Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 6: "Nonzero"

Today I want to reflect on the interesting and best-selling book by Robert Wright: NONZERO: THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY.

In this book, Wright uses the idea of the non-zerosum game to explore the mechanisms of biological and cultural evolution. Recall that the nonzero dynamic occurs when our "interests" begin to overlap. When you and I start wanting the "same things" then the prospect for mutual cooperation emerges. Wright's premise is that biological and cultural evolution have been slowly harnessing this nonzero dynamic, gradually causing our interests to overlap and, hence, moving us toward greater arenas of cooperation. That is, as humans grow increasingly interdependent, we must, in order to survive, become increasingly cooperative.

What is interesting about Wright's vision is that he's making a serious argument the kind of which we have not seen much of since the demise of the Enlightenment, the idea that human "destiny" is both progressive and moral.

But before I get to that idea, I'd like to unpack a little how nonzero dynamics have been harnessed by cultures to fuel cultural "evolution."

Recall that in the game of the Prisoner's Dilemma the main issue in nonzero encounters is one of trust. That is, the "defection problem" must be overcome. Wright suggests that as humans began to aggregate in larger and larger numbers (due to the demise of the hunting/gathering lifestyle in favor of the settled agricultural village) the "trust" issue became acute. Cooperation was threatened due to the fact that, in large villages and cities, my interactions with people became more anonymous. When dealing with an anonymous partner, my cooperation can be defected on since I have no ability to find and punish the defector in a large, anonymous society. So, how to solve this trust problem? In many ways, this problem is still at the heart of civilization: How do we facilitate cooperation among strangers, protecting cooperative moves from defection?

Wright contends that much of what we see as cultural progress is simply the development of "trust technologies" aimed at supporting nonzero interactions. Trust technologies facilitate mutual cooperation by protecting interacting parties against defection. In short, game theory lies at the heart of human history and progress.

Here, for example, are some "trust technology" breakthroughs:

1. Laws: In a large society, rules against defection begin the process of creating trust.

2. Police Force: Once laws are agreed on, some sort of enforcement is needed to detect and punish free riders and defectors.

3. Writing: Writing didn't evolve for poetry and novels. Writing is about trust. All the early samples of writing involve either codifying laws (see #1) or recording economic exchanges (or other forms of accounting). In short, a record of an exchange or of a contract allows two strangers to mutually cooperate. The record inhibits defection in that the offended party can show the record to the powers that adjudicate legal claims (see #1 and #2). It is interesting that writing, a candidate for "biggest cultural breakthrough in history," is really about solving games like the Prisoner's Dilemma.

4. Money: In a diversified economic city, where we each perform a trade servicing the larger good (be you a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker), how do we know you've contributed your part to the nonzero pot we call the economy? How do I know you are not a defector, only saying you've done your part when you've been getting a tan all day? Money, as a receipt of labor, effectively allows us to overcome this trust issue. So tonight, when I go to buy milk at WalMart, I use a piece of paper to buy the milk. And what does that piece of paper represent? It is a receipt of my labor (set by the market forces), signaling to the seller of milk that they don't have to take my word for it that I've been working hard teaching the youth of America at ACU. No, they don't have to take my word for it. The money is a receipt showing that I have indeed performed my work and, thus, the farmer (WalMart is essentially a middleman for the dairy farmer) can release his milk to me. In short, money was a cultural breakthrough which allows an anonymous society to effectively trust each other in a diversified and modern economy where most of us do not grow our own food.

Wright argues that all these technological breakthroughs are related: They harness the nonzero dynamic. And, by harnessing the nonzero dynamic, societies become more and more cooperative. With trust issues effectively handled, vast vistas of mutual cooperation emerge. Further, as globalization increases the interests of nations will increasingly overlap. We see this already in our world. And, as national interests increasingly overlap, nations will have to grow increasingly cooperative. The nonzero dynamic appears to be pushing us to a point where, if you look ahead, all interests overlap. A vision, I said last week, that looks suspiciously like the Kingdom of God.

Is this true? Is evolution, biological and cultural, directional and moral? Pointing toward...what exactly?


More tomorrow.

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