The r/K view on politics takes very roughly the form that there is an underlying reason why conservatives and liberals take the positions that they do, and that the situation is more than analogous to r/K theories in the study of selective pressures organisms operate under. In broad strokes, liberals are r-strategists who shun competition, in-group identification, and heavy investment in offspring, while conservatives are K-strategists who relish competition, in-group identification, and heavy investment in offspring. To a logical analysis, conservatives and liberals do not have consistent positions; but, when viewed from the lens of selective pressures the differences more clearly resolve.
It’s not a bad theory and even though I consider myself center-left in most ways I didn’t particularly take offense at the implications of the theory. What concerns me instead is that it represents some kind of totalizing system.
I don’t think there’s any kind of official definition for a totalizing system but I know you’ve encountered them before in some guise or another. A totalizing system would be a framework in which everything is accounted for—I avoid the word “explained.” For instance, most religions are totalizing systems: one can always account for unknown or unexplained phenomena with “god did it” or “god works in mysterious ways” or somesuch. It spackles over everything and you don’t see any details. Modern feminism is certainly another such beast, able to chalk everything up to any number of underdefined ills like “patriarchy,” “sexism,” or “privilege.” When a person does something socially wrong in reality, we have some pretty specific crimes we name and we have some very specific evidence that is (ostensibly) given. Law is not a totalizing system. We move from the general to the specific in law. Totalizing systems always move in the other direction, brushing aside detail in faux revelation.
1. r/K is totalizing
As far as the theory applied to selective pressures goes, it is not really a totalizing system. Indeed much of the work on it has been trying to find the detail in the broad strokes r/K otherwise makes. When looked at in detail view it is harder to say whether such-and-such a trait is r-selective or K-selective. r/K isn’t meant to explain everything.
The author of “The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics: How Conservatism and Liberalism Evolved Within Humans” is not directly trying to explain everything, either. So it seems at first that the book isn’t trying to present a totalizing system. But let’s ask a question: given that the author specifically and repeatedly mentions that conservative/K types emphasize heavy investment in children and liberal/r types do not, is a high literacy rate for a country a conservative goal or a liberal goal? It seems at first glance that one can argue any way one wants. But then I remember that the conservative/K also promote in-group, which could be signaled by patriotism and therefore that national education is a conservative goal—right? Unless it is sexual education?
The author seems to have already defined what liberals and conservatives do (again, in broad strokes) and then decides that these typify r/K dynamics by accounting for them in those terms. Though I have not finished the book I have already seen that in this germ is the potential for a dastardly totalizing system not unlike feminism. The author may maintain his or her responsibility in not trying to look to deep where the broad strokes look like so much line noise, but of the two youtube videos I’ve seen discuss the matter definitely stray towards the “account for everything but explain nothing” side of the fence.
For instance, a somewhat common complaint is that liberals in social media engage in somewhat hilarious antics to realize hugboxes, banning or unfriending those who might espouse something contrary to their delicate sensibilities. It’s pretty unambiguous that this is in-group behavior, quite strong in-group behavior in fact, so this would give you the thought that social media liberals are K-strategists; but, their insistence on things like unchecked immigration and anti-capitalist remarks would suggest on the other hand that they’re really r-strategists. So now I have the urge to revisit the in-group analysis to recast it in such a way that, oh, really it is an r-strategy and not K after all, just to stay consistent—you see, they’re not trying to exhibit in-group preference they’re trying to undermine competitive speech. And when you see another article about college students wishing to alter the First Amendment to the US Constitution you might say, “Ah, see, I was right after all, they are r-strategists.”
Can this shift always be done? Is r/K a robust enough paradigm to allow a conservative to always see how their political opponents are rabbits and not wolves? Such a trick was leveraged to some great effect by Ayn Rand, who could consistently turn self-interested behavior into “selfish” behavior so that she could continue to maintain that “selfishness is good” even when the argument bordered on or totally crossed over into post-hoc rationalization.
2. r/K is not totalizing, it actually explains some things
The fact that some naive readers like myself could make such statements in order to confirm biases is not indicative of a problem with the r/K view on politics but might just indicate a personal problem. I mean, anyone can make stupid arguments, make our political opponents seem brash and unreasonable, and so on, without really amounting to a significant comment on the underlying principles or ideologies.
One interesting bit that came out of reading this book so far is how it does actually explain why conservatives or liberals hold views that seem logically contradictory. For instance, one common critique of the right by the left is that the “pro-life” crowd is also “pro-death penalty.” This is on many levels logically inconsistent but it is easily explained by a K-strategy which rewards in-group sacrifice and, importantly, punishes violators. The r-strategist finds punishing violators to be distasteful in general, and the death penalty specifically to be downright immoral. Here’s another meme, that liberals want to take away guns from law-abiding citizens but doesn’t want to severely punish criminals who have them. This seems totally ridiculous but the r-strategist benefits greatly when K-strategists fight among themselves, so the lowly criminal taking down a successful person a notch undermines K-strategists quite well; better for the rabbits when the wolf packs are fighting. And since r-strategists find borders ridiculous, it’s easy to see that they’re happy to want to take guns away from law-abiding citizens (“you can’t use private small arms to beat the government anyway”) and give them to rebels in another country (“their fight against an oppressive government is something we need to support”). Taken as some kind of set of logical propositions these political rhetorics are hard to understand; but, viewed in the light of r/K strategies it does seem to suddenly make sense as to why the two tribes hold the views that they do. So long as we don’t try too hard to paint individuals into corners, in broad strokes the r/K view on politics seems to be more than a superficial accounting but instead starts to look like a plausible explanation.
3. Some predictions
What would an r/K theory of politics predict about societies? It would predict that in successful societies, young persons would tend to be liberal. First because liberals would reproduce more (they lack sexual mores) and second because there are the resources to support it (favoring r-strategists in general); but, on the contrary, in impoverished societies, only the elite would bother with liberalism, and the poorer members of the population would tend toward conservativism since they don’t have access to the resources to reproduce so much and are forced into K-strategies to survive. In a society with poverty and a liberal elite, would you expect to find the following scenario: K-strategists in poverty “vote against their own interests” by desiring an end to welfare they receive?—A minority to be sure, since the existence of broad, dependable welfare would already favor the r-strategists in general, but we’d expect both r and K strategists to maintain populations regardless of which was the socially dominant strategy (scarce resources may be followed by bounty, and vice versa).
If there were a genetic component to r/K strategies then we’d expect there to be some level of heritability of political opinion. If you’re under 30 and conservative you have no heart, but over 30 and liberal you have no brain? Is that how it goes? Well, I don’t know that those brush strokes are broad enough; how about, instead, that without demographic shifts, red states stay red and blue states stay blue? Unless we’re willing to assert widespread political brainwashing (I’m not) then the null hypothesis should be that the distribution of political opinions is random, but any election result viewed by county over the years definitely shows that this is nowhere near the case. Is this a confirmation of the theory?
If there is both a social component and a genetic component, what would the nation’s population look like in times of resource strain when a) resources are actually unavailable and b) when resources are available but have very unequal distribution? Does your answer to this question correspond well to historical periods over recorded history? Suppose a very conservative K-strategist-dominated society suddenly were drastically reduced in numbers by a plague or indiscriminate bombing…
4. Some questions
Why are cities and universities hotbeds of liberalism? I have some thoughts on the cities question, but can’t resolve the universities question within this framework. Both liberals and conservatives favor heavy investment in children but they view what is meant by “investment” very differently—is this an area where we risk totalizing r/K or is there an obvious resolution to the question in light of their respective investment strategies? (The book seems too quick to make offhanded remarks on this particular topic, viewing a lack of investment as synonymous with single parenting, but it doesn’t strike me as an illuminating measure at all, rather a convenient one to align with current memes on liberalism and conservativism.) Is there likely to be a predominant strategy in the sexes? For instance, women are K-strategists because of the amount of investment they will have to make during childbirth; or, women are r-strategists because they are physically weaker than males and can’t compete in violence? Or something else that indicates no significant difference relative to gender-normalized society as a whole?
The question that plagues me the most: will conservatives fall in love with this theory so much and make it so totalizing that they finally stop resisting “evolutionists”?