Discover more from Intimations of a New Worldview
Human Beings Were Selected For Non-Zero-Sumness
A potentially hopeful idea about the cause of human encephalization.
One of my favorite papers of all time has yet to be published. I don’t know why, but it has remained a pre-print since 2019. I’m referring to the anthropologists Ed Hagen and Zachary Garfield’s unpublished paper “Leadership and prestige, mothering, sexual selection, and encephalization: The computational services model”. I think this paper points to something very important and hopeful about human evolution. The authors suggest that a major cause of human encephalization is that our ancestors were sexually and socially selected for their propensity to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games (the authors refer to this as “joint utility improvement” rather than non-zero-sum games). On the surface, this is just a paper about the causes of human encephalization. My contention, however, is that this hypothesis has interesting metaphysical implications.
In order to understand why this paper potentially has metaphysical implications, I first need to discuss the emerging science of complexity. What is complexity? There are many definitions floating around, most of which are specific to a particular scientific discipline. There is, however, a definition that was formalized by Guilio Tononi and colleagues in a 1994 PNAS paper that has proven to be a nice multi-purpose definition. Ignoring the mathematical details, the Tononi definition of complexity suggests that a system is complex to the degree that it is simultaneously differentiated and integrated. A highly differentiated system has lots of specialized parts. A highly integrated system is one where the functioning of the parts are meaningfully correlated. A highly complex system is one with many specialized parts that are functionally correlated. The precise definition is of course more complicated than that, but this simplified version will work for my purposes in this post.
Given this definition of complexity, it should be clear that complexity has increased in the universe since the big bang. We started off with very simple particles, which came together into atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, life, multicellular life, brains, societies, etc. Each increase in complexity acts as the platform upon which the next increase in complexity is predicated. Human culture is inconceivably complex, but it rests upon the platform that is the inconceivably complex human brain, which rests on the cell, and so on. If you want to know more about this process of complexification, the recently published book by Bobby Azarian entitled The Romance of Reality is a nice introduction, written without too much technical jargon.
How does this process of complexification manifest in biology? If you want the details about that, there are two nice books I recommend: Nonzero by Robert Wright and Evolution’s Arrow by John Stewart (if you only read one of these, make it Nonzero). To summarize their theses, complexity increases in biology via increases in the scope of non-zero-sum interactions. A zero-sum interaction is one in which there are clear winners and losers. War is very zero-sum. One side wins and the other side loses. Non-zero-sum interactions (also called positive sum) are ones in which all parties in the interaction have the opportunity to benefit or not. Trade is usually non-zero-sum. I give you money and you give me food. I benefit from the food. You benefit from the money. That’s a non-zero-sum interaction. Some interactions, however, have both zero-sum and non-zero-sum components. Consider a pickup basketball game. Is this zero-sum or non-zero sum? On the one hand, there will be a clear winner and loser. Only one team can win, which makes that a zero-sum interaction. On the other hand, everybody can benefit from playing. People may benefit by getting better at the game, getting in better shape, making friends, etc. So a pickup basketball game also has non-zero sum interactions.
The basic thesis in both Robert Wright and John Stewart’s books is that complexity increases in biology by taking advantage of non-zero-sum interactions. Increases in the scope of non-zero-sum games are equivalent to increases in complexity. For example, when single-celled organisms came together into multicellular organisms, they were now engaged in a new non-zero-sum interaction, and this non-zero-sum interaction is equivalent to their increased complexity (compared to single-celled organisms). Paradoxically, however, increases in non-zero-sum interactions often come about because of zero-sum interactions. To put it simply, competition often breeds cooperation. For example, Peter Turchin’s recent book Ultrasociety argues that competition between cultural groups (i.e., war) facilitated the massive increase in scales of human cooperation over the last 10,000 years or so. Perhaps the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was right when he said that “war is the father of all things”. That, in fact, seems to be the implicit conclusion of a 2018 PNAS paper that put forward a general theory of complexification. As the authors of this paper put it, “competing interactions” drive complexification at all levels of reality, from the subatomic all the way up to the most complex forms of life.
Interestingly, Robert Wright, who is a secular non-Christian (and therefore not just engaging in apologetics) associated the process by which the scope of non-zero-sum games increase with the Greek and Christian concept of the divine Logos. The idea that the Logos is divine goes back at least to Heraclitus. For Heraclitus, the Logos was the deep pattern by which all change in the universe occurred. A couple of quotes can clarify Heraclitus’ idea of the Logos:
This Logos is not merely the process of change; it is the orderly process of change. The Everlasting Fire is kindled in measure and quenched in measure, and it is this Measure, by which the process and its material are ruled, that makes our world intelligible. This is the true One in Heraclitus’ system; it is the only thing that persists in change, and it is everywhere . . . The Logos is not an arbitrary creator, but a Law, the source of all that is intelligible. (Freeman, 1946, p. 116)
If there is an orderly world—and that there is is a fact—there must be some universal pattern of transformation, some law of change . . . The world is, in its broad outlines, stable, though it is built upon a process of transformations. There must then be a constancy in the pattern of transformations… [Heraclitus] needs a term to express this law of transformations. He hits on one delightful in its ambiguity, but which expresses both structural order and mathematical ratio: Logos. Everything happens in accordance with Logos. (Graham, 1997, p. 36)
For Heraclitus, the Logos was a process of creative destruction. Interestingly, this is also how Peter Turchin describes the process by which cultures complexify in Ultrasociety (i.e., as a process of creative destruction). We also become more cognitively complex through a process that can be described as creative destruction (in which the previous ways in which we frame the world must be destroyed so that new, more functional frames can take their place — a process that does not occur without some level of suffering). See John Vervaeke and Leo Ferraro’s chapter on the cognitive science of wisdom for details about this process.
If Hagen & Garfield are right, and if Robert Wright is right, this leads to a very strange yet potentially hopeful conclusion. Over millions of years of evolution, human beings have socially and sexually selected each other for the propensity and ability to discover and facilitate non-zero-sum games. If we take Robert Wright’s claim seriously — that the process of increasing non-zero-sumness is intimately related to the Greek/Christian idea of the Logos — then we can alternatively say that we have been socially and sexually selected for our propensity and ability to embody the divine Logos. We instinctively admire people who more closely approximate this ideal. We want to be their friends and lovers. We instinctively feel good about ourselves when we perceive that we are more closely approximating this ideal. We often get depressed and anxious when we move away from it.
If it’s true that the universe is inevitably headed towards greater levels of complexity, Hagen & Garfield’s paper implies that we have self-selected each other for our propensity and ability to participate in this process of complexification, which Robert Wright has related to the idea of the divine Logos and which Bobby Azarian calls the “romance of reality”. It is a romantic worldview, at least in comparison to the purposeless and directionless universe of the modern mechanistic worldview.
Is this just wishful thinking? I don’t think so. In my opinion Ed Hagen is a living legend within evolutionary anthropology. Everything he writes ought to be taken seriously (Zachary Garfield has done a lot of good work too). Robert Wright’s book is highly regarded for a reason. It’s a great book. Bobby Azarian’s book, though very new, is simply giving popular treatment to a worldview that has been gaining increased momentum for at least 30 years.
I think this idea has serious implications for the meaning crisis. In Susan Wolf’s book Meaning in Life, she argues that we experience meaning when we are subjectively attracted to something that is objectively attractive. A big part of the meaning crisis in Western culture is that many of us are no longer capable of seeing anything as being objectively attractive. Value judgements are thought to be inherently subjective. I think this is wrong. For reasons I won’t go into in this post (in order to keep the length manageable), I think we can reasonably regard our participation in the process of complexification to be objectively attractive. In fact, there are good scientific reasons for believing that participation in this process is simply optimal for all biological creatures (again, I must save elucidation of this idea for another time).
In relation to the meaning crisis, it is worth noting that we find it deeply satisfying and meaningful to engage in the discovery and facilitation of non-zero-sum games. Mark Miller and colleagues (2022) put it this way:
There are well established correlations between increased well-being over a lifetime and a focus on non-zero-sum goals and activities such as altruism, the development of virtue, social activism, a commitment to family and friends. In contrast, pursuit of zero-sum activities, such as purely financial gains, has been found to be detrimental to life-long well-being. The development of skills and abilities for engaging in non- zero-sum activities seems to be especially important for creating and sustaining lifelong satisfaction - or what is traditionally referred to as eudaimonia. (p. 16)
In a nutshell, the universe has a direction and we are meant to participate in it. Not because it’s the “right” thing to do from an abstract, moralistic perspective, but because it’s the “optimal” thing to do from an evolutionary and cognitive perspective.
I think a reasonable case can be made that the discovery and facilitation of non-zero-sum games is both objectively (i.e., metaphysically) and subjectively valuable. Furthermore, I think a reasonable case can be made that we have literally evolved to find this process deeply meaningful and to socially reward people who are very good at engaging in it. This seems like a hopeful idea to me.
I am no optimist about people. I don’t think people are “inherently good” or any such non-sense like that. Any contact with reality ought to rapidly dispel such romantic notions. And yet, there is something within us that instinctively admires people who embody a very particular ideal. We love heroes who have integrity, stand by their principles, and find ways to make peace. Heroes represent an implicit ideal. What is this ideal? What does it mean? My hopeful idea is that this heroic ideal, implicitly communicated in mythological and religious narratives, is our attempt to artistically and narratively represent the personality that is best able to participate in this process of complexification, which is equivalent to the process by which the scope of non-zero-sum games increases over time. This ideal gives us something to aim at, even if we constantly fall short of it.
Although many hopeful ideas ultimately turn out to be wishful thinking, I think this one might actually be true.
Thanks for reading Intimations of a New Worldview! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.