NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

DEGREES OF FREEDOM

No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy. —Herbert Spencer

 

In general, history has shown a healthy indifference to the strengths and weaknesses of particular political leaders. Blunders and oppressions in any one part of the world have tended not to be broadly ruinous; there have always been whole continents full of other polities where more enlightened policies could prove their mettle. The basic path of cultural evolution, toward broader and deeper social complexity, has been safe from the ravages of evil and incompetence.

Until recently, it was unthinkable that anyone would end this benign fragmentation. Genghis Khan couldn't possibly have ruled the whole planet, even with his high-tech courier service. Napoleon, living in pre-telegraphic days, would also have found world conquest hard to attain, much less sustain.

But Hitler, in an age of telephones and airplanes, could conceivably have conquered the world. True, stagnation might have ensued, as he suppressed information technologies to head off revolt. But rulers can bear stagnation so long as there are no vibrant societies to vanquish or embarrass them.

By World War II, then, "saving the world" had ceased to be hyperbole. Winston Churchill, in rallying resistance to Hitler, was performing a feat whose greatness wouldn't have been possible centuries earlier. It is in this light, the light at the end of the second millennium, that leaders have come to matter in a larger sense than ever before.

Yet the hypothetical prospect of world conquest isn't the main thing now putting a premium on leadership. Even assuming that governance moves to the global level peacefully and democratically, inspired guidance will matter in a new way. After all, there's only one globe. However many alternatives there are for reforming the IMF after a crisis, they can be tested only in serial, not in parallel. And if the first trial fails spectacularly, that's really bad news.

What's more, the potential badness of bad news has risen. With more souls in the world every century, the sheer weight of potential suffering has reached an all-time high. Hitler and Stalin made this point, and the coming of thousands of nuclear weapons has underscored it.

Of course, if you're a person of sufficiently large vision, you can always shrug this worry off. Even if we wipe out all human beings, some species will survive, such as the famously radiation-resistant cockroach. And if biological evolution is directional (see part II), then maybe there will eventually be a species smart enough to reignite cultural evolution, impelling social organization, once again, toward the planetary level. So global concord will get a second chance!

Personally, I don't feel a strong enough kinship with cockroaches to find much solace in this scenario. In fact, there are mishaps well short of nuclear annihilation that I'd just as soon avoid. I say we take a stab at figuring out what sorts of things great leaders would do to keep our species not just alive, but in reasonably good shape as it makes the tricky transition to a new social equilibrium.

TIPS ON SAVING THE WORLD

[SNIP]

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at www.nonzero.org