Nonzero – The logic of human destiny

Robert Wright is an American journalist, scholar, and prize-winning author. In his landmark book ‘Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny’(1) he opens with the following quote from Charles Darwin:

“As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”(2)

If we asked archeologists to present us with a list of archeological laws or truths, one of them would undoubtedly be that as we rise through soil samples two things happen:

  1. We approach the artefacts of the present day
  2. Artefacts grow in complexity

These two facts together form the basis of Robert Wright’s argument that the human race does indeed have a destiny and that destiny is greater complexity.

Increasing complexity in human civilisation

In the first half of his book he takes us on a tour of the history of human civilisation from savages through tribes and chiefdom’s to city states and nations. In doing so it becomes evident that human civilisation is in the process of creating larger and larger social brains. The culmination of which, through the growth of transport and communications technology, is perhaps happening in our lifetimes – the development of one planetary brain!!!

Increasing complexity in organic life

In the second half of the book, Wright turns our attention to how the same pattern of a movement towards greater complexity, is also the case in organic life. Single cells work together by specialising in certain tasks to form more complex life forms. The single cell benefits from the increase in complexity and flourishes. This process continues until we end up with the bewilderingly complex organic life forms we see today. Just watch any program with Sir David Attenborough in it to marvel at how many niches in the environment have been exploited in some astonishing way.

Game Theory as the driver

Wright believes that the driving force for all this is Game Theory and the seemingly limitless number of nonzero sum games that cam be played over billions of years. What is a nonzero sum game? Well an example of a zero sum game is tennis. When one person wins the other loses. So crudely put, the winner gains 1 and the loser loses 1. Sum total = 0.

An example of a nonzero sum game is as follows: Imagine that you and I live in two different hunter gatherer tribes around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Let’s also suggest that my tribe lives on the coast and your tribe lives in the hills. We would both be involved in activities that revolve around fishing, trapping, preparing food, repairing tools and turning by-products into useful items; for example: turning fur pelts into clothing.

Because my tribe lives near the coast we have developed an advanced method of catching fish and often have a surplus of fish. Our traps, however, aren’t as fruitful. As a result, red meat is a delicacy and we are poorly clothed.

Meanwhile, up in the hills, your tribe have evolved trap technology. As a result you have a surplus of red meat and your wardrobe of clothes is astonishing. The challenge for your tribe is to vary the diet with the limited number of fish you can find and the time it takes to catch them.

When we meet, we could either exchange fish for red meat and fur pelts or we could exchange fishing technology for trapping technology. Either way, through the exchange we are both better off and both tribes experience an increase in the quality of their lives through a varied diet and my tribe might become almost a well dressed as your tribe.

This is a nonzero sum.

Increasing opportunities to play nonzero games

If we accept that nonzero games lead to a better quality of living through greater complexity (1850’s London would have been a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there) then the question organisations and individuals would do well to ask themselves is how can I maximise my opportunities to play nonzero games?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Take an honest interest in others for example: Friends, customers, team members etc.
  • When listening to someone talk about a problem or challenge they are facing, ask yourself “How can I help them over and above just giving advice?”
  • Say ‘Yes’ more often – For a classic illustration on this read “Yes Man” by Danny Wallace. (3)


(1) Wright, Robert; 2000 “Non Zero – The Logic of Human Destiny” Pantheon Books, New York

(2) Darwin, Charles; 1871 “The Descent of Man” Published by John Murray, United Kingdom.

(3) Wallace, Danny; 2005 “Yes Man”, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, New York – London – Toronto – Sydney.

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