The Whig Interpretation of Games

October 21, 2012 § 6 Comments

NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Wright, Robert)

NonZero is a polemical treatise, a bellicose boxer of a book that comes flying out of its corner, swinging hard at established scientific and philosophical opinion, and scoring some good points against  heavyweights like Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Marshall McLuhan, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould. Unquestionably, Robert Wright punches way above his weight.

In summary, Wright models human history, and indeed that of all biological life, as a series of non-zero sum games, starting with the ancient fusion of a mitochondrion and a cell, flash-forwarding furiously to the invention of sharp objects and of language; the evolution of villages, chiefdoms and then states; of religions, democracy, and the internet, and so on to the present day. Wright proposes that cultural evolution is directional, not random; that progress in cultural terms is defined by a gradual increase in structural complexity, information processing, specialization of function and cooperation; that there is nothing accidental about this process; and finally, that it is very likely to continue, and to shape human destiny in the future.

Explained in these terms, Wright’s thesis matches my own mental construct of the world. Broadly. Earlier in these pages (here , here and here ) I have talked about my belief that human history can be validly modeled on probabilistic, game theoretical and complex lines. Broadly. But then ‘broadly’ is how I expect anyone to be able to explain the entire world. I am a qualified engineer, and so am trained to disbelieve empirical readings that match theoretical predictions too exactly, that do not show a trace of measurement error or real-world clunkiness. In human matters, I am wary of explanations that are at once more specific, more elegant and simple, more sweeping and ambitious, and less tolerant of exceptions, than broad patterns can be. This attitude led me to look for flaws in Wright’s logic, and I found a few.

The Nobel Art of Game Theory: Roth and Shapley, winners of the 2012 Economics Prize. (image courtesy

For instance, I have a problem with Wright’s belief in inevitability – in two places. One, where he disagrees with the idea of intrinsic equilibrium – that cultures tend to remain static, or even regress, unless acted upon by an external force. An example is the notion, plausible in my opinion, that hunter-gatherer societies that survived into the 21st century did so because their way of life was not challenged by food shortages, hostile invasions, or disease. Wright believes that innovation, fuelled by an innate competitive streak for status and sex, would eventually cause progress in every society, even if there were no external exigency. I do not disagree that a competitive streak exists: I merely question the inevitability that this streak would lead to meaningful innovation and technological progress. It is eminently possible, I think, for a group of people to compete intensely for status and wives over countless generations, without a single productive contribution accruing to that society. Status and sex are shallow ambitions: they can be satisfied without need for too much innovation. Cultural or technological progress needs a critical mass of experiments and innovations, and an urgency that I can readily understand under conditions of external threat. There are many societies (I come from one of them) where, for centuries on end, a small set of people vied with each other for power and status while large masses accepted their meagre lot and carried on, their lives never changing. Even today, there are families that regress, neighborhoods that go to seed, villages that are ‘forgotten by time’. I remain unconvinced that any given group of people will eventually get around to innovating, all by themselves. I am of a Humeian persuasion: I believe that inevitability in human affairs is impossible to prove, and therefore meaningless to assert.

The ‘inevitable’ word recurs during Wright’s grand sword-crossing with the palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, on whether the attainment of our current evolved state was a matter of luck. In fact, says Gould, it was a pretty low-probability event that any species could have gotten this far. I am not qualified to assess the probability, and I agree with Wright that positive feedback and autocatalytic processes, provided they exist, can dramatically improve the odds of unlikely events. In fact, if not for such processes, it is hugely unlikely that life could have evolved from the primordial goo. Wright offers an analogy. If several drunks randomly totter around an alley, the probability of one of them arriving out of the other side is high, he says. But perhaps the analogy isn’t exact. What if we should add a ‘damping’ rule – that the drunks will die if they remain in the alley for over an hour? Now, is it inevitable that one of them will eventually emerge from the alley? Or, consider a related analogy: take a vast empty room, leave a window open, and throw a tennis ball in a random direction from the centre of the room. Will the ball eventually go out the open window after ricocheting off the walls a finite number of times?  It may, but there’s nothing inevitable about it, especially if the ball loses momentum over time – if it doesn’t happen for a while, it may just come to a stop on the floor. Or, even without considering damping, it is possible to think of a situation where the ball bounces endlessly between two walls, never making it out the door. Other than these two possibilities, Wright is correct – the question is not if, but when the ball will go out the window. But these possibilities – endless stasis and gradual depletion before cultural evolution – aren’t impossible to conceive. A surviving colony of trilobites may have never got around to inventing space travel, even if all other animals had died out.

My next beef: at least on two occasions, Wright’s concept of history is either too superficial and simplistic, or deliberately dumbed down to fit his theory.

The Mughal empire expired in the 18th century, the Ottoman in the 20th. Why did they fail to thrive? Theories abound, but obviously, we see some familiar culprits: parasitic governance and an oppression that left much non-zero-sumness untapped. India, with its caste system, is a famous example.
Maybe then, the world should be thankful that neither of these empires survived to become a much-emulated model. When regimes that ban printing presses and mandate bias are given the thumbs down, we can only compliment history on its judgment

The caste system, evil as it is, was not imposed on the population by the Mughals. It predated them by more than 2000 years, and had nothing to do with their eventual demise. And again:

In the case of the Greeks, the interdependence was partly economic, but mainly military. As various Greek states found common cause in fighting off Persians, Athenians began to concede the essential humanity of non-Athenian Greeks.

Anyone who has read Herodotus or Thucydides would instantly recognize the naivety of that statement. The story of Themistocles at Salamis, of the Peloponnesian war, and of the thousands of Greek warriors who fought in the Persian armies, shows how rich in detail and nuance history is, and how futile it is to shoehorn it into a simple narrative.

Above all, I disagree with Wright’s general attachment of meaning and moral value to cultural evolution. It is apparently not enough for him to note the increase in complexity in evolved cultures, and of the number of nonzero-sum games in them. It is, for me. But no – Wright goes on to state that history moves in the direction of greater meaning, and of greater goodness. We are not merely doing better (economically) than ever before; we are better people than ever before. His breezy statement that only poor nations declare war on one another these days, and will stop doing so as they grow rich, flies in the face of the facts: the USA and the UK, aided by French, Canadian and German technology and boots on the ground, have probably fought as many wars over the last century as all the poorer ones put together. The rich nations merely don’t fight one another these days. His argument that it is only at the lunatic fringe of political opinion that there is resistance to the idea of world governance and the United Nations is similarly eyebrow-raising: a few minutes at a Presidential debate are sufficient to establish that mainstream popular opinion is overwhelmingly jingoistic and candidates who believe in consulting the UN before deciding on military action are seen as weak.

But what I really object to is Wright’s notion that “nonzero-sumness” is equivalent to cooperation, reciprocal altruism and goodness. In fact, nonzero-sum games are often severely exploitative. Take the domestic pig, an example quoted by Wright himself to prove his point. It has survived by agreeing to be fed and eventually eaten, while its wild cousins have been exterminated –by human hunters, of course. Wright calls this a non-zero sum cooperation between man and pig. He fails to tell us that the rules of the game were drawn up by man, and are loaded in his favor. Effectively, either the pig consents to being held captive, kept alive for a while, and then eaten, or is killed by man anyway. Sure, the pig optimizes his choices, but they were poor ones to begin with. You may call this win-win if you like, but morally uplifting it is not. This is not unlike most of the nonzero-sum games we have played in history: “If you do not work hard on this Pyramid, I will not have a nice place to spend the afterlife, and you will die a painful death. If you cooperate, I get something nice to look forward to, and you get to live out the rest of your miserable life. Hey – this is win-win.

The trouble with the Game Theory Is Cooperation meme, is that the basic textbook examples often assume equal pay-offs, but in reality, this is seldom the case. Wright is not ignorant of tyrannical ‘Big Men’ and coercive chieftains – he believes that nonzero outcomes emerge somehow from their brutal quests for power and status, and that this is ultimately for the ‘good’ of the society. Why not describe most of history in terms of unequal power distributions and exploitation of the weak by the strong, asKarl Marx did, something that is easier to demonstrate, rather than make a tenuous case for the universality of unconscious altruism? Once again, Wright over-reaches: it isn’t enough for him to say that the number of nonzero sum games has increased with cultural evolution, especially those that involve collaboration toward a bigger goal (good or bad). He has to claim that nonzero sum games are always altruistic, a force for the good; and that they have been the norm every step of the way.

Books that purport to explain the world in a few easy steps are neither a new phenomenon nor a rare one. Weird words like “fragmegration” and “coopetition” have been invented to help authors explain contradictory facts with a single golden rule. Ibn Khaldun and Arnold Toynbee sang of civilizational cycles; Spengler applied principles of biology to human history; Marx declared that it was all about dialectical materialism; Matt Ridley said sex was at the root of all history; Leslie White said energy determined everything; Mark Kurlansky credited the humble codfish with the authorship of much of modern history. If there is anything at all that is inevitable about human nature, it is that Robert Wright’s will not be the last such effort. And to be fair, it isn’t a bad effort at all, as such efforts go. It is just that it is an instinctive reaction, when reading a book that debates so many points made by so many thinkers, to subject each of the writer’s own assertions to a similar interrogation. I emerged from the effort as from an invigorating session with a seasoned sparring partner, and I do think I landed a few – don’t you?


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§ 6 Responses to The Whig Interpretation of Games

  • Rick Searle says:

    Great post as always, Sriram.

    It’s been many moons since I read since I read NON-ZERO, and I happen to still have my somewhat yellowed copy on my book shelf.
    As I’ve mentioned prior, I am a great fan of Robert Wright, but a couple of things I have encountered since I first read the book have made me question its premise, things which, at lest according to my lazy scanning of the index, he does not appear to address.

    One of these is the artificial, sequestered nature in which the “prisoners’
    dilemma”, the primary example of a non-zero sum game takes place. The prisoners’ dilemma assumes no asymmetries in information between the players, nor any real communication, but this is in no way representative of the way interactions in the actual economy take place.

    Asymmetries in the sense of having more information, or getting to the information FIRST is something that hit home when I was looking at the quants:

    Communication, not as the transparent exchange of information, but a manipulation to weight a decision in your favor also seems to be the rule of the day both in economics

    And in politics:

    Wright’s point that there is a progressive arc of history, defined by less violence and more cooperation, though perhaps counter-intuitive, has
    something to it, and a good statistical case is made for it in Steven Pinker’s: The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book I am currently reading:

    I think this progress is for real, but I am not quite certain it is permanent or even reflects some underlying “divine plan” as Wright, much more than Pinker, seems to suggest in NON-ZERO.

    The issue I have is something I think you could address, Sriram. If the complexity of social systems mirrors that in ecology, so that a stable environment leads to increasing complexity whereas an unstable one results in simplicity:

    Then we may be living in a Goldilocks period in terms of the earth’s environment that the very success of our complex human civilization may bring to an end a century or 2 hence with climate change. There are also the issues of a relatively stable international and domestic order experienced in after WWII, that themselves may not last into the next century making the complex societies we have built in this stable period vulnerable. And, in addition to all that, the issue of faced by all developed societies, the issue of increasingly marginal returns.

    Thus, the premise of NON-ZERO may only hold for a brief period of human history, one we can be thankful we are living through.

  • psriblog says:


    Your point about information asymmetry is absolutely valid, and along with the unequal payoffs, confirms my view that while nonzero-sum games continue to increase, Wright’s point about an overall increase in reciprocal altruism or ‘goodness’ is questionable. In re: your point about Pinker’s book and the reduction in violence, I will read the book in question (and read your blog on the subject), but my first reaction is that barely 3 generations ago, we had a terrible world war and the Holocaust. In broad historical terms, I am not sure we can make any calls about improvement trends for a while yet.

    Was it Mao Tse Tung or Deng Xiopeng, who, when asked about his opinion regarding whether the French Revolution had had a positive impact on history, replied, ‘But it’s too early to comment on that!’ Like any good zinger, it has some truth in it, surely.
    Regarding climate change: I am ashamed to say I know too little to comment, I am worried that the issue is too politically loaded for me to trust any scientific sources at all…

    Your point about a Goldilocks period during which the premise of NonZero holds good may be valid. If so, it wouldn’t be the first such period in world history, and it possibly won’t be the last, either. We’ve lived for less than one generation under a fledgling ‘Pax Americana’. Centralized hegemony (if not exactly empire) has existed in large pockets periodically, and within those pockets, there has been relative peace and collaboration (One bully in the neighborhood = world peace. Two = war, hot or cold. Many = pandemonium).

    Oops, it does sound dangerously like I have my own historical grand narrative now! I’d better stop…


    • Rick Searle says:


      Sorry, I just realized that you had responded to my comment. Pinker’s book is certainly worth the read. I was pretty dubious myself when I first heard the argument, but he makes a pretty compelling case not just on the matter of war- where I totally agree with you that the time horizon is way to short to draw any ultimate conclusions, and the geopolitical environment has to be taken into full account- but for the decline of violence in the domestic sphere as well: torture, slavery, violence against wives and children, animals. (I even read today on a movement in my home state against violence towards PLANTS.)

      If you, or your readers want a good run down of Better Angels here is one from Pinker himself:

      That said, I do have major problems with his argument, but I think I will need to read Pinker’s other book- Blank Slate- to fully get to the heart of the matter, so my post on Better Angels will have to wait until then.


  • psriblog says:

    Hi Rick
    I’ve read Blank Slate a few years ago. I dont recall much of it, except that even though I couldn’t find anything specific wrong with it, I had a problem with some of the conclusions Pinker drew. I just felt uncomfortable. Let me know what you think after you read it.

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