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Life in the Fast Lane, Part I: Evolution of the Fast Life

Why do sex, drugs, and Rock N' Roll always seem to go together?

"He had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude.
They said he was ruthless, they said he was crude.
Eager for action and hot for the game, the coming attraction, the drop of a name...
Life in the fast lane surely make you lose your mind.
Life in the fast lane, everything all the time."

-The Eagles

"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."
-Football legend George Best

Fast money. Fast cars. Fast sex. You know the deal.

Many people live the fast life. From actors, athletes, and rock stars to inner city suburban youth and hunter-gatherer tribes in rural Brazil. You might be living the fast life right now. The fast life features prominently in pop culture. Music videos portray the fast life as glamorous and exciting. Movies portray characters like James Bond as living an exciting fast life full of women, adventure, and intrigue. Live fast, die young is glamorized.

Granted, not all manifestations of the fast life are glamorous or exciting. There are many people around the world living the fast life in very harsh and dangerous conditions that want out. Still, many people live the fast life, full of short-term hedonistic gains and long-term risks, and this widespread phenomenon deserves a deep explanation.

The fact that so many people across the world and through the ages have found the fast lifestyle so seductive - even primal - suggests that there may be some evolutionary basis for that lifestyle. Was living the fast life evolutionarily adaptive for some of our distant ancestors living under certain conditions? Looking through an evolutionary lens, can we make greater sense of the evolutionary logic for why people, living in a variety of environments, make the sort of decisions they do in their lives?

Recently, psychologists are taking a deeper look at the fast life, applying evolutionarily informed principles that have traditionally been used to investigate differences among species, to look at variations within our own species.There is so much new research on this topic coming from evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, developmental psychology, anthropology and more that I thought an entire series devoted to living the fast life would be timely and informative. I was particularly inspired recently when I had the pleasure of hearing about some of the latest fascinating research relating to living the fast life at the 2010 Human Behavior and Evolution Society Conference in Eugene, Oregon.

The implications run deep across various diverse disciplinary boundaries and have serious consequences for a variety of prominent social issues. Looking at the evolutionary basis for the fast life has implications for all the different gradations of how people live their lives, from fast to slow, glamorous to poverty-stricken, and for topics as diverse as the origins of human evolution, human development, childhood attachment, adult romantic attachment, nature/nurture interactions, the role of mating strategies in human mating intelligence, social deviance, pop culture, intelligence, creativity, social class disparities, crime, delinquency, social policy, and reducing economic, gender, and ethnic inequalities. I will be exploring these implications throughout this series.

Let's begin with an introduction to the evolutionarily informed guiding framework that allows us to make sense of the strategies by which people live their lives. That framework is Life History Theory.

Life History Theory

Life History Theory (McArthur & Wilson, 1967) is derived from evolutionary biology and involves an organism's total physical and material resources allocated toward survival and reproduction. Reproductive Effort consists of Mating Effort (finding and attracting mates), Parental Effort (enhancing the survival of offspring), and Nepotistic Effort (enhancing the survival of genetic relatives).

According to Life History Theory, there is a tradeoff in every species between survival and reproduction. Species differ widely, however, in terms of the environments in which they evolved. Therefore, mating tactics are contextual: the extent to which a particular set of mating tactics will be fitness-enhancing depends on the environment. Different species increase their reproductive fitness in different ways.

In the parlance of the theory, "r-selected species", by evolving in harsh and unpredictable environments, live a fast life by investing more heavily in reproductive effort. "K-selected" species, on the other hand, evolved in more stable and safe environments, so they invest more heavily in survival and longevity. Certainly, all organisms must invest in both survival and reproduction to some degree (you can't mate if you're dead!), but species differ in their relative emphasis on each form of investment. When investing in reproductive effort, Life History Theory predicts that K-selected species allocate more resources to parental effort and nepotistic effort, whereas r-selected species allocate more resources to mating effort over both parental and nepotistic effort.

For instance, Rabbits are a fast life r-selected species focusing on offspring quantity instead of quality. They display all the characteristics of an r-selected species: fast sexual development, high fertility, low investment in each offspring, short lives, small size, less connections to the group, and less competition for resources. This strategy makes sense for rabbits, because they evolved under extremely unstable and unpredictable conditions where such short-term strategies paid off.

Elephants, on the other hand, evolved under stable and predictable environmental conditions, leading to a slower life history strategy (K-selected) focusing on offspring quality instead of quantity. Elephants tend to be physically larger, have slow, delayed sexual development, low fertility, low infant mortality, high parental investment, high inter-birth intervals, greater longevity, high group cohesion, and intense competition for resources. This strategy makes sense for elephants because they evolved in stable environments where long-term strategies paid off.

Where are humans on the r-K continuum?

Compared with other mammals, humans show more of a mix of life history strategies. While humans show an unusually high degree of parental investment in their offspring compared to other mammals, humans also display more r-selected patterns of development such as high fertility and shorter inter-birth intervals compared to close primate relatives.

Some anthropologists suggest that human childhood evolved precisely to deal with the combination of high fertility, inter-birth intervals, and high parental investment: children remain dependent on their parents for a long time after weaning, but they don't need to be breastfed, thus freeing the mother to conceive a new baby in a short time. This evolutionary trick allows human families to raise many dependent young of different ages at the same time.

Even though humans are are adapted to deal with monogamous, long-term relationships, there is a lot of variability in humans all across the world in terms of parental investment and strict monogamy is rare (Marlowe, 2003; Ryan & Jethá, 2010). Since physical and cultural ecological conditions varied quite a bit during the course of human evolution, it makes sense that human mating strategies would also be variable. Every culture must strike their own right balance between energies directed toward finding good-genes (mating effort) and investing in parenting (parental effort).

Even within geographic regions, there is dramatic variability in terms of the ecology in which children are raised. Still, there are patterns. Areas that are more safe and stable (such as many reasonably high socioeconomic suburban areas) tend to be more conducive to people holding resources and long-term planning. These environments tend to be more patrilineal, with wealth being passed on through male lines and males controlling more of the resources (this is just the way things have been, but that certainly doesn't mean greater gender equality in earning potential isn't possible or desirable). The inhabitants of these environments encourage females to choose long-term mates based on their ability to invest in children, with wealth being one of the main indicators of "resource earning potential". Under these conditions, female promiscuity is looked down upon and females are more likely to receive derogatory labels for their sexually promiscuous behaviors. Also females value paternal certainty more in these environments since the male is likely to stay alive and take care of their children.

Many people living in these environments, which are more conductive to using K-selected strategies, may find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which it may be adaptive to live more of the fast life. There are, however, many areas in the world where the environments are more conducive to an r-selected strategy. And there are even entire societies around the world that are conducive to an r-selected strategy. In fact, most of the environments our ancestors evolved were more conducive to living the fast life.

While agriculture was a huge game changer in terms of mating strategy because it allowed individuals to set up roots and use long-term planning for the first time, most of the environments in which our ancestors evolved weren't agricultural. Instead, they were hunter and gatherer societies where the inhabitants were constantly mobile and living under harsh and unpredictable circumstances. Since land and animals can't be passed on to children in these environments (the environment is too unstable), it is social status (which can be passed down to children) and not material resources that is the scarce resource. In these societies it makes little difference whether social status is passed on through the mother or father (Hrdy, 1999). These societies tend to be more egalitarian since there is less reason to stratify individuals on an economic basis.

The mating system in these societies will therefore allow for females to choose males based more on good-gene indicators associated with social status (e.g., physical attractiveness, charisma, humor, intelligence, creativity, health; see Kaufman, Kozbelt, Bromley, & Miller, 2008) than wealth and indicators of the ability to provide for children. This sexual freedom for females is even greater in harsh and unpredictable matrilineal societies where social status and resources are passed down through the female line. With less chances for paternal investment (since mortality is high), women don't need to have paternity certainty.

The Canela people of Brazil provide a nice example. The women of Canela pursue a short-term mating strategy (in the parlance of evolutionary psychology, they are "sexually unrestricted"). They have public ceremonies where women are encouraged to have sex with multiple partners. Men in this society support this and must hide their jealousy. They certainly don't give women derogatory labels for their promiscuous behavior. Why are things the way they are in this society?

Life history theory lends a cue here. Canela society is a matrilineal society (resources are passed along the female lineage), the environment is unpredictable, resources are scarce, and males experience high levels of mortality. When a women finds out she is pregnant, she engages in extramarital affairs with high status men to confuse paternal certainty. By mating with multiple males, none of the men can ever be assured they are the father of the child. This guarantees that the surviving men will invest in the child, and not kill, abuse, or neglect the child since it could be theirs. This is a much smarter strategy on the female's part than relying on the assistance from one mate who is likely to die. This situation results in several men who will invest in or protect their children (Hrdy, 1999). If Canela women do get married, the couple is expected to remain married until all their children are adults. Additionally, the husband is expected to tolerate his wife's affairs and the general attitude among members of Canela society is that the welfare and survival of children is more important than a man's control over a women's sexuality (Hrdy, 1999; Figueredo, Brumbach, Jones, Sefcek, Vasquez, & Jacobs, 2008).

The characteristics of Canela society, including high levels of sexual promiscuity, uncertainty about future resources, and high rates of mortality suggest that the people of Canela have shifted their life history strategy closer to the r-selected side due to their ecological conditions.

These two examples (patrilineal, stable, safe, resource-rich suburbia and matrilineal, harsh, unpredictable, and resource-poor Canela) were used to illustrate the extreme endpoints of the fast-slow life spectrum. You may have noticed that in each example, one sex has more sexual freedom and opportunity than the other. Different ecologies, however, are conducive to different levels of gender equality. It turns out that humans cross the entire spectrum, from fast to slow and everywhere in between. This is because all of the crucial environmental dimensions (matrilineal-patrilieal, resource rich-resource poor,unpredictable-stable, harsh-safe) can vary independently of the others.

For instance, resource scarcity, by itself, has the opposite effects of a harsh and unpredictable environment and is more conducive to living the slower life. When resources are scarce, it's important to use long-term planning skills to save what you've got and conserve valuable energy and calories. In fact, resource-poor but safe ecologies are the most stable, monogamous, and equitable in terms of contributions from both parents. In these societies, it makes more sense for a pair to settle down and work together to invest in the long-term survival of their children. Is is to neither partner's benefit to mate with lots of different mates under these circumstances. In these societies, people actually have a fair chance of being rewarded for their long-term investment in resources. If you're interested in learning more about all the different ways various environmental factors can combine to produce different life history strategies, I strongly suggest reading a wonderfully comprehensive review by Ellis et al., (2009; see References section for full reference).

Also, keep in mind that mating strategies can be influenced by many different aspects of the environment- the environment need not be harsh and unpredictable to activate the fast life genes (see Del Giudice & Belsky, in press; Schmitt, 2005 for a list of a variety of environmental influences on mating strategies).

To take one example, research shows that sex ratios have an effect. When there are a significantly higher number of single, beautiful members of one sex present in any environment compared to the other sex, the outnumbered sex tend to display higher mating effort and perhaps live more of the fast life overall. In short, short-term mating options tend to activate the fast life genes. This type of the fast life may be why sex, drugs, and Rock N' Roll seem to go together. Rock stars seem to get more short-term mating opportunities than people in the general population and can live the fast life without threats to mortality some other people living the fast life all around the world face every day of their lives (although the increased drug use, potential for sexually transmitted diseases, and other aspects of the fast life still make the rock star lifestyle a risky one). This is certainly the kind of fast life that is glamorized in pop culture (although it Is males who are typically shown as the ones enjoying the fast life).

The bottom line is that humans have been and still are extremely flexible strategically when it comes to mating. Mating tactics differ depending on the ecology. What is an adaptive mating tactic in one society may be considered counter-productive in another.

This strategic flexibility means that evolution was never able to settle on a stable solution and optimize any particular mating function in humans, allowing for individual differences to remain. It is these individual differences that have caught the attention of researchers recently.

From fast to slow in humans

During the course of human evolution, natural and sexual selection sculpted and coordinated various mating tactics to make sure they didn't strategically interfere with one another. For example, risky, impulsive attempts at mating effort (i.e., seduction) may interfere with the careful, long-term planning that is beneficial for survival and long-term pair bonding. As a result, life history strategy predicts that various psychological traits will tend to cluster together in non-random adaptively coordinated ways. These clusters were selected and sculpted by evolution to maximize fitness within particular environments.

Since those at the low end of the K-selected spectrum (i.e., those living the fast life) focus on short-term gains at the expense of long-term costs, their core adaptive psychological traits should involve rebelliousness, risky behaviors, impulsivity, and a focus on mate quantity and reduced parental investment. Since those at the high end of the K-selected spectrum focus on the long-term, their core adaptive psychological traits should involve careful risk considerations, a preference for monogamy, high parental investment, and conformity of social rules.

There is empirical evidence that these psychological traits cluster in these ways. A.J. Figueredo and his colleagues (Figueredo, Vasquez, Brumbach, Sefcek, Kirsner, & Jacobs, 2005) administered a wide range of indicators of life history strategy to 222 psychology undergraduates. All of these indicators were reasonably correlated with each other, forming an overarching "K-factor".

Those scoring higher on this K-factor (i.e., those living a slower life) tended to report feeling higher levels of emotional closeness as a child toward a father figure (e.g., "I want to be like my biological father?"), higher levels of security in adult romantic attachment (e.g., "I do not often worry about being abandoned"), lower levels of mating effort (e.g., "I would rather date one boy at a time than several boys at once"), lower levels of Machiavellianism (e.g., "I tend to trust people"), and lower levels of risk taking attitudes and behaviors (e.g., "I wouldn't approach someone very attractive if I thought it were a long shot"). Those scoring higher on the K-factor also tended to report lower levels of neuroticism and psychoticism, and there was nearly a positive association with Extraversion.

Evolution of the Fast Life

For some rock stars, actors, and athletes the fast life is exciting, glamorous, and fun. For others living in harsh environments, it's much riskier. Regardless, the traits and behaviors that make up the fast life may have evolved to solve particular mating trade-offs our ancestors faced. Evolution would have made sure these behaviors were pleasurable and rewarding, so that those with the genes under certain circumstances would be driven to keep pursuing those same behaviors. At the top of this piggy bank to the left (which I have sitting on my bureau), it says "I'm savin' up to be a rock star!". At the bottom, it says, "Is it wrong to want an exciting life?" Evolution, while a blind process, masterfully sculpted the fast Rock N' Roll lifestyle to ensure it would be very exciting to pursue under certain circumstances.

The evidence does suggest that traits cluster in predictable ways in humans. Various lines of research suggest that the traits and behaviors that cluster together to form the fast life evolved as a particular mating strategy that was adaptive for some of our ancestors living under particular circumstances.

But how do we know that there really are genes involved? If there are genes involved, how do we know they react to particular environments in evolutionarily predictable ways?

It's one thing to establish that a K-factor exists in humans and provide an evolutionary explanation for the existence of this factor. It's quite another thing to determine the fascinatingly complex, dynamic interplay that takes place between nature and nurture that contributes to the development of the K-factor within an individual human's lifespan. Thankfully there has been some fascinating recent research on this front. Stay tuned.

Other Parts of the Series

Part II - Developing a Fast Life History Strategy

Part III, Romantic Attachment in the Fast Lane

Part IV, Rebelliousness, Risk, Social Deviance, and Educational Intervention

Part V, Social Class and Public Policy

Part VI: Consilience, Pop Culture, and Modern Living

© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman


The Oxford handbook of evolutionary family psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. (Pre-publication draft).

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Figueredo, A.J., Vasquez, G., Brumbach, B.H., Sefcek, J.A., Kirsner, B.R., & Jacobs, W.J. (2005). The K-Factor: Individual differences in life history strategy. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 1349-1360.

Figueredo, A.J., Brumbach, B.H., Jones, D.N., Sefcek, J.A., Vasquez, G., & Jacobs, W.J. (2008). Ecological constraints on mating tactics. In G. Geher and G. Miller (Eds.), Mating Intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind's reproductive system (pp. 337-365). Lawrence Erlbaum.

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Kaufman, S.B., Kozbelt, A., Bromley, M.L., & Miller, G. (2008). The role of creativity and humor in mate selection. In G. Geher and G. Miller (Eds.), Mating Intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind's reproductive system (pp. 227-263). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Marlowe, F. (2000). Paternal investment and the human mating system. Behavioural Processes, 51, 45-61.

Mac Arthur, R. H., & Wilson, E. O. (1967). The theory of island biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schmitt, D. P. (2005). Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 247-311.