The Three Lessons of Biological History

“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”

Over the course of history, human behaviour has been constantly changing. The way we acquire resources, the way we attract mates, and the ways we live day to day have all changed due to trends in technology and culture. But there is one thing that has remained unchanged: human nature. Our baser instincts are still the same as they were thousands of years ago: get resources, acquire mates, achieve status and power.

Writing in the amazing The Lessons of History, author’s Will and Ariel Durant (husband and wife) run with these ideas and examine how our own human nature has affected us over the years. As it turns out, our biology and striving for survival play a big role in the way we think and act even today. The Durants summarize their most important findings into the three biological lessons of history.

1. Life is Competition

“Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life — peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group — our family, community, club, church, party, “race,” or nation — in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast.”

Humans have evolved to compete very, very ferociously. Throughout most of our evolutionary timeline, food and mates were hard to come by. You had to hunt to acquire food — a dangerous endeavour, and there were a limited number of available mates.

The same thing remains constant today. Just the basics of food, clothing, and shelter are quite expensive, requiring constant 40-hour workweeks or more. Everyone ideally wants to have the best mate, both physical and personality-wise. Years ago, the physically strong would dominate and take the best resources and mates. Today, the competition is won through financial means. This leads people to compete for jobs, promotions, and generally making more money in any way possible (whether legal or illegal).

This explains much of what people strive for today. They’ll stay late at work or take a lot of crap from their manager, mostly because they have to in order to effectively compete. Their job represents their ability to compete because it provides them with money to live and upgrade their status in society.

Humans sometimes do cooperate with each other, but in the long run, this cooperation is aimed at increasing one’s ability to compete. We work with people in teams because it’s part of our job or in some way will help us make more money. Yet still, the overall target is better competitive power for ourselves.

2. Life is Selection

“In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. … Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select thirty per cent of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest.”

Life is also highly selective over what survives and what doesn’t. Humans are always fighting to gain as much control and power as they can. Nature provides a limited amount of resources and mates — there is only so much food and so many members of the opposite sex that are “available.” At the end of the day, only the strongest survive.

Nature selects which individuals will survive based on their strength. In the past, strength was mainly physical. The men with the strongest, tallest, and most fit bodies survived; the most healthy-looking and fertile women did too. There is still some semblance of that in the modern-day as people are naturally attracted to those physical qualities in men and women. Attractive people are also able to leverage their attractiveness to obtain money and status. It’s not secret that hot people are treated better in society.

Apart from the physical, the main determinants of survival in the 21st century are status and financial resources. A person who has high status is well-regarded, accepted, and protected by society. At the same time, a person with many financial resources is able to just buy whatever they need for survival and further thriving: food, shelter, clothing, better education, better connections, better job opportunities. You no longer need to physically fight for these things.

In addition to the above determinants, when it comes to natural selection success typically begets more success: a person who has done well in obtaining status and financial resources will typically gain even more in the future, while a person who has failed to do so will likely continue to fail. This is because nature’s (i.e people’s and society’s) response is to always support that which is already succeeding and remove that which is not.

3. Life Must Breed

“Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize one ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (here meaning Nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. … If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.”

Nature is always interested in breeding the best and only the best, using evolution to constantly improve the brood. Naturally, only the best sperm of the male is able to meet with the egg of the female. No one ever wants the average partner or the average job, they want the best partner and the best job. The Pareto Principle consistently goes to work here: the top 20% typically get 80% of the spoils of life.

There is another area where we can clearly see the desire to breed and that is in human ambition. We often work to improve ourselves far beyond the level which is needed for survival in order to attract high-quality mates. Many people earn salaries that are plenty to live well, but they push for more in order to compete and constantly upgrade their status. There certainly wouldn’t be much need for suits and dresses, diamond rings and gold watches if they weren’t signals of status.

Unfortunately, the need to breed forces nature to make certain “corrections” along the way. Natural resources like oil or freshwater can become scarce, leading to major conflicts and even warfare. Economic recessions can cause huge inter-state fights among people as they claw at each other to survive. These are simply part of nature’s cycle where there is a limited supply of some desired resource and all living things fight over it. The strong always survive in the end, as nature intended it to be.

Still interested?

The Lessons of History is one of the best wisdom-per-page books out there. The Durants are master historians.

** Unless otherwise stated, all quotes in this article are from the book

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