Last night I was entertaining myself by reading a few of the angry rants I’m always being sent, and a couple of them led me to a simultaneously familiar and disconcertingly off bit of territory — it was people proudly using Science as a warrant for bigotry. It was weird because they were using terms I knew and that were legitimately part of a scientific discipline, but they were using them in ways that were crazy inappropriate and that revealed they actually didn’t understand the science. There are a surprising number of people who are babbling about r/K selection theory on the internet.
r/K selection theory gets its name from a simplified equation that tries to quantify how quickly a population’s size can change. It reduces the number of parameters that affect the rate of change in population size, N, to just two: r, the maximum growth rate, and K (for carrying capacity), the maximum number of individuals the environment can sustain. It leads to this appealingly trivial equation:
dN/dt = rN(1-N/K)
That seems to fit, intuitively. When you colonize a new environment and your population size is very far from the carrying capacity, your best bet is to be weedy and breed like rabbits…and if two species are in competition, the one that will fill up the environment first is the one that can pump out babies the fastest. If you’re in a stable environment that’s at capacity, r becomes less important — there’s nothing new to exploit, population size isn’t going to change much anymore, so K becomes the dominant factor in defining your population limits. So if you’re a dandelion or a sea urchin, spew out great clouds of cheap zygotes, 99.99% of which will die, but you’ll be able to grab a foothold in any new patch of sea floor or suburban yard that opens up. If you’re an elephant or a blue whale, there are never going to be very many of you in the world, so it’s better to invest more in infant care, so that, while you don’t have many of them, your babies are more likely to survive.
The nice thing about r/K theory was that it was so danged simple…and that was one of the reasons it has long slipped out of favor. Its predictive power was weak, because it went too far and reduced populations to too few parameters. Biology is complex, and species have many more strategies for optimizing their success than just how fast they can make babies. This is not my field, but I saw r/K theory decline rapidly in popularity: in the 70s and 80s, when I took and first started teaching introductory biology courses, it was all over the textbooks; and then it slowly faded away. It was replaced with more complex and more accurate demographic models, and a broader study of life history evolution (you want more, you can read about it in Ecology (pdf), again, well outside my field). I rarely encounter the term any more.
Except in one place.
Racist tirades on the internet!
Go ahead and look for yourself. Google “r k selection” and see what comes up. Among the Wikipedia references and a scattering of course pages (which do get it right), I see triumphant declarations from right wingers and MRAs that r/K selection theory proves that they are right. r/K Selection Theory Ends All Political Debate, they announce; all you need to know is a little bit of biology and you can destroy all those liberals. Except the ones that are biologically literate, that is. Would you believe that they are seriously claiming that black people are more like echinoderms and white people are more like elephants, and that being K-selected is superior to being r-selected? Of course you would, because you know they’re stupid. They’re even abusing the theory to claim that different political/religious systems are driven by their misinterpretations of a biological theory.
While Christianity is far more ‘K’ selected than say Marxism, it’s still more ‘r’ selected than the pre-Christian European social orders. An exception to this would be the Roman empire which was based on a pagan belief system, but through its expansion and conquest it gradually became increasingly ‘r’ selected from things like the abundance of sex slaves they kept. This eventually turned into all out sexual degeneracy practiced by many Romans, but especially the elites.
You can’t do that, I splutter. Setting aside the bad history there, the r and K parameters are a simplified (too simplified) abstraction for a lot of biological properties that affect population growth. r is the same in all of those groups; human pairs can pop out roughly one baby a year, but most don’t. K is dependent on the environment as well as the biology of the organism. Because there are multiple factors affecting it, you can’t look at just the number of babies produced and announce that a population is r or K selected; the same organisms with the same r values will grow at different rates in different situations, which is what that r/K formula says. If I put a pair of rabbits on an island with a lot of food, they’ll reproduce rapidly; if I put a similar pair on an island with little food, they’ll reproduce more slowly. This does not imply that there are different r values in the two sets of rabbits.
They do a lot of this kind of misinterpretation and failure to grasp the basic concept. It’s driven by the fact that they also have a peculiar set of value judgements. r is bad, so you take every human characteristic you dislike and assign them to the r strategy. K is good, so all virtues get lumped under that category. This is not biology. Those parameters are abstractions, not descriptions of ethical qualities. K is not synonymous with courage, and r is not the same as promiscuity. You can’t just reify these abstractions to declare that “Person X is like a cowardly little rabbit, therefore he is r-selected, which is a sciencey term, therefore Science has just put the stamp of absolute truth on my assessment.” You can’t do that.
You especially can’t do that because r and K are properties of a species and an environment. But they happily apply them to individuals and categories of individuals. For instance, did you know that some women are r-selected, and others are K-selected? It makes no sense, but it’s all over the place.
With an r-strategy, the quality of the mate isn’t very important; you just spread your genes far and wide. With a k-strategy, you select the fittest mate and monopolize their womb/sperm.
These differing strategies result in differing behaviors and attitudes. A heavy r-woman is a mega-slut (having sex in her teens). She’s bitchy and masculine in her behavior. She’s interested in style over substance (think Jersey Shore skanks).
A heavy k-woman has very few sexual partners over her lifetime. She is feminine and agreeable. She is interested in a long-term, stable relationship with a man of substance.
Wait, wait. So masculine behavior is associated with women being r-selected? Not so fast. It turns out that sometimes not being masculine enough is an r value.
The white (k-selected) population built this country, despite any revisionist history to the contrary, and it is systematically being destroyed, not just by minorities, but by women, and pussy ass men inevitably r-selected by their general lack of aggression/decisiveness. Does this not sound like the modus operandi of r-selection?
I get so confused reading this stuff. Here’s an example of failing to understand what r is, inappropriately applying it to individuals, and being self-contradictory.
*** Feminism is r-type
“In r-type populations, females exhibit more male traits, such as increased size, aggression, and competitiveness. In this milieu, this is an effective aspect of an r-strategy, as r-females need to both provide for their offspring, and fend off threats, due to male abandonment.
It is interesting that modern feminism, so often associated with the left, exhibits a denigrating view of the rewards offered by offspring rearing, an embrace of sexual liberation for women (ie promiscuity), a denigrating view of men which would facilitate short-term mating relationships, as well as an increased drive to compete aggressively alongside males, in traditionally male endeavors.”
You can’t do that. You can’t declare that feminists, who are biologically human, are r-selected, while misogynists, who are also biologically of the same species, are K-selected. This is simply rank nonsense.
But further, this same article defines the r strategy as having lots of offspring. But talk to a feminist: they are all about limiting and controlling reproduction, having fewer children or none, and pursuing other roles in society beyond just making babies. By their own deeply flawed definition, feminism is K-type. But apparently the attributes of these parameters vary depending on sex…which makes no fucking sense at all. They argue that
r/K selection theory is an incredibly powerful paradigm, capable of flaying a liberal’s mind faster than any other concept on the planet. I think they’ve confused stupefaction at the demonstration of egregious idiocy by the ‘conservative’ with “flaying”.
Oh, we’re not done with the inconsistencies. Did you know that
Homosexuality is a dishonorable mating strategy? On some days, homosexuality is biological futility, doomed to die out as they fail to reproduce, and on others, well, we have to fit this into the r/K paradigm somehow, and r is bad remember, so they’re somehow using this to breed rapidly.
This example finally provides an evolutionary justification for homosexuality. Mimicking a female gives the Anticompetitive cuttlefish access to females, which he would otherwise never acquire. Likewise, almost all human fags are bisexual, and many men become gay only after failing with women. Being gay permits the occasional “experimental” bang with a girlfriend. Hence the K male’s aversion to fags and fag hags.
I don’t even…
Here’s another blatant attempt to coopt science to defend their bigotry.
Hatred for liberals is genetic, they say.
“…Competitors who evolved to revile those who violated the Competitive strategy. These groups would easily dominate such a group competition. Individuals that were imbued with a fierce contempt for cowardice, a hatred for selfishness, and aversions towards such behaviors as interference in free competitions between men, opportunistic advantage taking, rule breaking, sexual sneaking and disloyalty to the group would form, and function within, successful groups unusually well.”
In other words, homophobia is not latent homosexuality, it is a rational genetic strategy. As is hating hippies.
You know, none of that follows. It doesn’t even make logical sense, even if one accepts the false premises underlying it.
This bogosity is incredibly popular among the ignorant, however. Would you believe liberals and conservatives can be explained by r/K theory?
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 anonymousconservative.com 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.
Oh, god. Look at the formula at the top of this article. There is already a switch in that oversimplificat that triggers changes in rates of population growth: it’s N. You don’t have to invent brain programming to do it.
I don’t even understand how, when all you’ve got in the formula is a reproduction rate, you can leap to the conclusion that conservatives are K-selected and liberals are r-selected. Again, it is totally inappropriate to mangle the theory this way, but who makes more babies? Rural Mormon conservatives or upwardly mobile urban feminists?
Note also the entanglement of evolutionary psychology here. This is another common theme: our conservative, exploitive, bigoted perspective is supported by evolutionary psychology and ecology, and therefore it is true. Never mind that EP is a collection of ad hoc myths calculated to justify inequities, and that they have to lie about ecology to twist it to fit their preconceptions.
We can’t just blame this behavior on stupid people engaging in circular arguments to excuse their biases, however. These ridiculous appropriations of an old theory in ecology have also been ripped off by racist cranks and published in the academic literature. J. Philippe Rushton, anyone?
This article discusses the r/K theory of Social Biology and how it relates to humans. The symbols r and K originate in the mathematics of population biology and refer to 2 ends of a continuum in which a compensatory exchange occurs between gamete production (the r-strategy) and longevity (the K-strategy). Both across and within species, r and K strategists differ in a suite of correlated characteristics. Humans are the most K of all. K’s supposedly have a longer gestation period, a higher birthweight, a more delayed sexual maturation, a lower sex drive, and a longer life. Studies providing evidence for the expected covariation among K attributes are presented. Additional evidence for r/K theory comes from the comparison of human population known to differ in gamete production. The pattern of racial differences observed to occur in sexual behavior has also been found to exist on numerous other indices of K. For instance, there are racial differences in brain size, intelligence, and maturation rate, among others. The findings suggest that, on the average, Mongoloids are more K than Caucasoids, who in turn, are more K than Negroids. Recently conducted studies have extended the data in favor of r/K theory, and further research is currently underway, including whether r/K attributes underlie individual and social class differences in health and longevity.
Aaargh, the stupid, it burns. Let’s use some archaic racial classifications, try to update it with some hot new sciencey lingo (this paper was published in 1988, when the r/K stuff was on the wane…but it’s not as if a guy who peddles 19th century racial “science” is going to be very current), and then pretend we’re actually doing research to measure population-specific variation in r values. This is typical Rushton, trying to bullshit his audience with false claims of a scientific foundation for his prejudices.
But it’s an amazingly popular strategem. This is lying with science on a par with what creationists do, and it’s everywhere in the most unpleasantly odious communities on the internet: racists, misogynists, and crank conservatives, all the people who have recently won bigly in the political arena. We should be afraid. And we need to fight back more against pseudo-science.