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Nonzero

The Logic of Human Destiny

By Robert Wright
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Nonzero by Robert Wright
Synopsis

Nonzero examines our evolutionary and cultural history, concluding that the direction of our evolution was determined by a natural tendency to create win-win situations. It argues that humankind’s biological and cultural history is directional, even purposeful, pushing towards increasing complexity and ultimately goodness.

Key idea 1 of 10

The complex life on planet Earth is a result of growing cooperation between cells and organisms.

When dealing with a problem, do you generally look to profit at someone else’s expense, sacrifice your own needs for the benefits of others or find a solution that will benefit everybody? Most people look for a win-win solution in which everyone profits at least a little bit. In other words: a non-zero-sum interaction.

As we’ll see, these interactions are far more than a mere decision-making strategy: they’re actually the basis of the development of life on Earth.

In fact, the very development of multicellular life owes itself to non-zero-sum interactions. In the beginning, life on Earth was composed exclusively of simple single-cell organisms, such as bacteria or fungi.

Eventually, these individual cells began to communicate. They then “realized” that they all had essentially the same interest – i.e., spreading their genes – and that they could better achieve this by pooling their efforts and joining together, thus forming the first multicelled life-forms.

We can see the legacy of this realization in our own bodies, and in those of plants and animals:

Each of our cells has two vital components: the nucleus, where DNA is stored, and mitochondria, which generate energy. Originally, these two cell parts were actually separate, individual cells, which came together in a non-zero-sum interaction to form the basis of complex life.

And as multicellular life continued to grow, it also had to grow increasingly complex in order to survive the competition with other life-forms.

In order to accomplish this, cells began specializing in various tasks, such as maintaining the health of the organism (for example, by producing blood), getting the lay of the land (the senses) and handling the big decision-making (the nervous system).

This development continuously accelerated as organisms competed for resources, like food and shelter, both within their own species and with others. For example, when a predator species becomes faster or smarter, its prey must adapt accordingly in order to survive.

It is this evolutionary “arms race” that led to the development of increasingly complicated life-forms, and eventually to human society and culture.

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