Wednesday Update & r/K Strategy

Been a crazy busy/stressful last several days. Here’s where we stand:

A. Beta readers: Got feedback already from several of you – thanks! Just send the same story to a couple more people. Right now, I’ve got 6 beta readers! Wow! You guys are generous.

I want to give each of your comments proper consideration, which, given both time constraints and focus distracted by Real Life, I have yet to do. Thought a three-day weekend would give me an opportunity, but didn’t happen. Now looking at school camping trip this weekend (supposed to be 93F – oh, joy.) followed by the year end/graduation party next weekend, with Mrs Yardsale flying to SoCal to be with Elder Daughter for her graduation from an acting conservatory in L.A.. Meanwhile, 80 yr old mother in law lives with us, which is overall a beautiful thing for which I am grateful, but it does eat time and cramp any spontaneity. And all this is on top of Other Stuff that’s taking a toll on time, concentration, sleep – the usual.

Sooo – please be patient. I really do appreciate all your comments, and will make revisions as appropriate.

Don’t let those floppy ears and timid facade fool you. They all dream of being the Beast of Caerbannog

B. What’s up with this r/K theory of political alignment? Ran into it a few times over the last few months, even found a free book expounding it (by some anonymous author who says it’s his idea). Count me unimpressed.

Here’s how it goes:

In biology, r = rate of procreation; K = an environment’s carrying capacity for a particular creature. These variables became associated with two reproductive strategies, called r and K.

So: in an environment of relative abundance, an r strategy is proposed as best from a Darwinian/gene survival point of view: produce as many offspring as possible as fast as possible. Animals pursuing (in that weird sense in which animals are said to pursue gene-survival strategies ) an r-strategy exhibit 5 behaviors:

  1. Conflict avoidance. Avoid competing;
  2. Reproduce young and often;
  3. Breed indiscriminately – lots of mating with whoever is handy;
  4. Provide minimal or no care in raising the offspring;
  5. Show no group loyalty – no concern for other members of your tribe.

The r-strategy is said to occur in prey animals, where predation keeps their numbers down to a point where survival is never a question of competition for scarce resources. The population is always below the environment’s carrying capacity. The reasoning is thus: if there is plenty of food and water, don’t fight over it; if predators are likely to pick you off sooner rather than later, breed early and often; since survival is a numbers game, don’t waste time finding an optimal mate or raising your young; everybody gets eaten sooner or later, so no point worrying about who is getting eaten today.

The K-strategy is said to occur among predators, whose numbers tend to be constrained by the availability of prey. Thus, they live at or near the carrying capacity K of their environment. The optimal strategy is said to include:

  1. Competition is natural and unavoidable, so you’d better compete agressively;
  2. Only the most fit offspring survive, so delay and limit breeding to produce fewer but very fit offspring;
  3. Mates are chosen carefully and competed over, as the most fit mate produces the most fit offspring
  4. Large investment in raising the young, with both parents and the herd/pack taking care;
  5. Show loyalty and interest in the group you belong to, because that’s the group your mating prospects and survival depend upon.

You can see where this is going. Rabbits are the example typically given of an r-strategy species. It’s an appealing generalization – I recall seeing a video of a stoat hunting rabbits in a field full of rabbits. The stoat picked his target, and began to harass and exhaust it while the other rabbits continued to nibble away at the abundant grass. The stoat eventually killed it. (The stoat leapt on the rabbit’s back, bit through the rabbit’s spine at the neck, and then dragged the much larger prey away. Nasty little devils.)

Rabbit of Caerbannog | Villains Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia
You thought they were kidding about the Beast of Caerbannog? 

The other rabbits hardly looked up during the whole ordeal. Presumably, they went back to the warren and bred like, well, rabbits immediately after being sated with grass.

Wolves are given as the K-strategy poster-creatures. They compete with each other yet also hunt as a team, they spend comparatively large amounts of time and effort raising comparatively fewer young to be as fit as possible. Only mature, fit individuals get to breed. Wolves are loyal to their pack. They compete for the best mates.

Humans, it is proposed, are genetically disposed toward one or the other of these strategies, because our environments run to both extremes. When we’re settled and competing for resources with each other, K is successful and r would be out competed. But when we migrate to new places where there are no people, such as we hominids have done repeatedly for the last million years, then an r strategy wins. We’d just be wasting time with a K strategy, competing with each other when we could be out hunting the abundant game or gathering the abundant edibles – and breeding up a bunch of offspring.

Accordingly, r-strategy Americans end up Democrats or Socialists. while K-strategy Americans gravitate toward being Republicans or Libertarians.

There is more to read, which the author claims gives all the boring scientific evidence and reasoning for all this, but I think we’ve already arrived at a point where a boatload of prudent skepticism is called for. First off, like all sociobiological theories, there’s large dollop of Just So story here. The inquiring mind wants to know: how, exactly, would one even construct an experiment or field study to demonstrate any of this in the animal kingdom? Not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not obvious. How does one measure, for example, identify breeding preferences in wild populations, let alone group cohesion or how much a parent morns? While it’s easy to say an elephant mourns when its baby dies, and that a rat does not, how are we to measure this? How do we filter out the anthropomorphizing and confirmation biases?

Then, you’d need to replicate it across a bunch of species and environments to prove it out. Then you’d need the usual double-blind non-WEIRD study of people across a wide population – you know, like is almost never done – before applying any of this to human beings in general.

For starters. Then there’s the claim that there are genetic markers for behaviors as generally ill-defined as being liberal or conservative – or something, haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’m doubtful.

What I’m not doubtful of is the appeal of sociobiological explanations for complex human behavior. We’re into our second century of explaining what makes people tick based on some understanding of Darwin or other. Such explanations reveal much more about what the explainer is interested in than what’s going on in the world.

As a footnote, here’s my pet sociobiological theory: some people will only eat food with which they are familiar, others look forward to trying new dishes. (confession: heading off to a Peruvian restaurant tonight to celebrate our 31st anniversary. Why? Because I’ve never been to a Peruvian restaurant before. So you know where I fall.)

Here’s why, according to the theory which is mine: farms have been part of the environment of evolutionary adaptation for many thousands of years now. Settled people tend toward a set menu – what available on the farm and nearby. So natural selection has inclined them to be ‘eat what I know’ types. Meanwhile, other people migrate, such as across the Bering land bridge or on boats to Hawaii. They arrive at places full of edible stuff they’ve never seen before. For such people, the willingness to try new stuff is a must. Natural selection inclines them to go, say, to a Peruvian restaurant.

Of course, a spectrum of behaviors will exist here, as the fuddy-duddies and adventurous insist on marrying each other occasionally, mixing up all those genes. But the extremes prove the point.

Well? You convinced? How is this argument weak in a way other sociobiological arguments are not?

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

17 thoughts on “Wednesday Update & r/K Strategy”

  1. Regarding the r/K thing; note the assumption that the general political positions of our particular part of the world in our particular time in history are ingrained on a genetic level.

  2. I can see a spectrum ranging from ‘r’ to ‘K’ with a possible bumpy distribution or clustering rather than a great divide. Consider horses… should be r according the r/K claim, but the herd is somewhat a K behavior. And that’s only just barely thinking out it.

    1. Well, yea. I guess the argument is that we’re really really good at it? That wolf packs and saber-toothed cats stood no real chance vs people (and their rapid extinction upon the arrival of people may support that)?

      But yes, a Just So story – so far. Hope to finish the brief book, and report back.

      1. Another issue, the described novel foods idea is not supportable; there just aren’t that many places that have truly different foods. Much more likely is that there are two times people try stuff they have no idea about: when they’re very, very comfortable and see no threat, and when they’re starving to death.

        Now I have to go look up mate selection in rabbits, to see if the folk knowledge about THAT is bad, too…..

      2. Also, I thought that rabbits were territorial and fought against other warrens. But maybe I’m just thinking of Watership Downs.

        I think it was Mike Flynn who pointed out that to ‘win’ an evolutionary argument, you merely have to present something plausible, while winning an argument in any other science requires disproving conflicting theories, or at least showing why yours it to be preferred.

      3. You remember correctly– it’s noted in the “help, my bunny is biting me, what is wrong!” sections on the rabbit help pages.

        Oh, and conservationalists almost wiped out a species of rare rabbits in zoos, because they assumed that they’d breed with anything and chose the best genetic selection.
        Nope. The bunnies REFUSED. So they set up match-making services…hey, look, lotsa lil bunnies!

      4. Some personal motivation, here– it’s one of the standard things thrown at anybody who has “too many” kids, and I’m seven and a half months pregnant with #6……

        (Yes, people are pig ignorant enough to think that a human can reach numbers high enough to qualify as high numbers in this discussion; they also think that the “quality” of their offspring will destroy math, and allow below-replacement breeding to be a winning strategy.)

      5. Congrats! Hope all is well. Even if you bought the premises (which I don’t) people also don’t seem to get the idea of average – there are easily enough 0, 1, and 2 offspring women that the occasional 6 or 10 offspring woman doesn’t really move the needle. Not that there’s anything with moving the needle.

        We had 5 (+ 2 miscarriages) so we’re ‘bad’ too! Actually secretly hoping one of our kids goes hog wild and has 10 – which would be the average of the families my wife (11) and I (9) came from.

      6. *laughs* More than one of each, or having more than three, is pretty solidly in the “bad” area. (Aaaargh.)

        My sympathy on the lost ones.

  3. Well, turns out that other than the “have many offspring” part, the rabbit reproduction ‘strategy’ thumbnail is bunk.

    They do actually have a mate selection process, they ARE competitive, they DO put a lot of care into their offspring (relative to lifespan), and dealing with bonded pairs where one thinks you’re threatening the other is a huge portion of the “help, my bunny is being a pain!” web pages.
    Most of the problem is that they are small, short-lived prey animals that don’t mate for life, which screws up the observations. (How would YOU act with Godzilla standing RIGHT THERE?)

    I had rabbits when I was little, but it’s been so long I had to go and check, because as you point out those ARE all given as “how rabbits do it.”

  4. I’ve long been leery of evolutionary explanations for decision making scenarios. I tend to ascribe more to culture being the dividing line between groups of people with differing customs, taking into account that some people can be adopted into new cultures if they wholeheartedly accept it; usually I’ve found that (less so in the modern world, but still…) cultures have reasonable enough reasons for why they do a thing differently. At least, it seems reasonable given the values and premises they start with, even if the absurdity of the custom makes me question why they would accept that particular value/premise.

    But we always have to recognize that everything in an exercise like this is an abstract gloss applied to the decision making of billions of people, each doing things for his own reasons that match up exactly with the abstract only very rarely, so…

  5. If I’m remembering my statistics / evolutionary biology class correctly there were, and by now are, loads of population studies done for many many species. All one would need for the r/K hypothesis as as a predictable pattern for some species is one of those wossname meta studies. Evo-biology as an approach to tackling ecologies (say of microbes, my area back when dinosaurs ruled the earth) generates testable hypotheses.

    Where r/K really shines is as a parable.

    If people didn’t worship the Ideal of the Scientific (Like the French revolution goddess Reason, but retarded) and could do rudimentary philosophy, none of the above would be a problem.

    My biggest gripe with all of this, as,with IQ is that what’s being measured and described is a phenotype. It points back to the underlying genetics, yes, but conditions in utero, as a toddler and during the teen years (all times of active brain development) would presumably affect how the genotype is expressed. And that’s just the raw environment, it doesn’t address how people adapt to manage living in their environment e.g. culture.

  6. Figured out part of why the rabbits didn’t fit– mammals are by definition going to be on the high end of caring-for-offspring markers.

    Sea turtles, where they lay the eggs in a nest and that’s it, would be closer to the opposite end. And even then they do make protective nests….

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