The Struggle to Survive: Biology’s Influence on History

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Lessons of History" by Will Durant and Ariel Durant. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you considered biology’s place in history? How has humanity’s struggle to survive been a factor?

In The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant assert that biology is a driving force in history. Specifically, there are three biological forces that shape human behavior and thus human history: competition, selection, and the need to reproduce. These forces are part of life’s struggle to survive.

Read more to learn how the struggle to survive shapes human history.

The 3 Forces in Humanity’s Struggle to Survive

The laws of biology are the lessons of history. As animals, we are subject to the same forces as all other living beings—the trials of evolution, the struggle to survive and exist. 

All the history and achievements of humans are humbly just a part of the history of life.

If some people seem to supersede biology and are no longer subject to the trials of survival, it’s because they’re protected by their group; the group itself must endure and survive, like individual organisms. (Shortform example: within a society, the wealthy may have a privileged position that places them above the normal struggles of day-to-day survival. But if the society they belong to crumbles, as in a war, the position of the privileged itself crumbles.)

Life has three forces that determine the behavior.

1: Life Is Competition

The struggle to survive involves competition. Animals compete to survive. In nature, animals eat one another without a second thought. In civilization, humans consume each other by due process of law.

Cooperation is real, but serves mainly to enhance competition with other groups (whether it’s our family, church, political party, race, or nation).

Our societies are individuals multiplied to a massive scale. They conduct along human nature as individuals do, on a larger scale. They multiply our good and evil on a scale of millions. War is like one animal eating another, on a national scale.

2: Life Is Selection

The struggle to survive involves selection. Some organisms succeed and some fail. Some individuals are better equipped than others to survive. This is the natural product of biological variation, which is necessary for evolution and natural selection. 

Inequality is magnified as civilization becomes more complex. New inventions are seized by the able individuals to make themselves stronger, while making the weak weaker. (Shortform note: consider the disparities of wealth created by a small minority of people who harnessed the technology of industrialization in the 1800s and the power of computing in present day.)

Freedom and equality are diametric opposites. When one wins, the other disappears. If people are given freedom, their natural differences in ability will materialize in different outcomes. If people were forced to show equal outcomes and equal abilities, this reduces individual freedom.

This is problematic for egalitarians, who desire equality among all. The best that egalitarians can hope for is an equality of environment, where educational opportunity and the legal system are equal among people. 

Life is competition, and societies compete with one another. A society in which equality is force and individual variation is quashed will face a survival disadvantage, compared to one that harnesses the greatest potential of all its individuals. The latter will win the competition between groups, and subjugate the former.

3: Life Must Breed

The struggle to survive involves reproduction. Nature selects for abundant reproduction. Individual animals that reproduce more perpetuate themselves, outnumbering those that reproduce less.

High birth rates tend to accompany less developed civilizations. At times, a low birth rate nation is “chastened by some more virile and fertile group.”

Differential birth rates change power dynamics within and between nations. Faster-breeding groups grow in economic and political power (the authors note Roman Catholic families will be dominant in the US by 2000).

Nature has three agents for restoring the balance of overpopulation: famine, pestilence, and war.

  • Malthus feared that uncontrolled birth rates would outstrip food production.
  • So far technology has tended to keep pace with births, with the rising population also itself contributing more producers of food.
  • (Shortform note: some researchers note that as societies become more wealthy, their birth rate naturally decreases, and so the risk of overpopulation is exaggerated.)

These are three ways in which the struggle to survive has shaped human history—and will continue to do so.

The Struggle to Survive: Biology’s Influence on History

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Lessons of History summary:

  • What we can learn from studying 5,000 years of history
  • How human nature hasn’t changed over thousands of years
  • Why all civilizations, including ours, fall, and why we shouldn’t cry about it

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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