Dark Counsel From The Durants

In 1965, near the end of a long lifetime of scholarly study and reflection, the great historians Will and Ariel Durant brought forth a slim volume called The Lessons of History, a companion to their magnum opus, The Story of Civilization.

The third chapter, Biology and History, deals with topics now associated with the dissident intellectual movements known as “neoreaction”, “HBD”, and “the Dark Enlightenment”. It contains some remarkable passages.

Early in the chapter, the Durants comment insightfully on the concept of group-level natural selection, a controversial topic even today:

[T]he laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive. If some of us seem to escape the strife or the trials it is because our group protects us; but that group itself must meet the tests of survival.

So the first biological lesson of history is that 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 quality 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… War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition.

A little further on, they address the awkward reality of human variation:

The second biological lesson of history is that 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. Since Nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal; subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacities and qualities of character. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in hundreds of 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 and history do precisely that, with a sublime injustice reminiscent of Calvin’s God.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states.

Strong stuff, this, and not the sort of thing you read much of, half a century later. I rather doubt (to put it mildly!) that publishers would be lining up to deliver this sort of frankness in 2013, but in 1965 the Durants were among the world’s pre-eminent public intellectuals.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Wow. Sounds almost exactly like the famous lecture given by Colonel Dubois in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

    Posted July 9, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I’ve never read that one. I do know, though, that Heinlein was not exactly the Kumbiyah sort…

    Posted July 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Of course it is important to keep in mind that these passages are descriptive, not normative.

    Posted July 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Scharlach says

    Wow. I had no idea. The Durants’ books are still in wide circulation in most American homeschooling circles, apparently.

    Re: descriptive/normative. The latter should be informed by the former.

    Posted July 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  5. bob sykes says

    Dear Malcolm, You have misread the Durant’s. The distinction between normative and descriptive implies there is a choice in social organization. The Durants are pointing out that there is no choice. Even the egalitarians are caught up in biology and its cycles of competition and predation. The egalitarians are merely a gang that preys on those who won the competition to take their winnings. But, it is still biological determinism. It is merely the struggle between groups translated to a struggle within a group.

    Posted July 12, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    I think you’ve misread me. Your point appears to be (if I’ve read you correctly) that one cannot effectively take a normative stance toward the facts of nature. This is true, but I have no doubt that the Durants, and all the rest of us, understand this (with, of course, the exception of the ‘blank-slate’ lunatic Left).

    One can, however, take a normative stance as to what kind of society would be an optimal response to those facts (‘optimal’, here, in the sense of striking a ‘proper’ balance between liberty and inequality). This is very much a live question, and an important one, but the Durants stake out no position in these descriptive passages.

    To say that there is “no choice” in social organization, when so many are in plain view, and when the entire process of democratic government is the making of such choices, seems obviously mistaken. Even if, in the long run, the destination is more or less the same, there are certainly lots of ways to get there.

    Posted July 12, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink