Explanatory Power

The Mystical Rationalism of Robert Wright

Part 1

Encounters with the Archdarwinian

John McPhee was a highly influential, well-published, and artistically masterful writer who was a major player in the genre of “Literary Nonfiction” in America for the second half of the 20th Century. While it is difficult to pinpoint precisely what was his best work, a good candidate would be Encounters with the Archdruid, a book-length portrait following David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, and all-around environmental zealot. In profiling Brower, McPhee was able to chart not only the life of a man, but also a shift in human history — what we now term the “Anthropocene,” the disappearance of the “wilderness” as human evolution and migration hit its final peak, literally settling the entire globe.

When Robert Wright arrived at Princeton as a sophomore transfer student from a small school in Texas, it was a class with McPhee called “The Literature of Fact” that congealed and strengthened his already-present desire to be a writer. It was, in fact, McPhee’s complimentary comments that allowed Wright to set aside his apprehension that law school would be his only hope for a career, and that writing itself might offer an opportunity.

Robert Wright moved around as a kid, being born in Oklahoma but spending some time in the Bay Area before winding up El Paso, TX. His father dropped out of high school, but obtained surveying skills through a New Deal program which rendered him proficient to join the military — eventually earning a college degree and retiring as a colonel. Wright’s mother also went on to acquire a college degree later in life. Both parents were born into impoverished, agrarian backgrounds.

Both parents were also Baptists, and Wright (as would be expected) grew intellectually, spiritually, and socially in the context of revivals and church retreats, including one in which he underwent a full-on, born-again conversion experience. And though he would later recount that this experience was in some sense inspired by the social setting as well as the beauty of the hymn that was played during this part of the service, the ultimate underlying reason was one of logic. When the preacher called on the congregation to consider “if your heart stopped beating this very moment, where would you go?” young Robert took Pascal’s Wager and decided heaven the preferable option. Then and there, Robert Wright accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his own personal savior.

But as this powerful logic took hold, another one stepped in to challenge it. This was the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, the grand Darwinian idea which supposed that all life on earth had branched from very basic cellular life through a series of mutations and adaptations over immense amounts of time. The explanatory power of this theory charmed Wright immediately, and while it to this day has not entirely shaken his tendency to sense divine meaning in the Universe, it did pose an immediate problem in how he thought about his local Christianity. Due to young Robert’s inability to square the theory with a young-earth creationism, his parents invited the local minister to come reason with the wayward child. The attempt seems to have backfired: Wright’s developing intellectual and rhetorical skills raised more questions than the minister could satisfactorily dismiss. This now-bolstered commitment to the theory would go on to influence Wright’s work for years to come, and in significant ways.

Out of the gate, Wright’s writing was remarkable. While writing regularly for both Science and The New Republic (among other places), he also rather promptly produced the excellent Three Scientists and Their Gods, an ambitious work which pins the lives of three contemporary scientists against the backdrop of information theory. The book profiles Ed Fredkin, a cobbler whose interest in mathematics and engineering enables him to piece together prototypes for early computers using film projectors and bric-a-brac, ultimately earning him millions. Also present is the infamous Edward O. Wilson, progenitor of “Sociobiology,” which began with studies about how insects communicated chemically to create remarkably complex societies, and setting the stage for Evolutionary Psychology. The third “scientist,” Kenneth Boulding, was something of an anomaly — a poet, he had fused his Quaker philosophy with economics to speculate on potential human futures.

The text was energetic and vast, and featured a bi-cameral strategy that interposed well-styled portraits of the subjects that benefitted from Wright’s Thompson-esque injections of himself into the text, coupled with summaries of the concepts introduced — featuring not a little of his own sophisticated theorizing. The themes were mysterious and clear: well before the genesis of homo sapiens, there seemed to be a quality of information inherent in the universe, which filtered all the way down to the quantum level. As first matter emerged, and then life, all development seemed to follow a logic eerily similar to digital code, and each new emergent species based their struggle to survive and thrive off their improvisational improvements on whatever sorts of code they inherited. There was a sense of direction to the Universe, which tended toward intelligence, as the persistence of life manifested in increasingly novel ways.

What is even more remarkable about this is the fact that, as Wright was researching and writing such a sophisticated piece, he was also contributing to (and even, in some limited capacity, editing) the New Republic and Science — a fact that belies the breadth of Wright’s thought. This meant, of course, that not only was he assimilating this scientific knowledge — a feat in and of itself — but also that he was keeping an eye on politics, including foreign affairs. And while we may not recognize it now as anything resembling its former self, the New Republic was then a noteworthy publication, certainly read by Washington insiders. Curiouser still is that said publication then had something of a neo-conservative slant — a fact that no doubt gave Wright a formative education in distinguishing his own brand of politics through conscious engagement with opinions contrary to his own.

About five years later, Wright released a second book that is in many ways his claim to fame. The Moral Animal took as its focus the next phase of Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology. (In fact, it is possible that the subtitle of the book featured the phrase for the first time on a popular cover.) The Moral Animal was an even greater synthesis of Wright’s styles and ideas than was Three Scientists. Continuing on in McPhee-inspired form, much of the book is a brief psychological portrait of Charles Darwin. The agile prose does much more than drop factoids about the scientist’s life, however. In portraying this founder of the theory of natural selection, Wright also does a fair amount of work on the history of and current ideas in the theory itself. Depictions of Darwin and his life are interspersed with lucid explainers of the principles of the theory.

And here is where Wright accomplishes even higher altitude. For as he is surveying the data, he is all the while applying the findings to an interpretation of Darwin himself. While hero-worship might cause lesser writers to erect a mythical construct of the man, Wright has no interest in such aggrandizement, and instead shows how concepts like mate and kin selection (along with other aspects of the theory) can explain much of Darwin’s decision-making, if not all of it.

The result is a sort of revision of Freudian analysis, in which Greco-Roman archetypes are eschewed for good old-fashioned biology, illuminating how pre-conscious motives and influences could allow even a genius like Darwin to easily deceive himself as to his own motives. The prime example of this is is how Darwin, while fully cognizant of the fact that the theory of evolution had already been discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, could nevertheless proceed full-steam, publishing on and eventually popularizing the theory through his excellent writing, as though he were destined to be the Originator of the Origins — the pay-offs of status in exchange for the risks of ignorance apparently more than powerful enough for the man to imagine himself a Titan.

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To call Nonzero Wright’s master work is tempting. There are a lot of reasons to back up such a claim. Take, for example, its sheer influence. The President of the United States praised the book and is alleged to have assigned it to staffers as requisite reading. Charlie Rose invited him onto his show. (Which of the two endorsements holds greater weight is, in my eyes, absolutely debatable.)

Then there is the fact that the book draws on the ideas from the previous two, and moves them toward a grand synthesis — taking the might of evolutionary thought and fusing it with the grandeur of information theory, all made possible through the new addition of non-zero game theory. It was a move that clarified and strengthened the force of the previous books, bringing the import of their observations into the realm of Big History.

For the book uses the fusion to look at the (cultural) evolution of homo sapiens from simple cells all the way up to the rather complex and dangerously connected and armed forms we see today. And because ev psych and information theory give the book the advantage of an almost mathematical simplicity, it is able to make sweeping analyses without practicing the types of cultural imperialism (and even racism) of such kinds of books from the ages of yore. With chapter titles like “Our Friends the Barbarians,” Nonzero is ground-breaking in the sense that it doesn’t privilege Greece and Rome as harboring some kind of innate greatness or divine spark, but instead as mere manifestations of the confluence of various ideas and technologies becoming dominant in a certain time and place. He charts many such confluences across the globe and across history, and at each juncture notes how the advancement is always already acting upon basic, pre-existing human genetics. In short, no type, race, or class of human is superior in any way. The substructure of evolutionary mechanics is as present in anyone, and the rise and fall of civilizations have as much to do with chance as they do with mastery of the nonzero games that emerge from said circumstances.

The ideas, however, live on. Using the Dawkinsian idea of memes, Wright sees information as continuing to be passed even when civilizations fail (for better or ill), and not only by monks preserving ancient Greek manuscripts. Because of this, as information processing systems like oral tradition, writing, printing, internet memes and videos, and all other methods of transferring data continue to grow richer (and, often, more efficient — although that’s complicated), sapiens have more and more access to the basic logics underlying all of civilization.

And this is where Wright does something interesting, and starts talking about the Greek idea of the Logos, and Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the global brain. The end of Nonzero begins to grow mystical, and for what it lacks in poetry it gains in ideation — there is a sort of call to arms implied at the end of the book, in which Wright seems still engaged today. Wright is by no means an optimist. While he sees a logic in nature which grows increasingly complex with time (a concept he does not shy away from imbuing with divine significance) he sees this growing complexity as being just as likely to inspire destruction as salvation.

[End of Part 1]