Home / HBD / The Rabbit, the Libertarian, and the Wolf: The Truth about r/K Selection Theory

The Rabbit, the Libertarian, and the Wolf: The Truth about r/K Selection Theory


Sometimes a theory or model makes its way from one discipline to another. In some cases the “transplant” is successful, like the application of abstract algebra to DNA. Sometimes it is not successful, like the application of social evolution to biological evolution that gave us Lamarckism. Lately there has been an attempt to apply the evolutionary biological notion called “r/K Selection Theory” to political psychology, in an attempt to understand how and why people differ in political ideology. The conclusion of this monograph is that r/K selection can be used in that manner, but it is very susceptible to bias – so much so that most models circulating on the web are grossly flawed. We suggest an expanded less biased model, one which attempts to explain not only “liberal” and “conservative” mindsets like other models, but also explains the libertarian mindset.

There are two basic reproductive strategies according to the r/K Selection Theory.* r is the reproductive strategy used by populations with high mortality and abundant resources. The strategy is basically to reproduce as quickly as possible, with quantity over quality of offspring, and little or no parental support. Think small “r” for “rabbit.” It is the most common strategy for rabbits and other prey animals, with a lot of grass to forage but little or no defense against predators. The small “r” actually stands for “rate of reproduction.”

K is the reproductive strategy used when there is competition for limited resources among members. The strategy is basically to delay reproduction, select mates carefully, and monogamy, with quality over quantity for offspring, e.g. long maturation of offspring and delayed sexual activity. The “K” stands for “carrying capacity.” (Which starts with a K in German. For the biologists: This is based on the Verhulst equation: dN = r.N(1− N). But you knew that.)

Here are general characteristics of each strategy.

Table 1

r Strategy K Strategy
abundant resources limited resources
anti-competition pro-competition
many offspring – quantity over quality few offspring – quality over quantity
many mates monogamy
lower child-rearing investment high child rearing investment
little/no in-group loyalty in-group loyalty
preference for novelty or risk-taking risk averse

Keeping in mind that the original theory was about birds and cuttlefish, we can nevertheless try to ascribe human-like psychological attributes to these strategies. We should, however, be aware that we are anthropomorphizing when we do so, which exposes us to bias and error. Thus, we must be very careful about doing this!

So far the r/K model is not controversial, except perhaps in anthropomorphizing from birds. But what if we superimpose human political notions onto our r/K theory?

Liberal and Conservative traits:

Table 2

Liberal Conservative
anti-competitive; pro equality of outcome pro-competitive; anti equality of outcome
pacifism; appeasement and negotiation aggression; war in response to threat
favor policies that assist promiscuity favor policies that assist families
favor a more sexually liberated society favor puritanism, abstinence, monogamy
safety/security over freedom freedom over guarantees of security
freer, less restrictive social norms conformance to behavioral norms

Despite the negative connotation of “promiscuity” and (perhaps) using “freedom” in its individual rights sense, it seems pretty objective and reasonable. Also, it explains (more or less) some liberal and conservative policy positions.

Table 3

Liberal Conservative
stricter restrictions on firearms favor firearms ownership
appeasement and negotiation for conflict war in response to threat
higher taxes and bigger govt. programs lower taxes and market mechanisms
favor a more sexually liberated society sexually restricted; abstinence; monogamy

To illustrate how easy it is to warp this model into partisan propaganda, let’s look at the “neanderthal conservative” interpretation of the same table, and then a “woolly-headed liberal” interpretation. In this model, the liberals are the rabbits (r) and the conservatives are the wolves (K).

The conservative interpretation:

Table 4

Damnfool Liberal r’s favor … We Good Conservative K’s favor …
anti-competitive; welfare dependency pro-competition within defined rules
pacifist; appeasers; cowardly aggressive, energetic response to threats
policies that assist/subsidize promiscuity policies that assist families
sexual debauchery and license purity, responsibility, monogamy
sacrifice of freedom for temporary security freedom over security
flouters of moral law and decency conformance to the norms of society

The liberal interpretation:

Table 5

We Good Liberal r’s favor … Damnfool Conservative K’s favor …
cooperation and harmony competition and conflict
peace-loving; negotiation/reconciliation aggression; war in response to threat
policies that help the needy policies that help cronies/in-groups
a more sexually liberated society puritanism and sexual repression
safety/security/opportunity for all freedom only if you have the money
freer, less restrictive social norms conformance to strict behavioral norms

I prefer to use the relatively objective table 2, but add a new wrinkle: Modernism. As we know, evolutionary tendencies are just that – tendencies. As the world changes, some of those tendencies become obsolete. Many of the behaviors that had survival value when people all lived in hunter-gatherer extended families or tribes, no longer have survival value. Killing people who don’t look like you, for instance. Kidnapping women for sex. Stuff like that.

Let’s focus on three areas where modern technology has made hunter-gatherer rabbit/wolf “ethics” outdated and anti-survival: Munitions technology, birth control, and obedience to chiefs.

First, suppose that a significant number of people realize that, in the modern era, ultra-aggressive warmonger attitudes are anti-life – that with modern weapons of mass destruction such attitudes are a danger to humankind. The technical change from war as a personal conflict between warriors with rocks and spears, to a world where war is pushing a button and killing a hundred thousand innocent civilians, makes the K preference for aggression obsolete and irrational.

Second, suppose also that a number of people realize that birth control has reduced the danger of overpopulation, and that developed countries have already reached, or are projected to reach, zero population growth. If so, then the sexual repression and puritanism of conservatives is also outdated, as are their strict social norms.

Third, suppose that many people realize that the centralized authoritarianism of a hunter-gatherer group, described by anthopologists as “inbred super-families,” does not scale to States with millions of citizens. What if they realize that the epigenetic tendency to obey authority is no longer rational in the modern world; indeed it is a great danger.

Now lets add a third column representing the Modern K attitude, one that realizes that inter-state war is mass murder, sex is cool, and blind obedience to authority is stupid. I label it “Libertarian” just for grins. The shaded cells show where there is rough agreement.

Table 6

primitive r
war/sex tech aware
primitive K
anti-competitive competition & cooperation pro-competitive
pacifism; appeasement non-aggression aggressive
subsidize promiscuity subsidize no one subsidize families
sexual liberation none of my business puritanism, monogamy
security over freedom freedom over security freedom over security
less restrictive norms less restrictive norms conformance to norms

So it seems that, according to r/K selection theory, libertarianism is a happy medium between liberalism and conservatism. That is, to the extent that this is a reasonable psycho-evolutionary model. To wind up, I will give the same table as above, but use liberal and conservative negative descriptions from tables 4 and 5. It seems only fair, since the conservative biased table and the liberal biased table have been displayed, to show the libertarian-biased version:

Table 7

primitive r
war/sex tech aware
primitive K
anti-compete; welfare queens competition & cooperation competition and conflict
pacifist wimps non-aggression aggressive warmongers
subsidize promiscuity subsidize no one subsidize cronies & in-groups
subsidize promiscuity subsidize no one subsidize puritanism
security over freedom freedom over security nationalism over freedom
less restrictive norms less restrictive norms conformance to strict norms

I suppose that one could try to frame the libertarian tendency as being a modern r rather than a modern K. Probably many libertarians are closer to modernized r’s than modernized K’s. “Left”-libertarians of the Roderick Long and Kevin Carson variety come to mind. Perhaps liberal r’s who realize that competition isn’t a boogeyman and that government sucks qua institution, become libertarians, as well as conservative K’s who realize that nuclear bombs and birth control pills exist.

It’s often fun and instructive to enlarge the mainstream “establishment” models to include libertarianism. This was no exception. I have also done it with Jonathan Haidt’s Moral-Political psychological model featuring five psycho-tendencies. While Haidt, like r/K Selection theorists before this paper, totally ignored libertarianism, I tweaked the model to include it. See my Table of Psycho-political Tendencies.

* Here is some source material about the strictly biological theory.

Five Main Traits

r Strategy K Strategy
Aversion to competition Embrace of competition
Promiscuity Delayed, monogamous sexuality
Low investment single parenting High investment dual parenting
Early sexual maturity and activity Late sexual maturity and activity
Low loyalty to in-group High loyalty to in-group

“If an animal species lives under conditions where resources are ample so that there are good opportunities for expansion, but where there are also considerable dangers such as predators, then it will be advantageous for this species to use most of its resources on breeding as fast as possible and spending few resources on each offspring. This is called r-selection. The r is the mathematical symbol for the rate of reproduction. r-selection causes the evolution of small animals growing fast and breeding fast. Examples are mice and insects.

The opposite of r-selection is K-selection. This is what happens when a species lives under conditions where the population is limited by scarce resources rather than by predation. The capital K is a mathematical symbol for carrying capacity, i.e. the maximum number of individuals that the resources in a given habitat can continually sustain. K-selection leads to the evolution of big animals which breed slowly and utilize the given resources optimally, and which invest a considerable proportion of their resources in the care of their sparse offspring. If the animals under these conditions bred excessively, then they would have insufficient resources for nurturing each young, and they might over-exploit their habitat to the point where the resources were exhausted. K-selection is found in those animals that come last in a food-chain, such as whales, elephants, and humans.”

– Fog, A., 1997; Cultural r/k Selection. Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1., http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1997/vol1/fog_a.html

Typical Characteristics of Organisms

r Organisms K Organisms
short-lived long-lived
small large
weak, vulnerable robust, well-protected
fast maturation slow maturation
prone to take risks risk averse
opportunistic exploiters consistent exploiters
less intelligent, experienced more intelligent, experienced
strong sex drive weak sex drive
reproduce at an early age reproduce at a late age
large number of offspring small number of offspring
small relative size at birth large relative size at birth
little care for offspring much care for offspring
variable population size stable population size

Typical differences between organisms that follow r-strategies (e.g.
rabbits, sparrows), respectively K-strategies (e.g. elephants, parrots).

From “Quantity to Quality of Life: r-K selection and human development.”
Francis Heylighen, Jan L. Bernheim, Vrije Universiteit Brussel,

The Truth About Gene Wars: r/K Selection Theory“, a video series by Stefan Molyneux.