kottke.org posts about Robert Wright

Should we assassinate terrorist leaders?Apr 19 2010

Robert Wright ponders that question and offers a surprising answer: no, because it's not that effective at weakening their organizations.

You might as well try to end the personal computer business by killing executives at Apple and Dell. Capitalism being the stubborn thing it is, new executives would fill the void, so long as there was a demand for computers.

Of course, if you did enough killing, you might make the job of computer executive so unattractive that companies had to pay more and more for ever-less-capable executives. But that's one difference between the computer business and the terrorism business. Terrorists aren't in it for the money to begin with. They have less tangible incentives - and some of these may be strengthened by targeted killings.

Religion and science sitting in a tree, c-o-o-p-e-r-a-t-i-n-gAug 24 2009

Writing in the New York Times this weekend, Robert Wright attempts to reconcile religion and science. The middle ground is the "built-in" moral sense of our universe, in that the universe builds and rewards organisms that cooperate with one another.

I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn't just that they're both wrong. It's that they're wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection's creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God's role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of "higher purpose" are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

This is essentially the subject of the last chapter or two of Wright's The Evolution of God, the only part of this excellent book that I didn't quite buy into, even though I've been thinking about his conclusion quite a bit since finishing the book.

Altruism in economicsMay 29 2009

Altruism in business and behaviorial economics is a topic that comes up quite often on kottke.org, even when it's not explicit. (For instance, the central issue in the Atul Gawande article I pointed to yesterday pits the individual financial desires of doctors vs. the health of their patients.) This article from Ode Magazine takes a look at the research done in this area so far and how the idea of altruism in economics is currently on the rise.

The theory is based on the premise that humans evolved in small groups with strong social contracts and plenty of contact with strangers. Cooperation within the tribe was advantageous so long as free riders were punished. It was also the best gambit on encountering strangers. Cooperation, particularly in times of famine, was the only means of survival, so altruism became a favored evolutionary trait.

One of my favorite books on altruism and economics is Robert Wright's Nonzero.

The Evolution of GodMay 11 2009

The Evolution of God

Robert Wright has a new book out soon called The Evolution of God. Andrew Sullivan has a review.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Last month's issue of The Atlantic contained an excerpt.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God's will?

I loved two of Wright's previous books, The Moral Animal and especially Nonzero. (via marginal revolution)

NonzeroJul 07 2003

Nonzero

The main thesis of Nonzero is that social complexity of human culture has been increasing since the dawn of man and will continue to do so until forever. Wright argues that non-zero sum games are the culprit: societies get more complex (moving from tribes of hunter gatherers to mutli-trillion dollar global economy) because in order to play ever more lucrative non-zero sum games with an increasing number of people, that's the way it has to be. It makes a lot of sense.

Tags related to Robert Wright:
Nonzero science religion economics evolution

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