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In a win-lose situation if my piece of pie is the biggest, then by definition I've taken away pie that could have (should have?) been yours. This is sometimes referred to as competition. My team can only win if yours loses and there is just one trophy. In game theory this scenario is called a zero-sum game because your winnings are balanced out by my losses. Many people talk like this is the only game in town, especially in business and politics, and once upon a time the dreaded Social Darwinists appealed to the ultimate zero-sum game of "nature red in tooth and claw" to justify their theories.
But there's a better game that seems to have been around almost as long as the first -- the non-zero-sum game. This game is win-win (or lose-lose if it's not played or not played well). Before we get all warm and fuzzy about the cooperative nature of non-zero, I'll just say that one of the best known examples is MAD, mutually assured destruction, as it was classically played out during the Cold War. Although MAD wasn't kissy-huggy, it certainly was win-win -- neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union started WWIII despite having more than enough firepower. Rather than pieces of pie, the archetype of non-zero is the lifeboat a.k.a. "We're all in the same boat." You don't have to like the person rowing next to you, but you both had better be going in the same direction. Trust and communication allow nonzero games even if the "trust" is policed by law or taboo and the communication consists of directives from a leader.
In defiance of the recent scorn heaped on speculations positing progressive or directional laws of history, Robert Wright believes that game theory offers the framework for interpreting such seemingly disparate phenomena as the invention of writing, DNA, and the World Trade Organization as parts of an overarching pattern. The "logic of human destiny" Wright refers to in his subtitle is the logic of non-zero -- that non-zero-sum games inherently provide more fitness for survival than zero-sum games in the long run, and that non-zeroness breeds more non-zeroness by opening up new and more elaborate ways to profit and thrive. Ironically, zero-sum activities, such as war, have spurred on increasingly complex non-zero structures in the past. From tribes and city-states to nations and empires, governments foster non-zero interactions like trade between more people, citizens and allies, while using armies (internally non-zero-sum) to ward off enemies (externally zero-sum). These structures can also allow innovation to spread via new technologies that break down trust and communication barriers. For example, written language, say a clay tablet, can be carried or stored with the information on it intact. Writing created the potential for whole new kinds of non-zero interaction. The rest, they say, is history.
It seems logical to apply game theory to cultural evolution -- after all humans do play games -- but Wright also shows how non-zero applies to biological evolution from the very beginnings of complex life. The cell is non-zero to the core. DNA consists of a series genes that are very much in the same boat, and they are accompanied by mitochondria, which were famously shown to be once free-living by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis. This brings us to the issue of autonomy and freedom. The mitochondria may have lost their autonomy, but in Darwinian terms of reproduction, they have been hugely successful. Translated in human terms, non-zero can and does often mean a loss of sovereignty to a larger social institution, but it also means freedom -- from starvation, being attacked, and a host of other ills, as well as the freedom to partake in the inventiveness of one's peers. Wright sees the inexorable pull of non-zero leading the human community into future planetary-wide social institutions, foreshadowed by today's World Trade Organization. Barring an alien invasion as a catalyst, Wright is hopeful that humanity possesses the ability to unite for such non-zero activities as combating environmental threats.
Wright is an engaging writer. Despite terms like "game theory" and "non-zero-sumness," Nonzero is surprisingly clear and even humorous. At heart Nonzero offers a positive worldview that is not naïve, quite an accomplishment.
--Laura Wood, Science and Nature Editor