Darwinian Fundamentalists and Trust

You need two sets of concepts.1 The first concerns K-Selection vs. r-Selection. K-Selection means that the environment is stable and filled to near capacity with a particular species. These conditions are associated with lower rates of reproduction, higher parental investment in offspring, more cooperation (immediate, mutual swapping of resources), and a tendency towards larger organisms. Sounds ideal and that it might true for all of us. (Nope.)

r-Selection refers to an unstable and underpopulated (in terms of resources) environment, high altruism, high rates of reproduction, less investment in offspring, and smaller individual creatures. The policy is that of “use it up and move on before it changes.” (Sounds terrible except that Earth is actually an unstable environment. The conflict between our being near carrying capacity and our world’s being unstable should inspire a lot of books provided we write them quickly and leave!)

The second set of ideas relates to the evolutionary strategies of Cheater, Sucker, and Tit-for-Tat. Cheater describes taking whatever advantages you can of a fellow human (or other “conspecific” if you’re not human). Cheater does well in situations where there is little repeat contact and there is a mix of “Suckers.” Suckers always sacrifice themselves for another conspecific. Suckers do OK with other Suckers, they do badly with Cheaters.

The balance sheet on these swaps is tallied in “survival fitness.” These exchanges are not trivial because being nice to someone else always exacts a cost in your own chances to reproduce while increasing their own.

Tit-for-Tat describes the strategy of “be nice until someone is nasty, then be nasty.” T4T eventually drives both Cheaters and Suckers towards extinction PROVIDED there is a prolonged series of interactions. (Otherwise, Cheaters still win.) T4T is beaten by only one other strategy in computer simulations; that strategy is called “generous T4T” because one person has two consecutive chances to be nasty before the other switches off kindness. Generous T4T appears to correspond to baseball convention, “3 strikes and you’re out” or to our timing out children “on the count of 3.” It avoids prolonged series of retribution allowed under simple T4T.

Our conditions of evolution were associated with relatively small bands (7-50?) of hunters and gatherers. Behavior is speculated to have been highly public and subject to immediate, personal consequences. There were continuing relationships between all members of the group; T4T probably worked well. Jewish Law developed in a time when agriculture made population increases possible and for Cheaters to thrive. The 10 Commandments became necessary to reinstate T4T even among relative strangers. Elevating these principles into a Supernormal Stimulus, a religion, made allegiance and compliance even more likely. K-Selection reigned again. Lots of cooperation, little altruism, high investment in children, lots of rules.

Christianity, however, kicked things back into r-mode. “Love your neighbor as yourself” translates into self-sacrifice. According to the Neodarwinists, altruism, whether for a human or for a starling, is a strict function of common genetic interest. “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life” is a more likely event provided that in so doing he saves at least 2 brothers, 4 grandparents, or 8 cousins. The difference with Christianity, however, was that the physical environment remained static while the social environment gave opportunity for reproduction through faith rather than gametes. It was possible to increase ideological population without pumping out more babies. (Consistent with r-Selection, we might expect any rapid conversion of belief to be associated with unstable social conditions.) Religion, thus, fed off of people (unstable, novel environment; use them up quickly and move on) rather than small game. Given the absence of longer term, repeated social contacts, Cheaters likely came to the fore when dealing with nonbelievers.

Darwinian Fundamentalists (See Lewontin, “Biology as Ideology” for a wonderful casting of biology and religion into the same container!) know these principles. If they are rational, their altruism will last only so long as a relationship does. They will do T4T until the last contact, then cheat outrageously if they see it coming. Darwinians, if rational, cannot be trusted, especially with advance information and brief relationships.2

All of this would be a trivial game except the outcomes are still measured in reproductive fitness. Even then it might still be trivial if it were restricted to contests between us two sets of believers. It’s not. Members of my Clinical Sociobiology seminar inspired the thought that while our physical resources impose K-Selection, our beliefs and financial assets become targets for r-mode, also described as a “service economy.” 3 Sears hawks warranties on merchandise that should not break. Automatic dialers devil all of us during supper hour. Insurance advocates promise (for a fee) that the primary insurance company lives up to its contract. HMO growth has been explosive (use opportunities up before they are gone!) as a generation of case managers enzymatically manage client access to therapy, living off of both the client and the therapy source. Microsoft, like all successful competitors, killed all competitors in its niche, erasing diversity while it grew; Laura Schlessinger eliminated countless local radio hosts through her success.

r-Selection can be a lot of fun (the current Internet!); however, Cheater tactics still prevail in the absence of continuing small group bonds and alliances. Once dominance is assured, the conquering organism imposes its own set of K-Selection principles to guarantee its future. Until the next big meteor.



  1. Gil suggested this challenge as a “housewarming” but it comes just as I’m about to replace the plumbing and furniture. My immediate goals include sorting theEvolutionary Psych Forum by topic, developing a reasonable archival process, and shortening the opening page. I reread much of the material before the Clinical Sociobiology course and found too many spelling and grammar lapses and too many jumps in topic flow. (Jon Schull notes that Lamarck lost credibility because of erratic writing; I don’t share JBL’s talents; I don’t want to share his failing.) Now that I’ve protested “things are a mess,” come on in and sit a spell. Maybe we can do this again in a few months!
  2. Darwinians are no more rational than anyone else. A lot of us, including me, have a high loading on “conscientiousness” despite our beliefs. We don’t lie, cheat, or steal from strangers or from each other. We prepare our lectures in advance and work as if even transient relationships will continue forever. Religious fundamentalists will have their share of Cheaters, perhaps especially in leadership positions. They, too, will have their mix of the honest, the cooperative, the guilty who will treat the rest of us fairly on a personal basis. Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) narrates war tales in which British and German troops developed their own T4T in the trenches. Artillery fire was often to the same spots and at the same times daily; regrets were offered for injuries to the other side, and holiday greetings were exchanged. The guys in the trenches had a greater interest in T4T because of their prolonged relationships, even across battle lines. The war was maintained by people with no direct, prolonged contact with the enemy. My delinquent teens often have an unspoken mutual dtente with State Troopers while maintaining provocative, hostile behavior towards local police in adjoining townships.
  3. K and r can be a matter of personal interests. Real estate developers put in large plots of identical structures. People moving into them live by K-selection. The developers, however, sell the houses and move quickly to the next vacant farm or even to Montana to escape complaints. Expect r-Selection behaviors and Cheater tactics from developers while the occupants build networks of enforced cooperation and high parental investment in the forms of zoning requirements, Town Watch committees, and school board elections. Given the absence of “group selection,” the developers are unlikely to stop until the lack of resources also drives them into K-Selection.

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