If, one wet weekend, you feel the urge to stay in bed and devour a short history of the human race, from origins to next week, NonZero might be the book for you. A seasoned American science writer, Robert Wright sports an energetic yet easy style, wears his considerable learning lightly, and, as his subtitle indicates, his latest undertaking is nothing if not ambitious.
Beginning with the hunter-gatherers, the reader is taken through the successive stages onwards and upwards: the development of basic tools and technologies, the invention of agriculture, the forging of larger social groupings from the age of the chieftains up to the nation state, the role of war, of literacy and printing, and, not least, the transformative power of money, trade and communications. It's all there, and Wright is sure-footed whether he's writing about Aztecs or Zulus, Stone Age or New Age.
Mercifully, for the most part he avoids riding a historical hobby-horse. He's not one of those monomaniacs who wants to ram some single-cause explanation of global change down your throat. He does not believe that the rise of civilisation is entirely due, say, to population pressure, technological necessity or, for that matter, unconscious Oedipal struggles. Neither is he peddling the environmental gloom so fashionable at the Millennium: we're spared another preaching of the "Nature's revenge" sermon.
For all that, NonZero is a flawed venture, for Wright turns out to have designs of his own upon the reader, a gospel to preach: that human history is a panorama or progress. By that he means that, over the course of time, social interaction has grown inexorably more complex and coherent, and humans have thereby been able to avail themselves of the advantages of the division of labour, more sophisticated economic organisation, and all the cost-efficiencies those offer.
History is thus a story of social evolution from the simple to the structured, from selfsufficiency to integration and interdependency. What, for instance, enabled Ghengis Khan's empire to be so much vaster and more durable than Attila's? The former had writing while the latter did not.
Isn't this labouring the obvious? Not for Wright, and he goes on to break many a lance against those schools of academic anthropology and sociology, often with ideological and multiculturalist fish to fry, who have gone out of their way to deny any whisper of social progress - and who tell us Mayans were as sophisticated as Manhattanites. But though there's something to be said for unsaddling these doctrinaire scholastics, the polemical jousting palls. We are left with a recitation of absolutely bog-standard ideas, part of our mainstream cultural heritage ever since the Enlightenment.
It was, after all, Adam Smith who in The Wealth of Nations (1776) not only framed the notion of the division of labour, but spoke of the "invisible hand" which ensured that every individual's selfish ambition served the public advantage. Smith could also insist, long before Wright, that a "common day labourer in Britain has more luxury in his way of living than an Indian sovereign". For his part, Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in the same year, stressed, anticipating Wright, that technological gains are never lost. Gibbon declared that mankind could "acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race". So Wright simply seems to reinvent the wheel.
That might not matter were he not so convinced of the originality of his take on human destiny. Indeed, he cannot stop reiterating it and - worse still - concocting fancy jargons to package it. Drawing on games theory, he spies in history what he dubs the quality of "non-zero-sumness", a grating phrase which means that the improvements here charted (like the invention of money and writing) are not alternative ways of cutting up a finite cake ("negative sum"), but means of enlarging it, of having your cake and eating it. What Victorian social prophets like Herbert Spenser called "progress", Wright decks out in his "non-zero-sum" jargon, but it's basically old wine in new bottles.
This games-theory lingo is then reinforced, in a final chapter, by models borrowed from evolutionary biology and psychology. Though less intrusive than in Wright's previous book, The Moral Animal, which read today's bed-hopping antics as hangovers from the survival strategies of our tree-swinging ancestors, Wright's social Darwinism tends to be circular and question-begging. We are told that we have genes for this or that sort of enlightened self-interest. But how do we know? And so what if we do? To do his evolutionism justice, however, it must be said that he is not one of those gung-ho sociobiologists given to using the "survival of the fittest" to excuse the abuses of macho capitalism.
Wright is breezily self-aware - he leaps to tell the reader that his subtitle might sound "grandiose" - and he grapples gamely with a range of anticipated objections to his "complexification = evolution = progress" logic. But these are not successfully headed off. To those who have lived through the century of the Gulags and the Holocaust, being told that "today civilisation is more 'civilised' than the ancient civilisations" rings rather hollow.
I for one don't prefer Stalin to Sennacherib or Hitler to Hammurabi; that's why Gibbon was more subtle with his "perhaps the virtue". And although Wright invites us to boldly go into the new united McWorld (the World Wide Web, World Government, a handful of multinationals), the prospect is not entirely appealing.
After being assured once too often about "the largely healthful drift of history", my mind numbed over. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: the fates of human societies is another book rather similar in its message, yet what makes it so compulsive is Diamond's ability to spellbind with his own first-hand researches. Wright, by contrast, draws his data from familiar sources, and what remains in the memory is the rather plonking, mantra-like "non-zero-sum" message. Come to think of it: if you haven't done so already, curl up with Jared Diamond on that rainy Sunday.
Roy Porter's history of medicine, 'The Greatest Benefit to Mankind', is published in paperback by HarperCollinsReuse content