science commentary

r/K Theory, Liberals, and Conservatives

by T Nelson

A well known principle in evolutionary biology is that all populations use one of two fundamentally different survival strategies, called "r-selection" and "K-selection." When resources are abundant, r-selection predominates: animals become passive consumers, avoid competition and risk, and maximize reproduction, emphasizing increased numbers, cooperation and appeasement over strength, guile and intelligence. Think rabbits.

When resources are scarce, K-selection predominates: animals fight and compete for food and other resources, reproduction is restrained, monogamy is favored over promiscuity, and parents invest more resources in child rearing to maximize the fitness of their offspring. Think wolves. The strategy that best promotes survival depends on the environment and the ecological niche occupied by the species. The selection is made automatically during evolution depending on the availability of resources in the environment.

It goes without saying that this must occur in human populations as well. But humans fit into a different ecological niche than rabbits and wolves. Humans are more flexible. For humans, it would be advantageous to be able to switch from one mode to the other as the situation demands. A microbiologist over at thinks that humans do just that. There is evidence, he says, for bit of programming in our brains that triggers a transition from "r" to "K" mode, based on environmental cues. In a 30-page scientific manuscript titled "Modern Political Thought in the Context of Evolutionary Psychology" posted at his website, he makes his case that left-wingers (i.e., American-style liberals) are acting in r-selection mode, while right-wingers (i.e., American-style conservatives) are acting in K-selection mode.

It may sound like plain old politics to some, but it's a breakthrough for sociobiology. Most previous theories were simplistic, self-serving ideas like the concept that liberals are simply more able to tolerate ambiguity, while conservatives are afraid of new ideas. They didn't hold up to common sense or everyday experience.

This theory does. It explains why liberals endorse big government and the welfare state, their lack of group loyalty, and their sexual promiscuity, while conservatives endorse fiscal responsibility, individualism, ingroup cohesion, and aggressive military defense. No other theory has been able to explain how these seemingly incompatible beliefs fit together. It also explains why individuals become more conservative as they get older. K-type strategies are clearly more advantageous for a strong adult, while r-type strategies benefit children and younger, less capable individuals. Environmental stimuli promote development of the amygdala, the brain region that controls fear and aggression. Thus liberals, who have a less-developed amygdala, have a diminished ability to judge friend from foe, whereas soldiers, who deal with fear and aggression on a daily basis, are more often conservative.

A.C. is one of the few sociobiologists who understands that conservatism has nothing to do with resistance to change, as so many of his colleagues appear to believe. It's a commentary on how academic inbreeding has harmed science. There are so few conservatives on campus that most academics do not understand what conservatives really believe. This may not matter for fields like nuclear physics, but sociobiology has suffered greatly for it.

At the moment, A.C. says, our society is producing vast amounts of food, which supports r-selection. But that could change without warning. Many historians have commented how civilizations decline and fall when their citizens have easy access to resources and become weak. A civilization's own success can kill it. Our species needs both behavioral paradigms to survive.

One challenge for this theory will be to explain how to fit r/K theory with the idea that political views are determined by historical quirks, upbringing, and social dynamic factors such as groupthink. For example, young people, who are typically liberals, are programmed to crave popularity, and therefore tend to vote for whichever candidate is better promoted by the media sources they pay attention to. This is not just because their brains are not yet fully developed, but also because social approval and popularity are essential for optimal mate selection. They are programmed to go with the crowd.

For young people, and perhaps liberals in general, disapproval from the group has a strong impact on their feelings of self-worth. Therefore these individuals may be much more susceptible to groupthink and advertising which portrays one side as more popular, glamorous, or sexy—factors that most conservatives would consider irrelevant. Conversely, as people get more experienced and become more independent, they tend to think more in abstractions and civilizational events over longer time frames, which favors conservatism. They come to realize that well-intended actions can have harmful long-term consequences. These social factors probably play a greater role in shaping political outlook than any genetic programming.

Another challenge for the theory will be to explain why American conservatism differs so radically from that found in Europe. A valid sociobiological theory of ideology would have to be valid in all societies. A.C.'s theory, which jettisons the outdated, politically biased idea about conservatives being "resistant to change," is one possible step in the right direction.

Finally, we should be wary of being too confident about assigning functional roles to specific brain regions. The amygdala is not just for fear and aggression. It controls alcohol consumption, sex, emotions, memory, and no doubt many other aspects of human nature that have yet to be discovered. But despite its limitations, the theory is a vast improvement over what we had before.

Human behavior is programmed by nature in more ways than we can count. In rats, diseases like Toxoplasma gondii infection change the behavior of its victims. By suppressing fear, the parasite causes the rat to approach predators, ensuring that the rat gets eaten, which allows the parasite to spread. We now know that stomach ulcers are not caused by stress as previously believed, but by bacteria. How many other behavioral phenomena, such as depression, are actually physical diseases or pre-programmed survival strategies? Our fetish, inherited from the Freudians, for supposing that everything in the mind has a psychological cause in unresolved childhood conflicts has held back our understanding for over a century.

That can't continue. The future of our civilization may depend on understanding how populations respond to different environments and social conditions. Forget A.C.'s occasional lapses in grammar, and consider his ideas. r/K theory might not be the final answer, but it is an important insight that deserves exposure. Don't let the establishment suppress it.

1. M Trust, Modern Political Thought in the Context of Evolutionary Psychology. 2012.
2. Anonymous Conservative, The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics: How Conservativism and Liberalism Evolved Within Humans. Federalist Publications, 2012.

See also:

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The Closing of the American Mind by Alan Bloom

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jan 20, 2013; updated mar 05, 2013