January 17, 2017 2 Comments
This essay has been touted by some people on the right as being a great explanation for liberal (lefty, not pro-liberty) and conservative political positions.
The essay is no good. The essay starts by describing a biological theory called r/k selection theory, which are related to how animals evolve under different resource constraints. I will mostly take the biological descriptions as accurate, except where they are in conflict with basic biology. I will also wait until the end of the post to explain that all biological explanations of behaviour differences between people are crap. The explanation is coming but I want to explain why I consider this specific analogy bad.
If there are lots of resources, then an animal will tend to breed a lot and take less care of its young. For example, rabbits in a field with grass might never be able to eat all the grass in the field. As such, they can make lots of offspring and if some get picked off it’s not a big deal for the rabbit’s genes. So the species in this environment of plenty will tend not to be interested in fighting or contending for resources. These animals will also be willing to sleep around because this results in more copies of their genes. This is called the r selection strategy.
The author of the essay then writes:
Since group competition will not arise in the r-selected environment, r-type organisms will not exhibit loyalty to fellow members of their species, or a drive to sacrifice on their behalf.
This is dumb.
First, no animal will sacrifice itself for a random member of its species. At most the animal will sacrifice itself for relatives who have some of the same genes. Genes are the unit of selection because they can be copied. A species cannot be copied and so is not the unit of selection. This is basic biology. The author could have worked out this was a dumb thing to say by reading “The Selfish Gene”.
Second, the author sees sacrifice as positive. Humans can create explanatory knowledge. Sacrificing yourself gets in the way of you developing better knowledge that could improve your life and the lives of others: it is a bad idea. The death of some random rabbit isn’t a big deal because the rabbit can’t create explanatory knowledge. All of the knowledge it has is instantiated in its genes. So if a copy of those genes is destroyed to preserve five copies in other animals this is a gain for the genes not a loss.
Here in the r-strategy, we see the origins of the Liberal’s tendencies towards conflict avoidance, from oppositions to free-market capitalism, to pacifism, to demands that all citizens disarm so as to avoid any chance of conflict and competition.
This is also dumb. Liberals are in favour of the government increasing taxes. They are are in favour of escalating conflict with productive people. And liberals want citizens disarmed partly to make it easy for the government to prey on them. So liberals are in favour of conflict.
Another strategy emerges if a species is in an environment where resources are very scarce. The animals are in favour of being willing to fight for resources. They are ranked by their ability to compete. And such animals will tend not to sleep around as much because they only have a limited number of chances to copy their genes and have to try to weed out bad genes in advance of having offspring. An example of this might be lions. Lions have to hunt for food. So the strategy for lion genes to get themselves copied is to rank other holders of lion genes according to their ability to hunt. And a lion may be more willing to die to preserve copies of its genes in its offspring or other relatives because dying would free up resources. This is called k selection.
The conservatives are allegedly k selected, which explains their habits like faithfulness to spouses and competing for resources instead of begging the government for stuff. This analogy also fails. Conservatives want to reduce taxes, which reduces violence used by government and the government’s ability to use violence.
Also conservatives are taking the side of makers: people who make new stuff. This position requires thinking that we have not reached the limits of what resources are available and so we can experiment with new ideas to make progress. This contradicts the premise of this r/k selection stuff. This is the most serious defect of the r\k selection theory, it denies the possibility of an open-ended stream of knowledge and resource creation. The reason to take the side of the makers is you want new and better stuff and ideas. It is not because you want to scrape by in a world where you have to murder other people to survive. This r\k selection political stuff is evil shit.
The real reason for parents to take responsibility for their children is that children can create an open-ended stream of benefits. Children and the adults they grow into can create new explanatory knowledge including knowledge about how to do stuff better. But to create knowledge people need to have good ideas about critical discussion, how to test ideas, how best to try them out and that sort of thing. To convey such ideas to their children, parents have to be willing to spend a lot of time and resources on their children rather than spending lots of time on sex. As such, responsible parents don’t spend a lot of time sleeping around. Since conservatives favour personal responsibility, they will tend to sleep around less.
All biological explanations of differences of ideas and behaviour among humans are garbage, including the r\k theory. Humans create knowledge through cultural evolution: evolution among memes. Some memes get selected, others do not. The selection time for a meme is of the order of seconds, the selection time for a gene is of the order of a decade. In addition, memes include explanatory knowledge about how stuff works and why it works that way, unlike genes. For both of those reasons, we should expect behaviour differences between people to be a result of different ideas, not different genes.