Surprise, surprise; another intriguing TED talk! This latest TED adventure stars one Robert Wright, explaining how the concept of non-zero-sumness drives cultural evolution, and what this means for our ever-increasingly tense world.

In essence, both life in general, and humans specifically, are self-interest driven entities. In zero-sum situations this does not exactly make for an upbeat story, as is the case,for example, in a typical tennis match where having a winner necessitates a loser (the results counter each other, totaling zero). However, in non-zero-sum situations, for example in doubles tennis where both individuals on a team win or lose together, this can be wonderful! One person’s desire to succeed necessarily contributes to the success of the other person.

Wright extends this idea to both biological (my favourite!) and cultural evolution. In biology’s story of evolution, nucleic acids become housed in cells which aggregate to form colonies in which individual cells may adapt to perform specialized functions within a multicellular organism. Each step offers advantages to all involved: win-win, AKA non-zero-sumness. So is the case regarding cultural evolution; historically, as humans gradually recognized that they could benefit from positive interactions with other humans (those from different regions, cultures, races, religions…) cooperation and morality prevailed.

It is almost as if we’ve forgotten this non-zero-sumness reality and instead are convinced that in order to win somebody has to lose. Unfortunately, success seems to involve comparison, being better, having, or doing more than another. We’ve confused our teammates for our opponents, creating conflict despite common goals. We’ve forgotten that success follows positive interactions and the resulting mutually beneficial relationships. We’ve forgotten about the infinite potential for good!

Let’s remember.


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