Nonzero

  • by Robert Wright
  • Narrated by Kevin T. Collins
  • 16 hrs and 12 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

At the beginning of Nonzero, Robert Wright sets out to "define the arrow of the history of life, from the primordial soup to the World Wide Web." Twenty-two chapters later, after a sweeping and vivid narrative of the human past, he has succeeded and has mounted a powerful challenge to the conventional view that evolution and human history are aimless.
Ingeniously employing game theory the logic of "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" games, Wright isolates the impetus behind life's basic direction: the impetus that, via biological evolution, created complex, intelligent animals and then, via cultural evolution, pushed the human species toward deeper and vaster social complexity. In this view, the coming of today's interdependent global society was "in the cards" - not quite inevitable, perhaps, but, as Wright puts it, "so probable as to inspire wonder." So probable, indeed, as to invite speculation about higher purpose, especially in light of "the phase of history that seems to lie immediately ahead: a social, political, and even moral culmination of sorts."
In a work of vast erudition and pungent wit, Wright takes on some of the past century's most prominent thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins. He finds evidence for his position in unexpected corners, from native American hunter-gatherer societies and Polynesian chiefdoms to medieval Islamic commerce and precocious Chinese technology; from conflicts of interest among a cell's genes to discord at the World Trade Organization.
Wright argues that a coolly scientific appraisal of humanity's three-billion-year past can give new spiritual meaning to the present and even offer political guidance for the future. Nonzero will change the way people think about the human prospect.

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What the Critics Say

"Wright supports his view by drawing on an impressive breadth of knowledge that happily doesn't lord over the text but rather buoys it with interesting connections. Ending with a push of his thesis of progressiveness into biology, of all things, Wright caps a spritely, opinionated big-picture history of human civilization." (Booklist)
“The Smartest Books We Know” (Fortune Magazine)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A Nice Follow-Up...

to The Moral Animal, though it smiles just a tad too much. One HOPES that Wright's optimistic "destiny" of human evolution is true, though there is plenty of real life mess to prove otherwise. Wright does make some wonderfully insightful observations about what drives the complexity and symbolic nature of human society, it is just the underlying eutopic hints that cause one to cringe a bit. Overall, a fine book with lots of insight and things to ponder...just don't take it's subtitle too much to heart--humans simply don't yet deserve it.
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- Douglas

Non-Zero (but pretty close to zero)

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

Maybe people who have never heard anything about Non-Zero/Zero sum games, game theory, etc.


What do you think your next listen will be?

I have no idea


Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Kevin T. Collins?

Collins actually fits Wright well. He's nothing special. Wright has a tendency to ramble on, with minutes of pure, useless conjecture, thus I was only about 30min into the book when I realized I was gonna have to listen to the rest on double speed. And Collins isn't a bad narrator to have on double speed because his voice adds nothing.


What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Disappointment, boredom, indifference.


Any additional comments?

I don't give this a 1-star because it isn't a bad book. I give it 2-stars because it just isn't very good or useful. For much of "Nonzero" I couldn't help wondering what the point of the book was. There were whole chapters that could have been left out without taking anything away from the book.

I can say without exaggeration that there were fewer than 10 moments during the reading of this book that I thought "wow. that's really interesting." Probably the only thing I'll remember from "Nonzero" was the factoid about units of Dolphin teaming up with groups from outside their main group to steal a female from another group and then take turns having sex with her. This help would later be paid back in kind. I thought that was fascinating but it was one of only a few such points in "Nonzero."

I think I learned more about Robert Wright from this book than I did about whatever it was Wright was babbling on about. The problem with this book is that Wright is the sort of author who really needs to stick to a particular subject. In this book his scope was wide and he just went all over the place, often without saying anything of note. There are large sections of the book in which nothing interesting is said.

Wright's book "Evolution of God" worked well because he stuck to a certain topic and wrote about that. However, towards the end of that book Wright insists on laying out his personal views and beliefs, along with all sorts of conjecture. This book contains an even longer "personal" part towards the end, and his own subjective ideas are woven throughout "Nonzero."

Wright is a reluctant agnostic, which is to say that his knowledge won't allow him to believe in any of the world's religions, but he simply can't bear the idea of life not having some higher purpose or design, so he creates his own religious views. Wright's admiration for and rosy view of organized religion are some of his worst traits. He simply can't help from criticizing certain "new atheists" in each of his books, and one gets the sense that Wright feels guilty about not being a christian and feels scorn for those atheists who don't.

The general gist of Wright's superfluous section on his personal beliefs is that he refuses to look at the world and civilization as something that has no direction or meaning. But his beliefs are backed by faith, not fact. Optimism about mankind isn't necessarily bad. But Wright seems to believe that a lack of belief in a higher purpose inevitably leads to a lack of feeling of purpose in one's life. This isn't at all the case, but apparently Wright needs to hold on to naive beliefs and ideas created out of thin air in order to go on.

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- Douglas

Book Details

  • Release Date: 06-29-2010
  • Publisher: Audible Studios