A book review
I bought this book based on the rave review of Bill Whittle and the exhaustive presentations of Stefan Molyneux. Having listened to four hours of talk about it, by the time I received the book I had a pretty solid understanding of the idea, the theory and the scientific evidence behind it.
The explanatory power of the theory is phenomenal. I could also call it intuitive. The hopeless division and the increasing polarization of political views clearly indicate that the reasons behind the division must be, at least to some extent, biological. I was actually looking for theories and research pointing in this direction. My favourite book on the subject, Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict Of Visions” does a painstakingly non-partisan job describing and analyzing the origins of political ideologies, but it does not try to answer the question why people would choose one over the other. As if the question was just a matter of personal preference and temperament. Still, the ‘visions’ as described by Sowell align perfectly with r/K selection theory. The unconstrained vision of unlimited resources and unlimited human malleability of the ‘r’ strategy contrasted with the constrained vision of limitations represented by the ‘K’ strategy. I also had my own undeveloped theories of individualism versus mob psychology; pack versus herd mentality and reason versus emotion based decision making. Still, just like Sowell’s, my own ideas were only describing the problem, not explaining it. I grew increasingly convinced that the answer must be biological. Apparently, it is.
I approached this book with high expectations, hoping to find an answer to my burning questions. To a large extent I did, but like any sudden expansion of understanding, it left me with more questions than I had before reading it. Let me lay out the theory first so that I can relate my questions to it.
r/K selection strategy
The theory of r/K selection is not new and not very complicated. It describes two possible strategies to maximize evolutionary (genetic) success. ‘r’ strategy focuses on quantity, ‘K’ on quality and respectively respond to abundant or limited resource availability. ‘r’ is best exemplified by small rodent species and herd animals (typically prey animals), while ‘K’ strategy is best illustrated by pack animals (usually predators). There are, of course, exemptions and variations, but what is most important for the theory of this particular book is that in many cases, the two strategies can coexist within the same species. Within each species where both strategies exist, there is a constant competition between the two.
One example used by the book to illustrate this is the mating strategy of the giant cuttlefish, which is by no means unique.
The primary characteristics of the two strategies are:
|‘r’ selective strategy (best example: rabbits)||‘K’ selective strategy (best example: Wolfs)|
|Competition and stress avoidance
Promiscuity, early onset sexual activity
Low parental investment in offsprings
Weak attachment to group, no loyalty
No regard for rules, propensity for cheating
Monogamy, late start sexuality
High parental investment in offsprings
In-group loyalty – out-group hostility
High regard for rules and social order
From a genetic perspective, the ‘r’ strategists want nature to do the evolutionary selection by providing numbers for genetic mutations and selection through predation while the ‘K’ strategists wish to take an active role in it by producing the highest quality offsprings for a managed natural environment.
The most fascinating part of the book is the examination of the biological evidence, an area with lots of ongoing research and new discoveries, especially in the rapidly evolving field of brain research. Conservatives espouse a ‘K’ strategy and tend to have better developed Amygdala then liberals who are typical ‘r’ strategists with a more active Anterior Cingulate Cortex. The point, of course, is to show that our political stance is influenced by a lot more than logic and morality, more even than our underlying visions; that it is to a large extent determined by our biological makeup. Within primates and humans, the strategy evolved as a response to changing environmental and social conditions. Naturally, it entered into culture and ideology.
I said that the theory is not new. What is new, is its application to political ideologies, showing that our ideologies are just the expression of our biological impetus to follow one of the possible strategies. The book spends much effort illustrating how the two strategies manifest themselves in history and in today’s political battlefield.
While this is a truly remarkable and eminently important book with a phenomenal explanatory power, I cannot rate it higher then 3 as it suffers from a very serious shortcoming that many self-published book do: the lack of proper editing.
Let me offer an example from page 229:
“Liberals do not believe that their theft is altruistic (despite their own lack of altruistic charity), or that their hiding behind government is intellectual (instead of cowardly) because they want to. They believe it because they have to.”
Now consider this version:
“Liberals believe that their theft is altruistic (despite their own lack of altruistic charity), and that their hiding behind government is intellectual (instead of cowardly) NOT because they want to, but because they have to.”
Putting the negation in the beginning of the sentence makes it confusing as it contradicts everything we were told thus far. It also makes the two statements (and their contradictory evidence) self contradicting. It gave me the urge to go back to the beginning of the sentence before I got to the end that clarifies it. Putting the negation to the end also helps emphasizing the message that liberals consider their theft altruistic and their cowardliness intellectual.
Unfortunately, the book has a choke load of this type of mistakes. Formulating complex ideas without considering their readability. The power of this book could have been seriously enhanced with a little editing of the kind I tried to illustrate above. As it is, the weaknesses of this book could be used against the theory itself.
Sowell finishes “A Conflict Of Visions” expressing his beliefs (maybe just hopes) that by identifying the visions and their origins, the conversation can move to a more rational level.
“The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics” is a bit more partisan making the overall argument that due to the underlying biological reality expecting rational debates may be quite unrealistic and urges the ‘right’ side to fight for the only strategy that can save human civilisation.
Using evolutionary psychology to explain political ideologies is a great idea that can answer many puzzling questions, shine the light on attitudes and motivations and resolve apparent contradictions. But there is a lot to be done still.
In my next post I will outline a number of these questions and contradictions.
In the meantime, you should check the following references:
Cultural r-k Selection – from the Journal of Memetics
From the Quantity to Quality of life – a paper from the Principia Cybernetica web
Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans
Bill Whittle’s review of the book (41 minutes): r-K Theory – Almost all you ever needed to know about Liberals and Conservatives. – YouTube
Four presentations of Stefan Molyneux:
(Stefan is a libertarian popularizer, making libertarian ideas digestible for his sizable audience)
The Truth About Gene Wars- r-K Selection Theory [P1] – YouTube (56m)
The Genetics of Politics – Liberals vs. Conservatives – Gene Wars [P2] – YouTube (72 minutes)
Gene Wars- r-K Selection Theory – CLASSIFIED MATERIAL [P3] – YouTube (79 minutes)
Mouse Utopian Experiments – r-K Selection Theory – YouTube (21 minutes)
Some more research papers (most are referenced in the above sources)
Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults
Red brain, blue brain- evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans. – PubMed – NCBI
Emotion regulation as the foundation of political attitudes- does reappraisal decrease support for conservative policies- – PubMed – NCBI
Amygdala Volume and Social Network Size in Humans
Friendships Moderate an Association Between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political Ideology
Moral values are associated with individual differences in regional brain volume. – PubMed – NCBI
The Ancestral Logic of Politics
And a Wikipedia page with many further references:
Biology and political orientation – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The rest you will have to google 🙂 …….