r/K Selection Theory, or Why Thanksgiving is Tense* (for some people)

“But thanks to recent advances in stem cell research and the fine work of Doctors Krinski and Altschuler, Clevon should regain full reproductive function.” – Idiocracy


This is a picture from when The Boy and I took a ride into Denali.  You can read about that adventure here (LINK).  Spoiler!  Not killed by vampires.

Winter is coming.  And it all has to do with biology . . .

I didn’t like high school biology.  Not that I didn’t have good teachers, I had great teachers.  They were committed and passionate about biology.  I love science – don’t get me wrong, but biology seemed so . . . pointless.  It was a lot of learning the proper names for things (stamen and pistil are two vaguely naughty flower parts that I all I recall, but couldn’t distinguish) and learning how a flower worked was so much less interesting than the fusion reactor that powers our solar system (Fun Fact:  If you collected all of the solar energy falling on California every day, it would be very dark there!).  And my lab partners (two cute cheerleaders who smelled vaguely of musk) almost gleefully did the frog dissection.  There were times I think that they wished they had a dead frog, but . . .

As I’ve gotten older, I realize that there are interesting aspects to almost any subject, some of which I spend hours, weeks or even months studying until I’ve learned what I want to know.  When I was younger, my biology interests mainly involved attempts at field experimentation with cheerleaders.  Decades later biology came back up in my intellectual wanderings in settings that didn’t involve double features at the drive in.

This time my study of the convergence of biology and economics explained to me why half of the US population can’t talk to the other half – and can’t even understand the other half.

It starts with a wolf.

There is a bleak, windswept plane in Alaska.  Off in the distance, the wolf pack follows a caribou herd, as it has for the better part of a week.  The pack acts as one.  A lone wolf in the north is a dead one.

The females – smaller, quicker – herd the caribou on the sides, keeping the herd moving to the west, away from the cover of the trees.  The older males push through the center, finally selecting the small group of caribou that they will take and use their superior muscle to attack.  The young wolves and pups follow along, sometimes play-fighting among each other, but more often imitating the adults.  The play will turn to hunting as they watch and learn. 

As the caribou comes down, the males feed first.  Eventually the pups feed.  It’s been a week, and they’re hungry.  The alpha male and alpha female of this pack have been mated for life, and will stay mated until the male dies in three years from an infection due to a broken tooth, but today they have food. 

A significant amount of effort is put into raising the pups, who, when they get older will split off and join other packs.

Wolves follows what a biologist calls “K” selection.

Based on their environment, wolves face a significant pressure for resources every day.  They live in environments at the sheer edge of habitability, and have to cooperate to fight those environments daily in order to survive.  Their young, have significant parental involvement and training.  Due to the scarcity inherent in the environment they must work together to live.  They only have a few offspring, but they invest heavily in them.  And a mother wolf will fight to the death to save a pup – the pack works together, and is loyal to individual members.

Rabbits follow “r” selection.  (The “K” and the “r” originate as variables in an equation that you’ll never use, but here’s the link (LINK) if you want to stare at it.)

It’s the opposite of K selection in many ways.  r selection depends upon having significant amounts of resources available.  These resources make life easy, so strategies change.

Part of winning biologically in a resource-rich revolves around having the most number of offspring.  So, have as many as you want, as many as you can so your genes spread far and wide.  Since resources are abundant, mating for life is silly.  Mate with . . . whoever.  Whenever.  However.  As long as you have babies.  Since a rabbit has lots of babies, each gets little attention, and the idea of a rabbit protecting offspring is unknown – rabbits run away, hoping you’ll eat their offspring as long as you don’t get them.

Resources are plentiful, so there’s no real reason to work together strongly.  Not that the rabbits won’t hang together, it’s just that there’s no rabbit that will ever inconvenience themselves to help another rabbit.

Biologically, the rabbits avoid competition for resources – there’s no need.  Whereas the wolves focus on mating for life, promiscuity is required for rabbits.  And rabbits are single parents.  Rabbits are single parents who come to early sexual maturity and have children young.  And they will sell out other rabbits to save themselves.

Wolves have to take part in competition, delay sex and are (mainly) monogamous in the wild.  They have dual parents for raising their pups, longer time to sexual maturity and independence, and will fight, to the death if need be, for each other.

We see echoes of r/K selection in our society today.  When the economy tanks?  Divorce rate plummets.

As social spending goes up?  Sexual promiscuity in youth goes up.  Single parenthood increases.

The numbers of children born to unwed mothers goes from 3.8% in 1940 (before welfare) to 5.3% in 1960 to over 40% by 2008.  The numbers stayed small as long as resources were limited, but once resources were free?  Boom, many women become r-selected rabbits, which is paralleled only with the behaviors seen at the beginning of the decay of empires (which I cover better than anyone else, ever, at this link (LINK)).

But a core of society remain K selected, which was the norm prior to 1960 and the mass rollout of welfare.  So, blue state/red state?  Republican/Democrat?  Liberal/Conservative?

Or r/K?

That’s where we find ourselves today – much of our political division now having root in differing biological strategies.  When the strategy is rooted so deeply, it becomes a point of self, not something abstract.  When someone attacks an idea that supports that strategy, it’s often viewed as a personal attack, rather than a discussion.  Ever see a political discussion go from zero to yelling in under thirty seconds?  Chances are, someone attacked one of the deeply seated r/K differences.

Hot button topics like this?  Anti-nuke movement.  Anti-illegal immigrant movement.  Abortion.  I could keep going, but I think you could do it from here.

And it’s fairly insidious – we rarely examine our individual biological imperatives – more often we end up just following unexamined urges and then rationalizing them to prove that we’re smart, not animals.  We think we’re making choices, but we’re not.  I imagine an unwed mother with eight children cannot even fathom, may even look down upon, the parents with 1.2 children and a perfect lawn.  It’s a division that’s not rich/poor, but deeper.

What happens when the resources dry up, when the fields full of rabbity grass give way to the cold steppes of wolfen tundra?  Society changes – the ability to use surplus goods for r-selected people goes away.  Societal attitudes change, too.

Watch conflicts around the world and think about . . . how many of them are simply due to a difference in r/K reproduction strategy?  These conflicts inevitably move a society from abundance to scarcity.

The rabbits rule the spring, the wolves the winter.

“Winter is coming,” wrote George R. R. Martin over 20 years ago.  And I have to wait until 2019 to see the end of Game of Thrones.

I think I’m triggered.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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