Interviewed by the BBC 25 years after Herbert Spencer’s death, Beatrice Webb, who had known him well, referred to him as Darwin’s John the Baptist. Spencer would have relished the description, which is in many ways appropriate: he coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and was responsible for popularising the term ‘evolution’. Indeed, his adherence to evolution, ‘a profession of faith’, as he put it, both anticipated and exceeded Darwin’s. In 1852, seven years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Spencer was already carrying the argument to evolution’s creationist adversaries: ‘Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.’
Spencer’s version of evolution was very different from Darwin’s, however. For a start, his was not just a biological theory; everything, in his view, evolved: ‘Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through successive differentiations, holds throughout.’
And whereas Darwin posited natural selection as the mechanism underlying organic evolution, Spencer remained, even after he had read and approved of The Origin, a staunch Lamarckian, believing that characteristics acquired in the course of a lifetime – the stretch of a giraffe’s neck, say – could be passed on to the next generation. It was this vision of individuals striving to better their lot – the giraffe craning to reach the highest foliage – that imbued Spencer’s evolution with its most prominent characteristic: progress. Spencerian evolution was about things getting better and better.
In proclaiming what he called ‘universal progress’, Spencer was merely articulating a dominant theme in Victorian thought. Biological evolution had culminated in Homo sapiens, and H. sapiens had in turn culminated in the Victorian Englishman. Although not as extreme as Spencer, the professional historians of the day also saw evidence of progressive change – though of what kind depended on the historian – and were not averse to extrapolating it into the future. Among them was Karl Marx.
The idea of progress, at least in human affairs, lost its gloss in the 20th century. Not only has it been exorcised by historians, it has also largely fallen from favour among evolutionary biologists, who now hold that we are merely one of evolution’s multifarious products, and not in any general sense ‘better’ than even the lowliest bacterium. Stephen Jay Gould, in particular, has insisted that the anthropocentric Victorian perspective was fuelled more by theology than by sound biology. Like his pet theme, Spencer’s reputation, too, has been eclipsed. In the 1890s, he was well enough known to receive a letter addressed to ‘Herbt. Spencer, England, and if the postman doesn’t know where he lives, why, he ought to’. Today, he is chiefly remembered for just four of the millions of words he churned out, ‘survival of the fittest’, and – somewhat unfairly – as having given birth to Social Darwinism.
Progress, however, has now found a new champion in Robert Wright. Wright, then on the staff of the New Republic, first entered the fray in 1990, with a lengthy (and unfavourable) review of Gould’s anti-progress manifesto, Wonderful Life. Then, deciding perhaps to make a career out of disagreeing with Gould, he published The Moral Animal, a bestselling touchy-feely introduction to evolutionary psychology (of which Gould is one of the more outspoken critics). And now we have Nonzero, a truly Spencerian paean to progress. Wright’s thesis is that both several thousand years of history and several billion years of prehistory have been shaped by the impulse to co-operate, and that co-operation breeds progress: ‘Globalisation, it seems to me, has been on the cards not just since the invention of the telegraph or the steamship, or even the written word or the wheel, but since the invention of life.’
Wright takes his inspiration, and his title, from game theory, a theoretical approach to human behaviour currently popular with both economists and evolutionary biologists. In a ‘zero-sum’ game the payoffs to the participants at the end have to add up to zero – i.e. if someone wins, someone else inevitably loses. Tennis is a zero-sum game. In principle, however, payoffs need not sum to zero: in a non-zero-sum game, you can have two winners rather than a winner and a loser. This is a clever-sounding way of making the point that co-operation is sometimes a good idea for all parties involved.
How does this work? Wright devotes the first, and longest, part of the book to an interdisciplinary tour of the social sciences. He starts in anthropology, on the premise that hunter-gatherer societies constitute ‘living fossils’ which offer a glimpse of our earliest ancestors; moves on to archaeology, to look at our rather more recent past; and finishes with an account of modern history. Throughout, he sees the impulse to co-operate promoting ever greater social complexity: from simple, relatively egalitarian family groups to the modern supranational federation (the EU appears to be one of the ultimate expressions of Wright’s version of cultural evolution). He admits there are occasional setbacks – the barbarian assault on Rome is one he deals with at length – but insists that these are minor wobbles in the trajectory of time’s arrow.
In the organic world, it’s not necessarily social complexity that is promoted by Wright’s impulse, but rather some form of biological complexity. Thus your average mammal is more complex than your average bacterium: it has more inter-dependent parts, and, of course, arose later in the course of evolution. An individual mammal is to Wright an ensemble of co-operating cells, tissues, organs. It’s not entirely clear how non-sentient entities – bacteria ‘aspiring’ to produce multi-cellular organisms, for example – are supposed to implement non-zero-sum logic, but Wright presents plausible scenarios to show how natural selection could have fostered co-operation among biological entities, whether genes, cells or individuals, so driving the evolution of complexity. Like Spencer, he makes a dubious connection between the two very different processes of biological and cultural evolution; for Wright, they ‘have parallel directions – long-run growth in non-zero-sumness, and thus in the depth and scope of complexity’.
Wright’s vision is more harmonious than Spencer’s, emphasising as it does cooperation over competition. Spencer, however, had an ingenious means of converting his competitive world into one in which social and moral progress were inevitable. It relies, by way of contrast, on a warped version of two classic zero-sum arguments. Invoking Malthus, surely the patron saint of zero-sumness, he recognised the inevitability of a struggle for existence and posited that only those individuals making the most effective use of their faculties would survive. Because organisms have only a finite set of resources to draw on, Spencer realised that the allocation of resources to one set of faculties inevitably deprived others. This is the essence of an important idea in evolutionary biology, that of trade-off: excelling in one area means compromising another. You cannot, for example, be both agile like an antelope and heavily armoured like a rhino.
Spencer had his own peculiar take on trade-off: enhance your chances of survival, and you would inevitably, in his view, impair your reproductive potential. Bizarrely, therefore, Spencerian evolution was in effect ‘the survival of the least fecund’. His favourite piece of survival-enhancing hardware was the brain, and he found support for his theory in the racist anthropology of his day: African brains (average volume 82 cubic inches) were smaller than English brains (96 cubic inches) and African ‘savages’, of course, produced many more offspring than the English. In addition, he pointed out that in adolescent males, ‘undue production of sperm cells involves cerebral inactivity. The first result of a morbid excess in this direction is headache, which may be taken to indicate that the brain is out of repair; this is followed by stupidity; should the disorder continue imbecility supervenes, ending occasionally in insanity.’ Thus, as brains get bigger and people get better, fecundity falls off, such that the Malthusian struggle for existence, ‘as it gradually finishes its work, must gradually bring itself to an end’.
Wright overlooks trade-off. Because they are messy things to assemble, complex organisms tend to have relatively long generation times. It’s simply not possible to be biologically complex and to have a short generation time. In other words, there is a trade off between generation time and complexity. Bacteria, with generation times measured in minutes, have preferred the other end of the reproductive rate spectrum. Not that one extreme is superior in any absolute sense: yes, we complex beings have learnt to use bleach, antibiotics, even ‘anti-bacterial’ detergents in our war on microbes, but a complex being does not necessarily trump a simple one. HIV, about as biologically simple as you can get, serves as a sobering illustration. Progress is therefore in the eye of the beholder: we value complexity while a bacterium values the ability to reproduce rapidly. We look down on bacteria for their inability to read: bacteria look down on us for our inability to produce great-grandchildren within the hour. Wright’s vision may be non-zero-sum, but overall progress is inevitably hamstrung by the zero-sum consideration of trade-off.
Let’s allow Wright his anthropocentric perspective, however, and focus on complexity. That complexity has increased in both biological and cultural evolution is unquestionable: whatever your definition of complexity (and there are plenty to choose from), I am more biologically complex than an E. coli bacterium, and London is socially more complex than a group of !Kung bushmen. And mammalian-level complexity arose later in biological evolution than E. coli-level non-complexity, just as the world’s cities arose later in human history than hunter-gatherer societies. But does this imply a universal complexity-favouring force, as Wright would have it? Gould for one thinks not. With respect to biological evolution, he points out that life started off minimally complex and could not therefore become any less so. The only viable direction of evolution was towards greater complexity. Even John Maynard Smith, usually as keen a Gould-basher as Wright, is with Gould on this: ‘Since the first living things were necessarily simple, it is not surprising that the most complex things alive today are more complex than their first progenitors.’ This is a default trend, not a deterministic one, in which a guiding force – natural selection in the case of biological evolution – consistently favours an increase in complexity. The same argument can be made about cultural evolution: social organisation must get more complex if it’s going to change at all because it starts off minimally complex.
However, a default explanation isn’t necessarily the right one. We can explain the thud of a hammer as it hits the floor in default terms (gravity) and also in deterministic ones (it was thrown). Thus the existence of a default cause for the evolution of complexity does not preclude the simultaneous action of deterministic factors. For Wright, non-zero-sumness is the determinant. What’s the evidence? The empirical problem is the one that bedevils all historical studies: we are considering a single realisation of the historical process. Sadly, we cannot go back, change something, and see what happens next time round, nor do we have access to other universes in which global history is being played out in parallel. Dinosaurs went extinct just once and Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated just once; we will never know what would have happened had the former survived beyond the end of the Cretaceous and had the latter ducked. The default increase in complexity is merely a vague wandering away from minimal complexity: Wright’s deterministic process imparts a more concrete directionality. Were life to evolve on another earth, we would again expect things to get more complex (the default increase), but would we, courtesy of Wright’s directionality, see an outcome similar to what we have today on this earth?
Wright finds a way out of this epistemological bind: rather than parallel universes, historians can study parallel continents. Biologists have long pointed to convergent evolution as evidence of the deterministic power of natural selection. Marsupials in Australia and placental mammals in the Northern Hemisphere both gave rise independently to a dog-like predator, respectively the Tasmanian thylacine and the wolf, implying common selection pressures in favour of dogness. Wright points out that there have been a number of independent (convergent) evolutions of the city in human history (for example, in the Middle East, China and Central America), again suggesting common deterministic factors. This is interesting but we still don’t know for sure what those factors are. I am not convinced that Wright’s non-zero-sumness is responsible: co-operation is indeed a prerequisite for city life, but that is not to say that cities evolved through an impulse to co-operate. This, writ large, is the basic problem with Wright’s thesis: all biological entities, individuals, cells or genes, that get together to create a more complex whole must necessarily co-operate. A mammal whose liver cells are unco-operative is in bad shape. The claim that co-operation leads to complexity is thus little more than a truism.
Although Wright claims that the ‘basic tendencies’ in evolution can be explained ‘in scientific, physical terms’, he ends up endorsing Teilhard de Chardin’s rather less materialistic version of progressivism. Teilhard, mystic, palaeontologist and Jesuit in approximately that order, interpreted biological and human history in teleological terms: everything in his view is tending towards ‘Point Omega’. Clarity was not a hallmark of Teilhard’s writing (nor of his thinking), and the specifics of Point Omega are vague, though it seems to involve some kind of global spiritual and mental unity. Part of this evolutionary process involves the formation of the ‘noosphere’, an interconnected fuzz of thought that will eventually envelop the earth (according to Teilhard, it ‘results from the combined action of two curvatures – the roundness of the earth and die cosmic convergence of the mind’). Wright sees a parallel between the Internet and the noosphere and, like Teilhard, is therefore convinced that history’s climax seems ‘to lie immediately ahead – a social, political and even moral culmination of sorts’. Not only is history directional, but it’s working up to something, and soon.
Evolutionary seers are an impatient lot: Spencer, too, thought that history’s culmination was imminent. His version involved the end of ‘pressure of population’: so cerebral (and therefore, in Spencer’s worldview, infertile) would humans have eventually become that the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’ would peter out and humanity would enter a post-Malthusian utopia. Leading by example, Spencer himself never married.
Despite there being no logical necessity for progress to yield a culminating moment, both Wright and Spencer insist that it will. Why? My guess is that they have invested too much in the metaphor of human society as a ‘superorganism’. When Spencer was writing, the term ‘evolution’ was ambiguous: it referred both to what we call evolution today and to the development – etymologically, the ‘unfolding’ – of an individual organism from egg to adult. The situation was further confused by the labelling of evolutionary ideas as the ‘Development Hypothesis’. Development and evolution – in their modern senses – both entail change over time in biological systems but are two fundamentally different processes. Spencer cheerfully conflates them:
But the blindness of those who think it absurd to suppose that complex organic forms may have arisen by successive modifications out of simple ones, becomes astonishing when we remember that complex forms are daily being thus produced. A tree differs from a seed immeasurably in every respect – in bulk, in structure, in colour, in form, in specific gravity, in chemical composition: differs so greatly that no visible resemblance of any kind can be pointed out between them.
For Spencer, human evolution was akin to the development of the human superorganism. Wright is not guilty of the same semantic confusion, but nevertheless, in his pursuit of global oneness, he sees the world as ‘a giant superorganism, with a fibre-optic nervous system’. Development, as opposed to evolution, has a predictable trajectory, and – in the form of a freshly minted adult – a zenith. Perhaps Spencer and Wright’s insistence on culmination simply stems from their attachment, explicit or unconscious, to the evolution-as-development-of-superorganism metaphor. The worrying thing is that superorganism development presumably does not stop at its peak, but continues into decline and death.