Life in the Slow Lane

What our blessed modern lives look like from an evolutionary perspective

Posted Apr 28, 2015

If you’re like me, you may well live a highly blessed life without exactly realizing it. My wife and I both are highly educated - with great and stable jobs working for the State University of New York. We’ve got two kids - a boy and a girl - and they both do well in school and in extra-curriculars - and they both have nice social circles. We live in a nice house on a cul de sac and we have great neighbors. I guess you might call it the American dream. Do I wake up every day and say, “Gee, Glenn - you’ve got the American dream going on - enjoy the day!”? Well, uh, I can’t say that I do … but maybe I should. And if you also live a typical middle-American life, maybe you should too!

Evolutionary biologists talk about life-history strategy (see Wilson, 1975; Geher, 2014), which pertains to broad behavioral strategies that organisms exhibit across their lives as a function of expected ecological conditions. Some animals, such as rabbits that live in New York state, have an “r-selected” strategy (with the “r” referring to fast reproduction). For rabbits, resources are patchy and are only available for part of the year (famously starting in Spring). For a rabbit in New York state, Winter is always on the horizon. And there are plenty of predators in them woods. How do rabbits go about life? Like there’s no tomorrow - because for a large percentage of rabbits, there literally is no tomorrow. For rabbits in upstate New York, the life strategy is a fast one - reproduce quickly, reproduce often, have bodies that develop quickly, and so forth. It’s something of a shot-gun approach to life.

On the other side of the life-history spectrum is the k-selected (or slow) approach to life. A k-selected strategy is a slow strategy - one that unconsciously assumes resource-rich conditions and a long life. Elephants on the African savanna are classic k-strategists, with “k” corresponding to “carrying capacity” of the environment (I know, should be a “c” - don’t ask!). Elephants generally live long lives. Their psychology matches this fact - with great memory for individual other elephants and social networks designed to foster long-term relations. And slowly developing bodies. And few offspring produced - with these few offspring receiving high levels of adult care. It’s a totally different ballgame.

In a now-classic paper by Figueredo , Brumbach , Jones , Sefcek , Vasquez , and Jacobs (2008), the idea of a human “differential k continuum” was developed. This idea essentially says that, in general, humans are more like elephants than like rabbits - we are a k-selected species (which means that we unconsciously assume a relatively long life-span and produce few offspring that receive high amounts of energy and attention). But while humans generally are k-selected, some of us are fortunate to live in more k-selected environments than others. The idea of “differential k” simply means that people vary in terms of how k-selected their environments are from one another.

Here are the hallmarks of a low-k (or r-like or “fast”) life-history context:

  • an unpredictable environment, fraught with violence
  • relatively low resources / low levels of wealth
  • relatively low life expectancy

Do some people live in environments that show these hallmarks of low-k? Well if you know anything about the disproportionate nature of the distribution of wealth in the USA - and the relationship between poverty and crime, then yeah, it’s probably pretty obvious to you that lots of people live in relatively low-k conditions. Consistent with the ideas of life-history strategy, Figueredo and his colleagues (and other researchers) have found that living in impoverished conditions with high crime rates leads to exactly the kinds of outcomes that are predicted from life-history strategy theory - living in such conditions encourages earlier reproduction, higher rates of reproduction, and a mindset that does NOT assume a long lifespan. We tend to see a set of behavioral strategies that are designed with unpredictability of environment in mind. Importantly, such a low-k mindset is not a characteristic of people living in impoverished conditions - rather, it is a feature of behavior that is shaped by specific environmental factors that typify a low-k environment. Read as: Anyone in an impoverished and unpredictable environment would likely adopt a low-k life-history strategy - such a strategy is relatively optimal under such conditions.

Here are the hallmarks of a high-k (or “slow”) life-history strategy:

  • a predictable and safe environment
  • relatively high resources / high levels of wealth
  • relatively long life expectancy

Humans who live in high-k environments have the luxury of being able to utilize slow life history strategies. Their environments are safe and predictable - and they can most likely expect a long life. Thus, they can delay reproduction - making them better able to enjoy childhood. A monogamous mating strategy may well work great for them. And having only a few offspring (who are well taken care of) makes sense as an optimal strategy. They can live the blessed life of the elephants on the African savanna (pre-poaching, I might add!).

I teach at a state university and I am constantly surrounded by people of all kinds of backgrounds. I am not so naive to think that everyone in my world comes from a high-k background. From a sociological and policy perspective, I’d say that creating social structures so that a higher proportion of people are able to experience high-k environmental conditions is foundational to our future work as a society.

Further, I’d say that if you’re like me, and are among the many fortunate individuals who get to live and raise your children in safe and predictable environments - if you’re living the high-k dream (largely because you, like me, won the “birth lottery” as my sociologist colleague Peter Kaufman (2015) writes), then maybe you should wake up each morning and appreciate the blessed conditions that surround you and your family. Sure, as I’ve written before, no matter who you are, life is hard (see Geher, 2015). But if you are living in middle America and are clearly living under “high k” conditions, then you are living a life of luxury. I’d say that you need to appreciate this fact every single day - and do your part to help bring such “luxury” to a higher proportion of others out there who, due to random chance, were not as fortunate as you were in the birth lottery.

Welcome to the slow lane. Enjoy the ride.

References

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 & G. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 337–365). Mahwah, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum .

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G. (2015). 5 Reasons that Life is Hard. Psychology Today Blog.

Johnsen, L.L., Guitar A. E., & Geher, G. (2015). Divorce patterns and the male-to-female mortality ratio: is midlife crisis the death of men? The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 6(2), 33-41.

Kaufman, P. (2015). The birth lottery and global inequality. Everyday Sociology Blogs, Norton.

Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press.