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Does History Have A Purpose?

THINK TANK
SATURDAY, APRIL 1, 2000


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Think Tank is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Author Robert Wrightís book, 'Non-Zero: The Logic Of Human Destiny,' is making waves. The book deals with a view of the world, past present and future, as seen through the lens of sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, which is to say itís about everything. Dealing with everything, Wright takes some potshots at most everyone, and the favor has been returned. Some critics have even maintained that Robert Wright believes in God, but doesnít have the nerve to say so. The topic before the house, does history have a purpose, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution he radically changed our understanding of biological science, and perhaps more importantly challenged the way human beings understand themselves, and their relationship to nature and history. Many argue that Darwinís elegant theory suggested that human history was aimless, or directionless, and that life was certainly not filled with meaning. It was argued that evolution clearly suggested there can be no divine creator or God in the universe.

Well, in his new book Robert Wright fires back at those claims. He believes that evolution does reveal and direction to history, and that perhaps, perhaps it reveals purpose and meaning in the universe. But, does Wright go so far as to claim that the process of evolution suggests there is, indeed, a God in the universe? We will now find out, as he joins us on Think Tank.

Welcome, Bob.

MR. WRIGHT: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just begin by asking some personal stuff, where were you born, when were you born, schools?

MR. WRIGHT: Lawton, Oklahoma, 1957, near Fort Sill, because my father was in the Army. I traveled around a lot as a kid.

MR. WATTENBERG: Military brat?

MR. WRIGHT: Army brat.

MR. WATTENBERG: Army brat.

MR. WRIGHT: Traveled around within the country mostly, in fact, entirely during my lifetime. Went to TCU for a year, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, transferred to Princeton, and graduated with a degree in public and international affairs, an interdisciplinary degree. And then Iíve done various forms of journalism since then.

MR. WATTENBERG: What kind of religious upbringing did you have?

MR. WRIGHT: Southern Baptist, which is pretty intense.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís interesting, obviously, in conjunction with the book. And when did you start, and how did you come to start writing about this sort of hot field of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and are they related?

MR. WRIGHT: Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are largely interchangeable, not entirely, but their distinctions are probably not worth bothering with here. And I took a seminar in what was then called sociobiology in college, and maintained and interest in it. And I was also taking a lot of psychology courses at the time, and I kept with the interest, although I didnít really write about it much until the early mid-1990s when I wrote a book called The Moral Animal, which is about evolutionary psychology.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the theme of The Moral Animal was that evolution as expressed in a Darwinian way yielded a moral result in humanity, is that right?

MR. WRIGHT: In a sense, yes. The argument is that, first of all, people are animals, they were products of evolution, and their brains and minds no less than the rest of their bodies were designed by natural selection. So to understand human nature you need to understand evolution. And yes, youíre right, what was interesting to me was that it isnít just the obviously animal impulses, like lust and hatred, that are part of human nature, part of our genetic endowment, but less obviously animal impulses, an instinct for cooperation, some of the moral impulses such as a sense -- really the sense of justice, the sense that one good turn deserves another and bad -- evil doers should be punished, these are universal.

MR. WATTENBERG: And there was an evolutionary bonus, a Darwinian bonus for such sort of behavior?
MR. WRIGHT: There was a Darwinian pay off at the level of the individual, it was in the individualís own interest to have genes predisposing him or her to cooperation, to empathy under some circumstances, and to this idea that one good turn deserves another.

MR. WATTENBERG: And now the new book, 'Non-Zero: The Logic Of Human Destiny,' that takes the argument a step or two, or five further, is that right?

MR. WRIGHT: Yes, it argues that history, the direction of human history is in some sense an extension of human nature. That certainly the instinct for cooperation, you could call it an instinct for win-win games, and ability to kind of sense a common interest, overlapping interest with someone, and cultivate it. I mean, the non-zero in the title refers to the concept of the non-zero sum game, a game where there isnít just a winner and a loser, you can both win, or you can both lose if you play it badly. So in other words, you can cooperate in a way that serves your own interest and thatís an instinctive part of human nature.

MR. WATTENBERG: Game theory goes back to what Von Neumann in the 1920s?

MR. WRIGHT: And Morgenstern, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why donít you tell us, Von Neumann and Morgenstern, just give us a little bite on that.

MR. WRIGHT: Okay. John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern collaborated to produce game theory, and they made this basic distinction between a zero sum game, like tennis, where each point is good for one person, bad for the other, and the non-zero sum game. And a real life example of a non-zero sum game might be, say, those Apollo 13 astronauts who were stranded in the same spaceship. Among themselves they were playing a game that would either be win-win, they would either cooperate to get the thing back to Earth, or it would be lose-lose, they would all lose if they got stranded. Thatís an extreme example, because in real life most situations have zero sum and non-zero sum dynamics. Thereís some overlap of interest, but some divergence, and thatís what makes life interesting and complicated.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you look at human history through a prism of game theory?

MR. WRIGHT: Thatís right.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you say, as I understand it, in Non-Zero, that the way it works out human nature yields more good games than bad games?

MR. WRIGHT: I think on balance there are more non-zero sum games played successfully, in the sense of getting win-win outcomes than unsuccessfully, in the sense of lose-lose. And I think that is really the explanation for the observed fact that ever since the stone age societies have gotten larger and more complex. I try to tell the story of human history from the stone age to globalization, arguing that there was a very strong impetus behind the observed growth in the size and complexity of society.

MR. WATTENBERG: Can you do that in a few minutes, start with the caves and end up with the Internet, and letís just see where it takes us.

MR. WRIGHT: Sure. You look at a hunter-gatherer society, like the Shoshone, very simple society, family level organization.

MR. WATTENBERG: This is the American Indian in the West?

MR. WRIGHT: Native Americans, thatís right. One of the simplest societies ever studied, in the sense that for most of the year it is a family level of social organization, there arenít even villages. They go around in independent family units and dig for roots and things. But, they do have a technology called the rabbit net, which can only work -- itís a way of herding rabbits into a net. And some times of the year thereís enough rabbits, it makes sense, but it only works if they come together as a multi-family unit, and organize. And when that occasion arises social structure materializes, thereís a rabbit boss to administer the thing and so on. And I argue that through history time and again people invent and exploit technologies that facilitate non-zero sum interactions, win-win games, on larger and larger scales. And that continues.

MR. WATTENBERG: Some other examples through history would be?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, major technological transformations have tended to carry social organization through thresholds. For example, in the wake of agriculture you get the so-called 'chiefdom', which is a multi-village level of social organization that is centralized in its governance. Thatís a clear distinct threshold in social organization. In the wake of the invention of writing you get the ancient state, the state level of organization, bureaucratic, and much more powerful and formidable than, say, a chiefdom which is why ancient states were destined to kind of win out over chiefdoms. So time and again, I argue largely because of technological revolutions, society has passed through thresholds. And I think that weíre on the verge of one now, and that increasingly nations will be surrendering appreciable measures of sovereignty to various supranational bodies that will give us regional governance, and global governance, that collectively you could call a system of world governance. I donít mean tomorrow, but itís coming.

MR. WATTENBERG: Just stop there for a minute.

We will join Robert Wright in just a moment. But, now let me ask our viewers, please, to let us know what you think. Itís the best and only way we know to make this program evolve in a non-zero sum way, you can email us at and we will give you that address again at the end of the program.

So you say, Bob, that this long train of human history, which has a genetic bonus on cooperation, and liberty, leads us from families to chiefdoms, to tribes, and so on, and toward greater democracy, right?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, itís certainly toward greater and more advanced social complexity. I do think that right now, yes, technological trends favor the spread of democracy, and the diffusion of power, the decentralization of both economic and political power. And I think there are precedents for that in the past, during kind of thresholds in information technology. But, yes, Iím optimistic about the future in that regard.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, if you get to world government, it seems to me thatís a dicey area to go to, because on the one hand it could be the Elysian Fields, and Valhalla, and utopia, and isnít it wonderful, weíre all cooperating. On the other hand, if it would be, and this is sort of the usual concept, a central world government, it would take away all the safety nets of the nation states, and federalism. Take the United States for example, if New York passes a dumb law that, for example, puts such high taxes on business that it becomes globally uncompetitive, well, then maybe Texas or Colorado will say, weíre going to bring your business here, weíre going to produce things competitively, or if Minnesota has a law that tries to prohibit free speech, people are going to say, I donít want to live here, Iím going to move to Ohio. And the same with nations. If a nation is poor and un-free, people are going to say, Iím not going to live here, Iím going to try to go somewhere else. Now, if you have a central government, and thereís an Internet election, in this global brain that youíve talked about, and it turns out that Hitler wins the election, what happens?

MR. WRIGHT: Thatís trouble, and I stress toward the end of the kind of historical narrative part of the book that this is a uniquely dangerous point in history, because always in the past through exactly the dynamic you describe, there has been this -- the direction of history has been kind impervious to local blunders and local evils in exactly the way you describe. When you get to the point of designing global institutions, like the IMF, itís much dicier.

MR. WATTENBERG: International Monetary Fund, and the one very much in the news now, the World Trade Organization.

MR. WRIGHT: Absolutely, you need to be very careful, and for one thing not seed anymore power to them than is necessary, because actually, for all Iíve talked about cooperation, thereís a very cynical view of human nature in some ways that underlies the book. Often whatís driven history is rivalry among people, and thereís no doubt that people, if they can get away with it, will exploit other people. I mean, the good news is they often canít get away with it, but they will. So I think --

MR. WATTENBERG: And there is also a competition toward innovation which is beneficial?

MR. WRIGHT: Yes, and the very competition for social status has driven the technological innovation that, in turn, I argue drives history. Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, is this -- isnít your book sort of millenniocentric, in that is says, wow, look just where we are right now, everything is coming loose?

MR. WRIGHT: That is certainly a possibility. Iím probably not the person to pass judgment.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, that is what you say, that this is a unique moment.

MR. WRIGHT: I do. On the other hand I agree with people who say --

MR. WATTENBERG: And then tell me why itís a unique moment?

MR. WRIGHT: Itís unique because weíre actually seeing nations begin to surrender the sovereignty in a systematic way. I mean, Iím among those who think that the WTO in its present incarnation does involve a slight sacrifice of genuine sovereignty, and I also think there will probably be more of that as the WTO -- the book went to press right before Seattle, the WTO meeting in Seattle.

MR. WATTENBERG: World Trade Organization.

MR. WRIGHT: Yes, World Trade Organization. I argue that the politics, as interest groups organize internationally, the politics are going to move the WTO somewhat to the left. And by the end of Seattle Bill Clinton was calling for that, labor standards, environmental standards. And this is really significant, for a President of the United States to stand up and say, we should be part of a global body that has power in the realms of labor regulation and environmental regulation. On the other hand, I agree with those who stress that both the information age and globalization have been a long time in the unfolding. Finding the beginning of either of those processes is really murky business, and they both go back centuries.

MR. WATTENBERG: You start with the gene and with genetics, and that it has a cooperative and liberal thrust to it. It gets into politics, it gets into information technology, it gets into globalization, as I said in the beginning of the show the book is about everything, and I salute you for that. But, what you stress is that all this has a purpose, that there is a direction to the universe. And then, or so some of your critics say, the next sentence should be, and so there is a God. And you -- before I say, you back off of that, let me see if you back off of that?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, the point of the book, and I mean, youíre right I argue very firmly for directionality in biological evolution, human history. I argue more speculatively of necessity I think whether that directionality reflects a purpose, whether the process was set in motion by some intelligence with an end in mind. Thatís a necessarily more speculative argument. And if the question is why donít I say at the end I have proven the existence of God, the answer is I havenít because it is so necessarily speculative, and there are all kinds of theological problems. I mean, itís hard to even establish that there is purpose in a firm way, much less a kind of universally benign purpose.

MR. WATTENBERG: Canít the synthesis that you are offering up, which is one of a scientist, and a social scientist, and an evolutionary psychologist, and a sociobiologist, canít that -- the way you come out with it, canít that be married easily to a belief of a specific God? And consequently, sort of take this big argument thatís going on, we see it here in American politics, I mean, Christian right, material left, I mean, arenít you leading to the fact, the idea that both things are true, or both things are plausibly true, and letís get off this argument, thereís not a contradiction. You donít have to go through this Kansas thing about Darwin and evolution and all this stuff, they are not incompatible views.

MR. WRIGHT: Well, I think the theory of evolution is incompatible with some specific religious claims, which is that the world was created a few thousand years ago in seven days. Thatís an empirical claim about the world. But, if youíre asking more broadly, are science and religion incompatible, the point of the book is, one point of the book is no, absolutely. And I can imagine various kinds of theologies that my theory in the book would be consistent with, but itís not supposed to be a theology, itís supposed to be an argument about the direction of the past, and the shape of the future, and the possibility of purpose.

MR. WATTENBERG: Two people who write most prominently about evolution these days are Richard Dawkins, in England, who weíve had on this show when he was promoting his book, and Stephen J. Gould, who we have asked to be on this show, but has not yet graced us with his presence. And you kind of bang on both of them, donít you?

MR. WRIGHT: Gould more than Dawkins. With Gould the argument is about the direction of evolution. He contends that the evolution of intelligent life was not very likely. Now, evolutionary biologists disagree, a lot of them are on my side of the argument. In fact, Dawkins --

MR. WATTENBERG: Say again what you say Gould says, that he does not believe in the evolution of intelligence?

MR. WRIGHT: No, he believes it happened, but he believes it was unlikely, and Iím saying no, that the evolution of a species about as intelligent as we are, in much the same way, and a species that could launch this kind of technological and cultural evolution, that has its own directionality, Iím saying thatís actually quite probable, given enough time.

MR. WATTENBERG: And heís saying itís a cosmic accident.

MR. WRIGHT: Now Dawkins would, to some extent Iím sure, be on my side of that particular argument. He sees more directionality in evolution than Gould does, but Dawkins is kind of fervently anti-religion. And when anyone starts talking about evolution and higher purpose, I think he gets kind of upset. So thatís one argument I would have with him.

MR. WATTENBERG: I asked him, I had a citation from the brilliant scholarly publication USA Today, that happened to appear the day of the interview, that some study had shown that people who are religious are healthier and live longer. And I asked him if this could be a Darwinian bonus for people being religious. And he got very upset.

MR. WRIGHT: I made the point in the book, because the other thing that Dawkins believes is that culture is very often kind of parasitic upon people, in a sense, the cultural system weíre born into is kind of bad for us, and religions are parasitic on people. And I do make the argument that actually, by and large, religions, first of all, they often do a good job of congealing societies, unfortunately, sometimes they do that in the service of war with other societies. Iím hoping that that age is coming to and end. But, also theyíre good for the people. You know, people arenít designed to go around believing things that are terrible for them at the personal level, I think.

MR. WATTENBERG: You know, Bob, I am also a great optimist and yet, weíre sitting here at a time where in the memory of living human beings, myself being one of them, we have seen Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Polpot, Rwanda, to list a short list of some of the horror and mass murder weíve seen in this world. And you are saying, well, there are some lose-lose situations and those are obviously some of them, but win-win is more likely. Doesnít that upset -- I mean, if another Stalin comes along in 20 years, what do you do? Do a new edition of the book, or what happens?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, I think, first of all, Iím optimistic in the long run. We could screw things up in the short run.

MR. WATTENBERG: So we have free will?

MR. WRIGHT: We absolutely have the choice now, and thatís one reason I think this is such a momentous point in history, weíre carrying organization to the global level, and we have the choice of whether we blow it. I think itís reasonably clear what we should do. I try to kind of lay a little of that out. So Iím long run optimistic. And Iím hoping it doesnít take too many catastrophes to enlighten us. But, I will say that even in the somewhat shorter run things like Stalin, things like Hitler, I believe could not recur exactly as they occurred the first time in the following sense.

Germany was an economically modern nation at that point, and yet the holocaust was largely concealed. You can argue about how much the world really knew, or should have known, but I think in a modern truly prosperous society it would be so filled with information technologies, ranging from camcorders this big to access to the Internet, that it would be impossible to come anywhere near concealing a crime on that scale in an economically modern nation. So that gets back to the argument that weíre in a period where control over information processing is spreading through societies more broadly, thanks to the Internet and other things, and empowers small groups of people, and makes is harder to commit large scale crimes, I think.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you. Weíll leave it there for a moment. Thank you very much for joining us. Good luck with your new book.

MR. WRIGHT: Thank you very much.

Now, speaking of religious belief, viewer Eugene Kovalenko (sp) of Los Alamos, New Mexico, wrote to us about our recent program on animal intelligence. He said this, my wife and I were fascinated by your program. A question came up as we talked about it afterwards, has there been any study or evidence of worship in animals, as do we humans?

Hey, great question, maybe we can ask Robert Wright for an answer and report back. Thanks for writing.

And thank you all.

We at Think Tank encourage feedback from our viewers, via email, it is very important to us. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or email us at thinktank@pbs.org. To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS Online at pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch Think Tank.

This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(End of program.)



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