Friday, February 26, 2016

Social conservatism and social Darwinism: r/K selection theory

Among the various weird and wonderful things on the internet I've been directed this idea: r/K selection theory. Some people think it explains everything in the universe. Most people haven't heard of it. The second group are onto something. But at the risk of giving some rather strange ideas unwarrented publicity, I'm going to use this post to warn my readers about it. Because although presenting itself as a defence of the family, it is not just wrong-headed, but actually dangerous.

The theory, in a nutshell, goes like this. It is a truism that if you are a poppy, an insect, an antelope or a human being, you can have fewer offspring, and devote more resources to each one, or more offspring, and devote fewer resources to each one. Certain conditions favour one strategy over the other. The theory claims that the 'more offspring' strategy ('r') is favoured by conditions where the constraint on population is not resources, but predation, and the 'fewer but better offspring' strategy ('K') is favoured when the constraint on population is resources (or the 'carrying capacity of the environment'). So prey animals tend to be r, predators K.

The contrast is not an absolute but a matter of degree, so a species can move in one direction or another as conditions change, and different groups within a species can adopt somewhat distinct strategies.

Theorists then pile up a list of characteristics correlated to r and K respectively. 'r' organisms are smaller, have shorter life-spans, are less competitive and less cooperative, don't plan for the future (resources are plentiful), are less complex and sophisticated, than K. Because K want to invest more in each offspring, who are dependent on them for longer, they tend to mate for life and have more complex and enduring family structures.

The fun part is the application to humans, where the breakdown of the family is understood as a shift from K to r in response to the plentiful resources provided by the welfare state. In essence, liberals are r, and conservatives are K. An r strategy will lead to ruin, when the resources run out, and then the K will inherit the earth. Or something. Accounts of the theory by its supporters can easily be found on the internet; I've been looking at this page and this video, for example.

Despite immediately falling foul of the facts - welfare-addicted developed countries have seen their birth-rates fall, not rise - the analysis is popular because it speaks to an enduring stereotype: that of the respectable and foresightful class or race, vs. the feckless and fecund class or race. We hear of the association between having lots of children and social irresponsibility, today, most often in the context of Global Warming; before that it was the Global Over-Population scare. However, it had its real heyday in the 1930s with 'Scientific Racism', when American and European elites noticed that non-Caucasian peoples had a higher birth-rate, and wanted to reassure themselves that the 'white races' were still superior. The idea has had a long history in Ireland, where richer Protestants consistently found themselves being out-bred by those pesky Catholics. It was picked up by National Front leaders who got excited by the publication of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins in 1976 (as recounted in Joseph Pearce's autobiographical Race With The Devil).

The possibility of the superior species or race being overwhelmed by the inferior, by sheer weight of numbers, seemed a paradox to people brought up on Darwin: how could it be allowed to happen? Perhaps, they thought, things would straighten themselves out through natural disasters falling disproportionately on the over-fecund, thriftless, and uneducated: like the Irish Potato Famine. Yes, that is 'Nature's way', they mused, and shouldn't be frustrated by our charitable impluses. (People really did say that.) If that didn't work, perhaps the elite races and social groups had a responsibility, a destiny in fact, to assist nature, by colonisation, programmes of compulsory sterilisation, enslavement, even warfare and wholesale annihilation. Not to do these things would be to allow the superior human stock to be watered down and lost. It was kinder, really: the feckless would make a hash of things if they ever gained power, and they'd starve in the end anyway.

That this utterly hideous set of ideas could make a comback in the 21st century tells us about the loss of trust in the intellectual elite, just as its popularity in the 1930s tells us about the half-baked scientism of that era. The revival goes all the way to suggesting that there is a genetic basis not only for different levels of prosperity and attitudes to hard work between races, but between classes: what we might call going 'full Sanger'. r/K theorists will tell you that most people (80% perhaps) are 'r', by a combination of genetic inheritance, epigenegic factors (genetically determined responses to environmental factors such as stress in infancy), upbringing, and personal choice. The last factor is particularly handy if you want to add moral judgment to the mix, because it soon transpires in r/K writings that it is not just a matter of different reproduction strategies, each rational and appropriate in certain conditions, but of the moral and cultural superiority of K over r.

But I need to say more about why the theory is false. The fundamental problem with it is that the r/K contrast is too simplistic to support the generalisations made on its basis. While the basic dilemma of breeding may seem a truism, there are so many other factors, apart from resources and predation, and so many distinct breeding strategies, that it fails to capture reality to a useful degree.

For example, trees are slow-maturing, very long-lived, large, and by plant standards complex organisms, but once they've put in the investment many of them shower the countryside with tens of thousands of tiny seeds. r or K? This is an impossible question to answer, because they don't consistently have the supposed traits or either. Then again, some trees put a lot of investment into a smaller number of larger seeds, like nuts and acorns. What does that tell us about the differences between Sycamores and Oaks? Not much: further implications cannot reliably be read off that contrast.

Social insects: are they r or K? Like trees, they invest heavily in a system that can mass-produce offspring. But then again, only a few of these offspring can themselves breed. What does that tell us, in r/K terms? Well, actually, nothing. Their breeding strategy varies in a way completely unanticipated by the binary r/K analysis.

Many large mammals of the ocean and plain give birth to offspring which can immediately swim or walk and keep up with their mothers. Small mammals in burrows have blind and helpless babies, totally dependant on their parents. r or K? The question is meaningless because in such cases the correlations predicted by the theory don't hold true. It is other factors which make the difference.

What of forward planning? Squirrels store nuts in holes, bears fatten up their own bodies for winter hibernation. Theorists tell us that r animals spend all their time eating, not storing, so does this make squirrels more K than the larger, more complex, predator bears? There is no non-arbitrary answer. If to fatten yourself up in case of future shortages is a K characteristic, then among humans couch-potatoes are more K than gym bunnies.

Similarly, we are told that sea turtles are a classic case of r, because they abandon their eggs in a hole on a beach, whereas birds look after the chicks. But turtles are larger, more complex, and vastly more long-lived, so the rest of the correlations fail. On reflection, however, the investment into the offspring factor doesn't work either. The turtle puts extra resources into the eggs for the growing baby turtle, which makes it possible for the hatchlings to fend for themselves immediately they emerge. The only r thing about them turns out to be the lack of interaction between the generations. Everything which is supposed to be correllated with that is not found in this case.

In sum, the r/K contrast is an attempt to impose a simplistic dichotomy onto the vast variety and complexity of the natural world, and apart from a few carefully-chosen cases it does not apply neatly, or at all, and the conclusions the theory promises don't follow.

Since Darwinism is the basic assumption of the r/K theory, it is convenient if we can show it is false on Darwinian principles. This is clearly true for the theory's alleged cosmic conflict between r and K tribes, races or classes: respectable Darwinians will tell you natural selection doesn't work at the level of groups. In fairness to Richard Dawkins, he explains the point very clearly in The Selfish Gene and his other early books (before he started devoting his time to attacking religion).

Thus we find Dawkins explicitly addressing a racist Victorian objection to natural selection. If a superior European were marooned on an island full of indolent natives, the objection goes, he might make himself the ruler of the place, but, in intermarrying, his descendants will find their superiority watered down to nothing. (Think of the parallel: if the superior races triumph over the inferior ones, but then fail to keep themselves racially pure: what then?) Dawkins responds that at the genetic level this is not so: each superior gene will spread through the gene-pool, and over the very, very long term will come to dominate (assuming they are genuinly better suited to the environment). Eugenicists and Scientific Racists think of genes being passed on as a block, but this isn't how it works. The set of genes making up an exceptional individual (the superman and the Eugenicist's 'imbecile' alike) are immediately shuffled and re-shuffled to make what may be quite mediocre sets in his or her children and grandchildren. But individual genes giving a breeding advantage will tend to enable their bearers to have more descendants, on average, so will become more common.

For this reason, and contrary to the ideas of racial solidarity and political conspiracy you hear from r/K theoriests, there is very rarely any genetic reason for individuals or groups to promote the success of other individuals or groups who are similar to themselves, over individuals and groups who are dissimilar. Siblings, sharing half one's genes, may benefit from one's genetic self-interest, but anyone else is more a potential rival than a potential carrier of one's own genes to future generations. Certainly, there are political reasons for solidarity in some cases, but there are also political reasons for alliances between completely different groups, and this is what is happening when nicely-brought up and expensively educated liberal politicians recruit a welfare-depenant underclass, let alone a Muslim immigrant community, as a voting block. Contrary to the r/K theory, these are alliances between groups with nothing in common in terms of attitudes, lifestyle, or, come to that, breeding patterns.

The reason for my interest in r/K selection theory is that, as I noted at the start of this post, it represents itself, at least in part, as a justification or defence of social conservativism, specifically in defence of the family, and against 'cultural Marxism'. The temptation for social conservatives to ally themselves with this kind of thing should be resisted. Its implications are horrifying, and it is, in any case, completely false.

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  1. The beauty of such theories is the fun one has in selecting the facts to support it. I am currently working on a theory that a country's health depends upon a variable Ig. Ig is going to be calculated somehow on the square of the distance between a capital city and its major universities (think Oxford and Cambridge and London or Coimbra and Lisbon). It will show conclusively that France with the Sorbonne slap in the middle of Paris as being in deep trouble (think Pol Pot and others).