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Sunday, September 18, 2011


Nonzero by Robert Wright is a nonfiction book that looks at how human society has evolved from small hunter/gatherer bands to large nations and beyond to alliances among nations. The title comes from gaming. In a non-zero sum game, people work together because they're in the same boat. A zero sum game is when someone has to lose for someone else to win.

The theory that the book proposes is that because of human nature and the advantages to non-zero sum behavior that our societies and cultures were destined to head from small bands to multi-state nations. He further proposes that cultural evolution and physical evolution drive each other forward until a certain point and that we've passed this time. That now cultural evolution is the driving force and that we are controlling the evolution of other creatures by tinkering with their genes. For example, crops are being genetically engineered.

We are geared toward complexity. That while our massive and complicated nations weren't inevitable, they were so probable that it's incredible. He also speculates on what further cultural evolution portends for our future.

I listened to this book on my iPod, which is a different experience than actually reading. At first, I had some trouble getting used to the narrator, but once we got going, he was fine. Sometimes, though, the way he chose to emphasize a word or sentence conveyed a kind of attitude. It's difficult for me to guess whether the author meant some of this to be taken the way the narrator spoke the information.

I can tell you from personal experience that the reader for my Through a Crimson Veil story didn't check with me about anything. Consequently, my heroine's name is pronounced incorrectly through the entire audio. Yes, the narrator is saying it the way it's normally pronounced. Mika doesn't pronounce it that way. You would have guessed I'd at least be asked how to pronounce the various branches of demons since those were made up. I wasn't. Given this, I always assume the reader is doing his or her own thing and try not to ascribe attitude to the author.

That said, I found Nonzero to be largely fascinating. I will confess there was a section that was less than riveting, but it picked up again after a couple of chapters. It was particularly interesting to hear his arguments about history and how/why things played out the way they did. We cover everything from Polynesian "big men" to Medieval lords. Seeing history from this angle was interesting and I found the arguments to be compelling.

The predictions of the future were also interesting. Some of it didn't exactly leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy, but unfortunately all too believable. One of his predictions was for more terrorism because of more "unhappy campers" at least in the short term as we transition from where we are now to what he sees as the next level.

Overall, I found the book to be well worth the time it took to listen to it. Not all of it held my attention, but that could easily be because of my personal interests. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in cultural anthropology or who finds the author's premise interesting enough to learn more.