Robert Wright, Non-Zero-Sum Killing, and The Value of Population

Update 20030918: I now realize that a shorter statement of the below is that non-zero-sum populations are networks and that Metcalfe’s and Reed’s law holds. The value of the next member of the population grows either linearly with the size of the preexisting population (Metcalfe) or exponentially with the size of the existing population (Reed).

Robert Wright spoke the next morning about the history of non-zero sum games and how the history of humanity is one of acheiving more and more complex and valuable zero sum games from tribe hunting behavior to agricultural communities to city states to countries to (he hopes) a single global civilization.

Wright presented only the sunny side of non-zero-sumness. The darker side, glossed over in his presentation, is that the the history of humananity is actually a combination of non-zero sum interaction in cases where such interaction is easy and killing/genocide where it is not. The story is one of a brutal evolutionary selection process in favor of genes and cultures that support non-zero sum interaction. The choice of cultivating a non-zero-sum relationship with another party or consuming it (kill it and takes its goods) is a hardcore economic investment decision reflecting the expected value of the possible future relationship and the extent one discounts future value as compared to present value. This investment decision happens at all levels, scaling from the micro-level involving relations between individuals all the way up to nation-states and cultures. In a resource constrained world, those who get this decision right reproduce, those who don’t die off. Given that non-zero-sumness is fundamentally about creating new inventions and arrangements, we can establish an equivalence between intelligence and non-zero-sumnesss and say quite explicitly that, in the presence of resource constraints, evolution is selecting humans and human aggregates for intelligence/creativity in solving resource constraint problems.

Wright also talked briefly about the notion that larger populations were better because they were more likely to produce great innovations. But following the economics above, other things being equal, human populations will grow only non-zero sum members and will kill off the rest. The relevant economic terms are decreasing marginal utility and increasing marginal costs. Populations grow until the net marginal value of the next individual to the existing population is zero (growth may mean killing less useful members of the population to make room for new more useful members but that dynamic is beyond the scope here). In other words, all members of the population innovate enough to justify their existence (though the value of those innovations may exhibit a power-law distribution as is visible in the distribution of web traffic and links) so economics/evolutionary selection guarantees that more people are always good for the population as a whole and makes it richer (and if you don’t think so, you are obviously a
zero-sum individual scheduled for elimination when the time comes! 🙂 ).

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One Response to Robert Wright, Non-Zero-Sum Killing, and The Value of Population

  1. Ramez Naam says:

    Your logic seems sound except for two things:

    1) The non-zero-sumness of an individual is not set at conception or birth – it can be altered by social forces like education.

    2) Complex societies move away from utilitarianism and towards principle-based rule of law. So rather than calculate the net marginal value of each individual and decide whether to kill him / her, most societies create a fairly universal set of legal rights and protections for everyone.

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