Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I'm reading Robert Wright's Nonzero. Page 132:

When a civilization such as Rome dominates its neighbors, it typically possesses some sort of cultural edge: better weapons, say, or, better economic organization. Yet this dominance is hard to maintain precisely because these valuable memes tend naturally to spread beyond its borders, empowering rivals. In the case of Rome, the barbarian-empowering memes included military strategy. But the exact memes will differ from case to case.

As the historian Mark Elvin has observed, the diffusion of Chinese ironmaking technology to the Mongols during the thirteenth century would come back to haunt China. Elvin was among the first to clearly see that this is a general dynamic of history: the very advancement of advanced societies can bring the seeds of their destruction. As Elman Service put the matter: “The precocious developing society broadcasts its seeds, so to speak, outside its own area, and some of them root and grow vigorously in new soil, sometimes becoming stringer than the parent stock, finally to dominate both their environments.”

The point can scarcely be overemphasized: the turbulence that characterizes world history is not only consistent with a “progressivist” view of history; it is integral to it. The turbulence itself – including the sometimes devastating empowerment of barbarians – is a result of the fact that technology evolves, with the fittest technologies spreading rapidly. Hegemony can bring stasis such as Pax Romana, but in the long run such imbalances of power naturally undermine themselves, and stasis ends.

The ensuing turbulence may look for all the world like regression, but it is ultimately progressive; it reflects – and, as we've seen, often furthers – the globalization of new and improved memes, on which the next stasis will rest.

. . .. ... ..... ........ oOo ........ ..... ... .. . .

Author Robert Wright argues that history has an arrow: That humans have continued to evolve -- if not biologically, than culturally and technologically -- toward greater complexity and intelligence. He also explains the concept behind his book, "Nonzero": That life is a nonzero sum game, where there can be more than one winner, and that civilization evolved thanks to such endeavors, which reward cooperation, rather than competition. His guarded optimism is tinged with a deep worry over the growing prevalence of grass-roots hatred. His hope: that the intelligent pursuit of self-interest will actually be the world's salvation.

(Recorded February 2006 in Monterey, CA. Duration: 19:54)

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