Life's a Game (Reviewing Robert Wright, Nonzero)
The Economist, July 13, 2000
5 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2015
Date Written: 2000
In the theory of games, a non-zero-sum game is a situation in which one participant’s gain is not necessarily another’s loss – in which the gains and losses do not sum to zero. Trade is a non-zero-sum game since seller and buyer can both improve their positions. In zero-sum games, by contrast, there is a fixed total of prizes, with the consequence that any person’s advantage must be at the expense of someone else. Poker is a zero-sum game; so is competition between suitors for the same mate. There is nothing to be gained from cooperation in zero-sum games, but participants in non-zero-sum games typically stand to do better by cooperating with each other than by singly pursuing their individual interests. And human life, competitive as it is, is full of non-zero-sum situations. From our hunter-gatherer beginnings to the contemporary global economy, the total pool of goods is larger when people cooperate, divide labor, and specialize. In fact, competition increases the value of cooperation: a society that harnesses the synergy of its members will be more effective at competing with other societies.
In his new book, Nonzero, Robert Wright – a journalist whose previous book The Moral Animal brought evolutionary psychology to a wide audience – uses the notion of a non-zero-sum game to offer a wide-angle view of both history and biological evolution. Wright argues first that history has an overall “direction” or “arrow” – toward greater social organization and complexity. In his view, a mechanism that he calls “the logic of non-zero-sumness” propels humans to construct more and more encompassing economic, political, legal, and informational structures. Second, Wright makes a parallel argument with respect to biological evolution: it also moves in the direction of greater complexity, and for the same basic reason. Putting the two parts together, he argues that a global level of organization, which we are now approaching, was very likely from the beginning of life on this planet.
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