.


On a number of grounds, it makes sense to see all of history since the primordial ooze as a single creative thrust. The comparison between society and organism should certainly be kept on a leash. For one thing, energy use is less frivolous, more consistently functional, within an organism than within a society. Still, comparing organisms and societies has its payoffs, and justifies some of the attention that cultural evolutionists have paid to energy technologies. And yet, during part I of this book, I put most of the emphasis on information technologies. Indeed, I argued that what is commonly called the first energy revolution--the coming of farming--was probably more important as an information revolution; the residential density allowed by farming brought a quantum leap in the size and efficiency of the "invisible brain." Why my seeming preoccupation with information technology? In part, perhaps, because we're living in the information age, and, like most people, I tend to see the past in terms of the present. But there is another reason for treating information with respect. Though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge. In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information--not the other way around.

At all levels of any organism, information guides energy and matter in ways that preserve structure--much as it does in human societies. There is one further analogy between organisms and societies. It isn't just that in both cases energy is marshaled in a way that sustains and protects structure. And it isn't just that this marshaling is always guided by information. It is that it is the function of the information to guide the marshaling. The inter-cellular and intra-cellular messenger systems involved in fingernail or bone construction evolved to guide such construction; they were preserved by natural selection because they helped preserve the core of life's structure, the DNA. And the same is true of the information-processing system that governs the construction of huts and temples and skyscrapers, and the maintenance of corporations and armies. I don't mean that people are genetically endowed with cerebral programs for building temples and running armies. I mean that, more generally, people are genetically endowed with the proclivity to think about building things and orchestrating social enterprises, and to communicate about these projects; and that these genetically based data-processing proclivities were favored by natural selection because they helped sustain DNA, helped keep people alive. Cultural information, like all previous forms of organic information, was created to preserve and protect genetic information. Viewed against the backdrop of all of life, then, culture was in one sense nothing new: just another data-processing system invented by natural selection to marshal energy and matter in ways that preserve DNA. But it was the first of these systems that began to take on a life of its own, inaugurating a whole new kind of evolution. Natural selection, after inventing brainier and brainier forms of DNA, long ago invented brains--and then finally, in our species, invented a particularly impressive brain, a brain that could sponsor a whole new kind of natural selection.

In societies, in organisms, in cells, the magic glue is information. Information is what synchronizes the parts of the whole and keeps them in touch with each other as they collectively resist disruption and decay. Information is what allows life to defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics. Information marshals the energy needed to build and replenish the structures that the entropic currents of time tirelessly erode. And this information isn't some mysterious "force," but, rather, physical stuff: the patterned sound waves that my vocal chords send to your ear, the firing of neurons in a brain, the hormones that regulate blood sugar, the cyclic AMP molecule in a bacterium. Information is a structured form of matter or energy whose generic function is to sustain and protect structure. It is what directs matter and energy to where they are needed, and in so doing brushes entropy aside, so that order can grow locally even as it declines universally--so that life can exist.


Was all of this in the cards? I don't mean binary chemical weapons, or bombardier beetles, or human beings or any other particular thing or species on this planet. I mean the evolution of complexity and intelligence. Did basic properties of natural selection make it very likely that someday some animal would be smart enough to invent neat gadgets? And figure out that the earth revolves around the sun? And ponder the mind-body problem? Does biological evolution intrinsically favor the growth of biological complexity--including behavioral flexibility, and its underpinning, intelligence? Is this biological "progress" somehow natural? It has long been unfashionable to answer yes. One big reason is the same big reason that made belief in directional cultural evolution so unfashionable: past political misuse. Early this century, biological progressivism was dear to the hearts of "social Darwinists," who used it to justify things like racism, imperialism, and laissez-faire indifference to poverty.

Gould writes: "The vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity."

Over the past two decades, various prominent biologists--Richard Dawkins, John Tyler Bonner--have noted how arms races favor the evolution of complexity. Natural selection, as described by Gould, has no room for this sort of directional dynamic. "Natural selection talks only about ‘adaptation to changing local environments,' " he writes. And "the sequence of local environments in any one place should be effectively random through geological time--the seas come in and the seas go out, the weather gets colder, then hotter, etc. If organisms are tracking local environments by natural selection, then their evolutionary history should be effectively random as well." This would be good logic if environments consisted entirely of seas and air. But in the real world, a living thing's environment consists largely of--mostly of--other living things: things it eats, things that eat it, not to mention members of its own species that compete with it and consort with it.† And no one--not even Gould--denies that the average complexity of all species constituting this organic environment tends to grow. So the sequence of environments isn't "effectively random" over time; there is a trend toward environmental complexity. And it wouldn't matter if we assumed, along with Gould, that back at the dawn of life the growth in average complexity was wholly random, like the stumbling drunk's path. The fact would remain that, for whatever reason, environmental complexity started to grow. Species, in "tracking" this growth of complexity, can't be described as stumbling around randomly. Their evolutionary change is, by Gould's own definition, directional. And, since they are themselves part of the environment for other species, the process is self-reinforcing.

Why is natural selection so attentive to sensory technologies? Because they facilitate adaptively flexible behavior. And what else facilitates adaptively flexible behavior? The ability to process all of this sensory data and adjust behavior accordingly. In other words: brains. Not our brains, necessarily, or even "brains" in the technical sense of the term, but rather intelligence as an abstract property. It is natural selection's demonstrable affinity for certain properties--its tendency to invent them and nurture them independently in myriad species--that renders trivial Gould's truism about how bad luck can wipe out any one species or group of species. At least, it is trivial so long as we're discussing the likelihood of the evolution of the property of great intelligence, and not the evolution of a particular intelligent species. Gould writes: "Humans are here by the luck of the draw." True. But a human level of intelligence isn't. Given long enough, it was very, very likely to evolve. At least, that's my reading of the evidence. It is also the reading of some eminent evolutionary biologists, such as William D. Hamilton and Edward O. Wilson, though other eminences, such as Ernst Mayr, disagree.

The growth of natural selection's "brain" consists not just of rising numbers of organisms, but, at least as crucially, of rising numbers of species. A fermenting bacterium can, by mutation, generate a whole different set of "ideas" than a photosynthesizing bacterium can--new approaches to fermentation, for one. Each new species opens up new "design space," expanding not just the chances of a good idea, but the spectrum of possible ideas. There's a second sense in which each new species expands design space. Each species is--like the photosynthesizing cell--a potential energy source, just begging natural selection to create a species tailored to exploiting it. Growth in the number of species is assured, in the first place, by the expanse and heterogeneity of the earth; a vibrant, spreading species gets split up by mountains or rivers or deserts or meadows or oceans--or heer distance--and then its fragments adapt to the peculiar contours of the local ecosystem. And, because each new species itself defines a new potential niche for another species, the more species there are, the more there will be. Once again, complexity begets complexity by positive feedback, but in this case it is the complexity of the whole ecosystem that expands. Thus does the size and fertility of natural selection's brain so assuredly grow--slowly at first, but inexorably.

In 1951, the British zoologist J. W. S. Pringle wrote a technical paper called "On the parallel between learning and evolution." It is not a bad comparison. Natural selection is not just a process that "invents" new technologies, such as eyes; it implicitly "discovers" properties of the physical world, such as light's reflection. It is this ongoing invention, and implicit discovery, that is an essential, predictable part of evolution by natural selection. The particular species embodying the "learning" are incidental--transient repositories of knowledge, like a textbook that may go out of print even as its contents live on in other books.


What particular biological assets does it take to get onto the co-evolutionary escalator? What exactly did our ancestor have to acquire via genetic evolution before cultural evolution could pick up much momentum? The basic equipment needed for a species to hop on the co-evolutionary escalator: learning, learning by imitation, teaching, some use of tools, along with elementary grasping abilities, a mildly robust means of symbolic communication, and a rich social existence featuring, in particular, hierarchy and reciprocal altruism (a combination that, in turn, brings Darwinian logic that can turn a mildly robust means of communication into a full-fledged language).

As biological evolution proceeds, and more and more species possess one or another of the several key biological prerequisites for admission to the co-evolutionary escalator, it is just a matter of time before all of these properties wind up in a single species. Of course, that species, looking back, will marvel at the incredible series of lucky breaks that steered it toward the escalator. Who would have guessed that our ancestors, after spending time winging through trees, evolving long, slender digits, would then emerge from the jungle and put deft grasping to a different and pivotal use? What mind-boggling good fortune that tree-swinging happened to be on our ancestors' résumés! It's true. We've been very lucky. The winner of a bingo game is also very lucky. But there's always a winner.

Cultural evolution, like biological evolution, carries life to higher and higher levels of organization. And it does it the same way biological evolution does it: zero-sum dynamics intensify non-zero-sum dynamics; competition between entities encourages integration within them. In both evolutions, the two big barrier to non-zero-sumness--the information barrier and the trust barrier--are met and overcome with ingenious technologies.

The various biological adaptations that got us onto the co-evolutionary escalator--learning by imitation, language, and so on--could be said to amount to one big biological adaptation: adaptation for advanced culture. And this adaptation could be called the last adaptation--at least, the last biological adaptation that will be produced in our species by natural selection. But it is far from the end of the road, and far from the last adaptation of one sort or another that will be necessary.



One of the things you might expect to be a clear, bright line between society and organism--internal unity of purpose--isn't clear or bright. As the zoologist Matt Ridley has put it, "What is the organism? There is no such thing." Each so-called organism, he notes, "is a collective." And not a wholly harmonious collective--at least, not by definition.

There is one other salient objection to taking the phrase "giant global brain" literally. Namely: brains have consciousness. They don't just process information; they have the subjective experience of processing information. They feel pleasure and pain, have epiphanies of insight, and so on. Are we really to believe that, as the Internet draws billions of human minds into deeper collaboration, a collective, planetary consciousness will emerge? (Or even fragmented planetary consciousness? Will General Motors feel spiteful toward Ford?) Far be it from me to make this argument. My aim is more modest: to convince you that, if I did make this argument, it wouldn't be a sign of insanity. The question of transcendent planetary consciousness, whatever the answer, is non-crazy. Oddly, the key to granting the question this legitimacy is to hew to a soberly scientific perspective. Indeed, the more scientific you are in pondering consciousness, the more aware you become of the limits of science; the more inclined you become to approach cosmic questions in general with a touch of humility. Consciousness, subjective experience, is "epiphenomenal"--it is always an effect, never a cause.

The question of consciousness--as I'm defining it here, at least--isn't the question of why we think when we talk, and it isn't the question of why we have self-awareness. The question of consciousness is the question of subjective experience in general, ranging from pain to anxiety to epiphany; it is the question of sentience. To phrase the matter in the terminology made famous by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, the question is: Why is it like something to be alive? Faced with the mystery of consciousness, some people--including such philosopher a David Chalmers, author of The Conscious Mind--have suggested that the explanation must lie in a kind of metaphysical law: consciousness accompanies particular kinds of information processing. What kinds? Well, that's the question, isn't it? But a not uncommon view is that the information processing needn't be organic. Consciousness may reside in computers, networks of computers, even networks of computers and people. The philosophers who hold this view aren't fuzzy-minded New Agers or reactionary Cartesians or mystical poets like Teilhard himself; they are people who accept a basic premise of modern behavioral science--that all causality happens in the physical world--and who also appreciate the weirdness that emerges from this premise upon sustained contemplation. Basically, their answer to the question "Could the giant global brain become conscious?" is: We wouldn't know if it were, and for all we know it is.


Suppose we try to examine the mechanics of evolution--biological, or cultural, or both--with no a priori assumptions and ask: Do they how signs of purpose? Philosophers call this the question of teleology--the question of whether a system seems built to pursue a telos, an end, a goal. Of course, we've already established (or, at least, I've argued) that biological and cultural evolution move in a direction--toward broader and deeper complexity. But that doesn't mean they are moving toward a goal, an end. Only if evolution was designed to move in a particular direction does that direction qualify as a telos.

There is no doubt, all told, that evolution by natural selection fulfills the rough-and-ready criterion of goal-directed behavior: "persistence toward the goal under varying conditions." But what about the further condition, the one that separates living things from rivers? Does natural selection adjust to varying conditions by processing information? Yes. It sends packets of information--genes--into the world. If they proliferate, this positive feedback signifies an environment with which they are adaptively compatible. (In fact, their proliferation constitutes adaptation to this environment; through this positive feedback life "senses" and reacts adaptively to environmental change.) Of course, sometimes new genes don't proliferate. This negative feedback signifies a lack of adaptive compatibility with the environment. Trial and error is a system of information processing--even if, as here, the trials are randomly generated.

To say that natural selection "senses" the local environment isn't to say it has subjective experience. Then again, a radar-guided gun that automatically tracks and fires at its target doesn't (so far as we know) have subjective experience--yet we commonly say that such a gun "senses" movement. Indeed, this sort of "servomechanism" is a textbook example of a "goal-seeking" or "purposive" device that some philosophers have used when trying to find criteria separating the teleological from the aimless. They put servomechanisms, next to plants and animals, on one side of the divide and rocks and river on the other. I contend that evolution by natural selection belongs on the first side. Let me reiterate the meagerness of my aspirations. I'm not aying there is proof that biological evolution has a purpose and is the product of design. I'm just saying that it's not crazy to believe this. Biological evolution has a set of properties that is found in such purposive things as animals and robots and is not found in such evidently purposeless things as rocks and rivers. This isn't proof of teleology, but it's evidence of it. Or, to put the point another way: It may indeed be that evolution is not teleological. But if that's the case, then evolution is the only thing I can think of that exhibits flexible directionality via information processing and isn't teleological.


It's possible--not likely but not quite impossible--that organic evolution, like individual organisms, was imbued with purpose by a Darwinian process; that, just as the blossoming of a flower is the product of natural selection, the blossoming of planet Earth's global organic web was the product of a kind of higher-order natural selection. If you go further--buy not just the arguments in earlier chapters, but the argument in this chapter--we can start talking about destiny in a less narrow sense. We can say that evolution has not just highly probable directionality, but evidence of purpose; that maybe life on earth writ large, like the poppy seed, heads not just in a direction, but in a direction it was designed to head in. Big deal. Remember: the direction a poppy was "designed" to head in--toward flowering--is subordinate to a "higher" purpose that isn't terribly inspiring: transmitting genes. To be sure, the "higher" purpose of the global superorganism is unlikely to be analogous; the meta– natural-selection cenario is too wobbly to convince me that our ultimate purpose is to spread genetic information intergalactically. Still, the larger point stands: "higher" purpose needn't be very high. If evolution indeed has a purpose, that purpose may, for all we know, be imbued not by a divinity, but by some amoral creative process. In hort, this chapter, even if you buy its logic, leaves us in William Paley's shoes: having validly found evidence of design, yet having failed to find genuine evidence of the kind of designer that offers even a granule of spiritual reassurance.


I can't claim this much confidence in specifying where exactly God fits into the picture--or even in asserting that some sort of divine being does fit into the picture. Still, it does seem to me that an appraisal of the state of things from a scientific standpoint yields more evidence of divinity than you might expect. Which is to say: nonzero. What do I mean by "scientific"? I don't mean using satellite-based sensors to detect divine radio waves. I just mean examining theological scenarios by using evidence that is there for all to see--rather than invoking claims of special revelation, or mystical insights reached through meditation or through medication, or whatever. (This empirically based endeavor is sometimes called "natural theology.") Let's accept, if only for the sake of argument, the previous chapter's contention that biological and cultural evolution have some hallmarks of design. Does the design seem to embody the values that people associate with God? In one sense, the answer has to be no. The kind of God that is hardest to find evidence of is the kind most people seem to believe in: a God that is infinitely powerful and infinitely good. This is not, of course, some new insight that emerges from this book's vantage point. It is a very old insight--"the problem of evil"--that emerges from the most casual inspection of the everyday world: Why would a benign, almighty God let bad things happen to good people--or to people in general?

The aim of this chapter is not to describe God or explain God's ways, a task that is above my pay grade. I'm using "God" as convenient shorthand for something vaguer than what the word generally connotes. The point here is just to ask: Are there signs of any divinely imparted meaning in the evidence immediately before us: the history of life on earth? Granted directionality in the sense of growing complexity, is there any directionality along what you might call a spiritual or moral dimension? For that matter, is there anything you might call a spiritual or moral dimension?

The seeming superfluousness of consciousness has prompted the philosopher David Chalmers to remark, "It seems God could have created the world physically exactly like this one, atom for atom, but with no consciousness at all. And it would have worked just as well. But our universe isn't like that. Our universe has consciousness." For reasons unknown, God decided "to do more work" in order "to put consciousness in." The key bit of effort, so far as Chalmers can tell, was to draft a law assigning consciousness to some, and perhaps all, types of information processing. By "God" Chalmers doesn't mean a guy with a white beard. Most philosophers use the term at least as vaguely as I'm using it: it refer to whoever, whatever--if any being, any process--specified the laws of the universe. Still, the fact that the one feature of human existence that is of mysterious, even inexplicable, origin is also the central source of life's meaning doesn't exactly discourage speculation about divine beings and higher purpose. And it renders odd the tendency of people convinced of life's meaninglessness to cite, as support, science's having "explained away" the mysteries of life. After all, it isn't just that science hasn't managed to solve the mystery of consciousness. In a sense, science created the mystery of consciousness; the mystery emerges from a hard-nosed, scientific view of behavior and causality.

Given the apparent connection among information processing, sentience, and meaning, it seems fair to say that evolution by natural selection was from the beginning a veritable machine for making meaning. That biological evolution has an arrow--the invention of more structurally and informationally complex forms of life--and that this arrow points toward meaning, isn't, of course, proof of the existence of God. But it's more suggestive of divinity than an alternative world would be: a world in which evolution had no direction, or a world with directional evolution but no consciousness. If more scientists appreciated the weirdness of consciousness--understood that a world without sentience, hence without meaning, is exactly the world that a modern behavioral scientist should expect to exist--then reality might inspire more awe than it does. The meaning imparted by consciousness, one might argue, isn't an inherently good thing. After all, sentience brings equally the capacity for joy and for suffering, for good and for bad.

As non-zero-sumness has grown, finally reaching global extent, a particular kind of zero-sum dynamic has begun to weaken. And it is the most pernicious kind: bitter struggle between geographically separate groups, featuring blind hatred of whole peoples. The spatial dimension of zero-sumness, historically its most abhorrent dimension, has begun to fade. In this sense--a limited but far from trivial sense--we can say that non-zero-sumness is on the verge of having "won" in the end. Obviously, cultural evolution's movement toward this moral threshold isn't proof of a benign universal architect, any more than biological evolution's expansion of meaning or its invention of goodness was. But, like those biological developments, this cultural development is closer to being evidence of divinity than its opposite would be. Once you've accepted that evil is, for whatever reason, built into the fabric of human--indeed, organic--experience, the basic trend lines don't look all that bad. Maybe this is the most ambitious realistic hope for the future expansion of amity--a world in which just about everyone holds allegiance to enough different groups, with enough different kinds of people, so that plain old-fashioned bigotry would entail discomfiting cognitive dissonance. It isn't that everyone will love everyone, but rather that everyone will like enough different kinds of people to make hating any given type problematic.

Maybe history is, as various thinker have suggested, not so much the product of divinity as the realization of divinity--assuming our species is up to the challenge, that is.

APPENDIX 1 On Non-zero-sumness

Why am I so attached to the terminology of game theory? Does it really add anything to more familiar words? Can't we just say, for example, that zero-sum games are competitive and non-zero-sum games are cooperative? There are several reasons that I think the answer is no--that there's no substitute for game theory as a way of looking at the history of our species. For starters, there are a number of cases in which people comply with non-zero-sum logic, and yet "cooperate" is a misleading word. I have a non-zero-sum relationship with the people in Japan who built my Honda minivan, but neither I nor they ever chose to cooperate with each other. The terminology of game theory helps unify not just human history and organic history. Within each of these realms, the terminology can be unifying. If you ask what is common to reciprocal altruism and kin selection (two basic biological routes to social integration), the answer is non-zero-sum logic. And more than once I have found, in the literature on cultural evolution, lists of factors conducing to social integration that seemed diverse but, on close inspection, all embodied non-zero-sum dynamics. (Such as: the need to spread risk, the benefits of irrigation, the efficiency of division of labor, the need for military defense, the need to avoid overexploiting the fish population, etc.)

Another virtue of using the analytical framework of game theory is that it has well-established principles applicable to the subject of this book. The most important of these is that, if self-interested entities are to realize mutual profit in a non-zero-sum situation, two problems typically must be solved: communication and trust.

Non-zero-sumness is a kind of potential. Like what physicists call "potential energy," it can be tapped or not tapped, depending on how people behave. But there's a difference. When you tap potential energy--when you, say, nudge a bowling ball off a cliff--you've reduced the amount of potential energy in the world. Non-zero-sumness, in contrast, is self-regenerating. To realize non-zero-sumness--to turn the potential into positive sums--often creates even more potential, more non-zero-sumness.

APPENDIX 2 What Is Social Complexity?

There is today no consensus on how to measure social complexity. Some analysts stress the number of "levels of hierarchical control" in social organization. And many, like Naroll, consider the degree of division of labor to be relevant (rather as some biologists use the number of "cell types" to gauge an organism's complexity). But the Potter Stewart litmus test--"I know it when I see it"--retains a certain appeal. In defense of cultural evolutionism, it should be noted that the "hard" sciences aren't doing much, if any, better when it comes to defining complexity. Physicists and chemists have rigorous definitions for "order." (A pure substance with its many identical molecules neatly arrayed is the ultimate in order.) And they have rigorous definitions for "entropy." (The ultimate in entropy is a heterogeneous ubstance with its many different kinds of molecules randomly distributed.) And they know that complexity is something between the two--something that has pockets of order yet isn't pure order. But there is no consensus on what exactly is the essence of complexity, or on how to quantify complexity.