Weird Internet Ideas: r/K and the far right

The transition from actual science to pseudoscience can be interesting to watch and there is nothing the alt-right likes to mangle quite so much as biology. This post is doing double duty – it covers some of Chapter 7 of my ongoing efforts to read Vox Day so you don’t have to but I’m framing this as a wider discussion of a piece of far-right nonsense.

You’ll hear mention of r/K selection theory from the likes of Stefan Molyneaux and Vox Day but their source seems to be a blogger who calls themselves “The Anonymous Conservative” https://www.anonymousconservative.com/blog/the-theory/rk-selection-theory/

Science time

But let us take a couple of steps back before stepping into the rabbit hole. There is a legitimate (if somewhat dated and heavily critiqued) model for evolutionary ecology called r/K selection theory. It relates to a more general mathematical model of population dynamics:

dN/dt = rN(1- N/K)

Here N is the population, dN/dt is the rate of change of the population, r is the maximum growth rate and K is the carrying capacity of the local environment. Note that equation is not itself the r/K theory but is more generally applicable.

The theory comes from naming two evolutionary ‘strategies’ based on the two terms in the equations.

r-selection: is when a species has an emphasis on high growth rates – have lots of offspring many of which won’t survive BUT if times are good the population can expand quickly.

K-selection: is when a species stays at close to the carrying capacity with less emphasis on growth rates. This involves having fewer offspring but with a greater chance of survival and also greater longevity.

Even a moments thought should be enough to see that this is not a simple dichotomy. Sea turtles follow both strategies in different ways for example: lots of young with little investment in upbringing but adults have long longevity. Mammals in general all have elements of K-selection by definition (providing milk for their younger is a greater investment in the upbringing of young i.e. more K than r) but some mammals are more r than K than others.

You can read about it here at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R/K_selection_theory

That wasn’t nuts enough, lets make it more nuts

You can’t get from a legitimate (although imperfect) ecological hypothesis to the likes of Stefan Molyneaux in one step. Things don’t get that nutty that quickly. The missing link is one of those rightwing academics who managed to straddle the space between respectability and obnoxious racial theory. Ideally that space should be unstraddlable but sadly it isn’t. Enter J Phillipe Rushton –  Rushton was one of several ‘usual suspects’ who followed an academic career which provided cover for a range of dangerously racist theories. In later life (he died in 2012) he was head of the Pioneer Fund – a group that the Southern Law Poverty Center describes as “White Nationalist” and:

‘Started in 1937 by textile magnate Wickliffe Draper, the Pioneer Fund’s original mandate was to pursue “race betterment” by promoting the genetic stock of those “deemed to be descended predominantly from white persons who settled in the original thirteen states prior to the adoption of the Constitution.”‘

The Pioneer Fund is basically what funds a lot of IQ wingnuttery that I’ve discussed before. That nonsensical global IQ stuff? That is primarily from one researcher, Richard Lynn, who is funded by…The Pioneer Fund.

Rushton (SLPC profile here https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/jean-philippe-rushton ) had all sorts of theories – one that doesn’t seem to be popular with the current mens-right/krypto-fascsist axis of shitbags is that IQ is inversely related to size of genitals. The thrust of these theories was usually around pushing eugenics, segregation and to provide cover and legitimacy for more crude and overt White Nationalism.

In 1984 Rushton latched onto r/K theory as a new way of creating an intellectual cover for racial theories. Rushton claimed that East Asians were not only, on average, smarter than other ‘races’ but also showed more sexual restraint and slower maturation than Europeans and even more so than Africans. From this he claimed that r/K theory could explain the difference.

This is obvious nonsense and a misapplication of the theory but never mind that for the moment. The point here was not so much to create a scientific hypothesis that could be used to model differences in IQ across large groupings of people but rather to create pseudo-intellectual cover. A post-hoc rationalisation of more crude racism. This way “r/K theory” enters into the discourse of the far right.

Biologists pointed out that Rushton was wrong on multiple levels. In particular that communities of people have lots of reproductive strategies available to them and the ones people adopt are determined by economic and environmental conditions, technology (e.g. birth control), social support and changing social attitudes. It isn’t a case of biologically determined groups of r-people and K-people. Humans are already very much at one end of the r/K spectrum (long life spans compared to other mammals and heavy investment in child rearing) – individual variations in family size can occur in a couple of generations, far, far, far too short a time to acts as some kind of sorting-hat for humanity.

Now with extra nuts

So from legitimate biology we go to pseudo-academia and then from there to the modern alt-right. The difference is that while Rushton was trying to craft a specific piece of plausible nonsense to provide cover for white nationalists, the modern Alt-Right will apply biological determinism to ANYTHING even when it makes ZERO sense.

Here is that Anonymous Conservative explaining his r/K theory but this time about Liberals:

“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. Even the newer tendencies to support the ”everyone gets a trophy” movement are outgrowths of this competition-averse urge, and desire for free resource availability. Similarly, Liberals are supportive of promiscuity, supportive of efforts to expose children to ever earlier sexual education, and, as the debate over Murphy Brown showed, Liberals are supportive of low-investment, single parenting. “

I mean, in many ways that is a bigger affront to science and reasoning than Rushton’s but yet somehow less offensive. At this point he is seeing r/K as not just a (false) distinction between broad historical/geographical groupings of humanity but as a way of sub-dividing intermixed groups of people. They are literally trying to use an ecological, species-based biological model to explain differences in individual psychology.

Vox Day is more circumspect (Chapter 7 of his latest over priced pamphlet). For starters, while he often quotes and promotes Anonymous Conservatives post-Rushton r/K theory, it isn’t Vox’s own theory of either human psychology (i.e. his even more nonsensical Alpha/Beta/Gamma schtick) or his racial theory. However, he keeps returning to it as a kind of intellectual cover. In his pose as a great thinker he needs to show that he is informed by many ideas – including ones he is not convinced by but which are part of the mix. To this end r/K provides that kind of extra pseudo-intellectual bullshit.

But why this piece of bullshit? Well it all comes down to the rabbits.

Wabbits, Wolves and Wingnuts

Sooner or later, when explaining the biology background of r/K, Vox or Molyneaux or whoever will need to give an example. One re-occurring example explains a lot of the attraction of r/K to the right. Rabbits and wolves. Not actual rabbits or actual wolves but rather a mental picture these guys have of rabbits and wolves.

Now in case you haven’t spotted it yet, the rabbits are meant to be the r-selected (because rabbits do breed quickly) and wolves the K-selected (because they don’t). That both species have elements of both is ignored. That rabbits are complex social creatures is ignored. That wolves are cute and fluffy is ignored. This NOT about the complex nature of either wolves or rabbits.

No.

This about imaginary wolves being scary bad-ass predators and imaginary rabbits being cowardly prey. For these alt-right commentators THEY are the noble and fierce wolves – apex predators, completely bad-ass etc etc etc, you get the picture. Yet, they keep finding themselves outnumbered by people they JUST KNOW are inferior in every way. AHA! Well this three-or-four time mangled biological concept explains it all for them. Of course they, the noble and scary wolves, are outnumbered by the contemptible rabbits! There always more rabbits than wolves. In the their view of the proper scheme of things the wolves should be lording it over the rabbits (they may be getting confused with The Lion King or something at this point) but things are out of whack and the rabbits are busy organizing diversity workshops on the prairie and making the wolves acknowledge their inherit privilege.

I’ll grant that there is no neat way of separating a metaphor from an analogy from a model from a functional scientific theory (I mean, aside from logic and evidence) but we’ve gone from one end to the other and maybe sailed past metaphor, past the pathetic fallacy and landed in fable.

But what a wonderful fable it is! Who are the chief fears of the Alt-Right? Immigrants, racial-minorities, the poor, feminists and the left/liberals. Each one can then be compared to rabbits. Obviously not consistently. Liberals as a grouping don’t particularly have high birth rates, immigrant communities tend to highly value education as a means of social advancement and so on and so on. To be honest debunking this in detail would give it more legitimacy than it can carry. Nor do they apply the converse – the Christian right and also White Nationalists (I’ll let others quibble over the difference there) promote high birth rates and are skeptical about education. But, as I mentioned earlier, we are really in the world of fable at this point rather than a place in which logical consistency is prized. The best you might get is thematic consistency.

Yes, this is all nonsense

So we have an out-of-favour (but legitimate) scientific model, which was hijacked by a pseudo-academic white nationalist to legitimise racial theories, which was picked up as a biologically determinist theory of everything by part of the alt-right and which is then used as a kind ‘here is a theory you might like kids’ by the likes of Vox Day.

No, wolves aren’t like that, it doesn’t give an insight into psychology, humans don’t work that way, and even a basic examination of how birth rates have changed over the past two hundred years in Western societies would show that we don’t split in r and K groups. Compare wealthy British aristocrats in 19th century with their descendants in the late 20th/early 21st century if you want a dangerously homogeneous gene pool to examine.

Best antidote? Read Watership Down – it isn’t anymore scientific than the alt-right nonsense above but it is better written and knows what it is and the rabbits are bad-ass.

 

 


14 thoughts on “Weird Internet Ideas: r/K and the far right

  1. Only people who have never been children’s primary caregivers could describe single parenting as “low investment.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There is a point where it just becomes random word association – anything in their catalogue of liberal stereotypes must somehow be “r” even if it was the exact opposite of it.

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    1. A couple of other points

      Population sizes don’t necessarily go hand in hand with position on the r/K spectrum. Humans are just about the most K of all mammals (with the possible exception of some whales) and yet (at the present time) have far the largest population of any mammal species.

      “Liberal” support of sex education is in pursuit of a more K strategy – the intent is to reduce teenage pregnancy (delay reproduction until more resources can be applied) and to protect children from predators following a more r strategy.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “yet (at the present time) have far the largest population of any mammal species.”

        Not at all true. I give you Rattus norvegicus and Mus musculus. There may be as many as 100 million rats in NYC alone, according to some estimates. But likely true for **large** mammal species.

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      2. Oops. I was thinking about xkcd’s biomass infographic and forgot to correct for body mass. It turns out that chickens do outnumber us (but, of course they’re not mammals). Numbers for rats and mice are uncertain, but seem to be of the same order of magnitude as us. We might be the most numerous mammal, but “by far” is definitely wrong.

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      3. I’ve also found estimates as high as 10 billion for bats…. but that one probably includes a large # of species. I think it’s safest to say rats first, then maybe mice, then humans.

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  2. Weren’t the right supposed to outbreed all of us? So shouldn’t they be r and the left K?

    But then, this whole thing makes zero sense except for the fact that Vox Day apparently dislikes rabbits and likes using the word as an insult.

    Honestly, what have rabbits ever done to Vox Day?

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