Through this lens, and an overview of human and global history, Wright typifies the argument against the views of noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould wrote that "Humans are here by the luck of the draw." Wright acknowledges one aspect of Gould's argument--that the evolutionary process was not such that it would inevitably create humans as we know them today ("five fingers, five toes, and so on") but that evolution would almost certainly result in the creation of highly intelligent, communicating organisms, who would in turn develop tools and advanced technologies.
Evidence for natural selection driving improvements in information processing is given throughout, including the case of the bombardier beetle, an insect that developed the ability to spray its attackers with harsh chemicals. This, in turn, favored predators via natural selection who had techniques to avoid the spray. As Wright puts it, "complexity breeds complexity." This is the often referred to evolutionary phenomenon of the "arms race," wherein competing organisms stack up their developments in competition with one another.
Via this increasing complexity, according to Nonzero, higher intelligence was thus destined to happen, perhaps even "inevitable" (see discussion of inevitability below). Though the stated thesis is that evolution is headed in the direction of "non-zero-sumness," Wright argues that the realization of such prospects is dependent upon improvements in information processing, thus neatly carving out a reason for the creation and cultural evolution of the human species.
Of course, when societies band together to fight a common enemy, that enemy is not always an Arctic glacier, but rather, other human societies. Wright discusses this as well, arguing that war between nations often resulted in technological and cultural evolution. For example, World War II spurred the development of the Manhattan Project and, in turn, atomic energy and related research--a technology that may ultimately benefit the world at large. Further, societies with advanced governments were more likely to succeed in war, spreading government systems as a technology in and of itself.
Even the development of weapons systems themselves (and Wright's discussion of their increasing complexity over time) left him open to criticism, put into words by Steven Pinker, a linguist/cognitive scientist specializing in evolutionary psychology:
Similarly, the idea of greater and greater non-zero-sum gains benefitting the world at large is also debated, as such technologies allow the injury of ever larger numbers of people. While Wright believes that the goal of natural selection is increasing non-zero-sum gains, it is also clear that these gains might not be for everyone. Though this does not in any way invalidate Wright's thesis, it does dampen the optimism Wright appears to hold for non-zero-sum dynamics. Indeed, in a world of separated, village-like units, atrocities within Stalin's Soviet Union or Hitler's Third Reich could not have occurred. (Of course, life within those village-like units had its own inherent problems, and the question of which point in history was better is addressed by arguments within teleology--whether history has a direction, and thus if history has shown consistent progress.) Wright believes that there has been progress (with some exceptions), and further, that this progress will continue. In response to Wright's assumption that cooperation and communication will continue to increase, Pinker writes:
Pinker also challenges Wright's core thesis, echoing the case made by Stephen Jay Gould, that human-like organisms are no more than a coincidence:
In response to Pinker's comments regarding the inevitability of human-like intelligence (as versus to the elephant trunk), Wright replies:
There is also question of whether non-zero-sum gains will — or even should — benefit all members of society under any system of egalitarianism. Wright does argue that increased levels of communication will inevitably lead to a decrease in enmity between some populations. Still, this does not answer the question of whether some members of society will ever "catch-up" in terms of technological connectedness, or if some might be barred entirely by some kind of oppressive (but still productive) political system. Wright states on p.329 of Nonzero (Vintage Paperback edition) that "one can well imagine, as the Internet nurtures more and more communities of interest, true friendships more and more crossing the most dangerous fault lines — boundaries of religion, of nationality, of ethnicity, of culture." Wright then states in his endnote to the section, "a big question is whether boundaries of social class will be so easily crossed — or whether, on the other hand, differences of social class within a society might sharpen as people invest more of their energy in virtual communities consisting of like-minded people."
Though Wright clearly does not posit an answer to the question of struggles among economic classes — whether they be because of or in spite of natural selection — some argue it is relevant to Wright's treatment of evolution as resulting in greater and greater moral progress, and thus strangely ignored, given that Wright is the author of another book examining human morality (The Moral Animal).
Like most biologists, Wright firmly rejects the notion of divine biological manipulation. But Wright does leave open the possibility of divine intervention in the case of human consciousness, which he does not see as being easily explained by natural selection. Consciousness — humans' ability to ponder their own existence — seems a strange outgrowth of the evolutionary process for Wright. He describes the alternative as humans that are devoid of consciousness and behave like zombies that form romantic relationships, eat, sleep, and have discussions only because they are programmed to via cultural and genetic transmission. In fact, some might argue that this is exactly what humans are. Wright argues that consciousness is still a mystery in terms of evolutionary purpose, and thus leaves open the possibility that a divine entity introduced the phenomenon of consciousness. Wright also debates whether or not entities aside from humans possess consciousness.
Wright also briefly questions the possibilities regarding what created natural selection, but Wright himself refers to his comments as highly speculative.