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Home arrow History arrow Life History Evolution and Sociology: The Biological Backstory of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010

How Might a Life History Framework Broadly Inform Policy?

The preceding sections of this paper provide the necessary information to broach policy. We know that the “social problems” lamented in Coming Apart are (1) expressed as coordinated life history complex, (2) genetically, developmentally, and facultatively informed, and (3) an adaptive response to high extrinsic mortality. Lacking a biological perspective, one sees arrows of causality extending in all directions, circling back on one another in vertiginous complexity. A life history perspective does not necessarily invalidate all of these complexities, but it does impose rigor, order, and directionality. Mortality is primary. All these many manifestations ofthe fast life history that are considered social problems are properly recast as adaptations to high extrinsic mortality. Some of the abovemen- tioned variables, such as father absence and poverty, are causal mostly in that they are correlates of extrinsic mortality, while others, such as low marriage rates and early births, are consequences of extrinsic mortality.

It follows that, to reduce “social problems,” one should reduce extrinsic mortality. Decreasing extrinsic mortality is an effectual and humane way to slow the life history of a subpopulation. The life history literature clearly designates violent crime as modernity’s most salient form of extrinsic mortality (Ellis et al. 2009). Recall that violent crime strongly predicts age at first birth, and family planning generally, which is a central life history marker (Griskevicius et al. 2011). The salience of violent crime gives it outsized influence. One does not have to be victimized. Just witnessing rape, assault, and murder can relate to facultative and developmental changes (Chisholm 1999). Under conditions of excessive violent crime, K selected lineages, children that developmental^ imprinted on a K selected strategy, and adults that facultatively express K selected behavior, are all systematically disadvantaged (van der Linden et al. 2015; Dunkel et al. 2013). The speed of life history is an environmental adaptation, not fundamentally different from, for instance, the color of an animal’s pelt. Brown in summer, white in winter, the snowshoe hare seasonally molts to match the ground beneath its feet. Brown is not better than white, except relative to its backdrop. Accordingly, one should avoid promoting brown fur in winter, just as one should avoid promoting K selected values under conditions of high extrinsic mortality; it runs counter to both nature and logic. If one wants a K selected society, one is best served by reducing the violent crime responsible for favoring the r selected strategy. While they may have some efficacy, national programs that discourage father absence, teen pregnancy, school dropout and persistent poverty7 neither recognize nor ameliorate the extrinsic mortality that make father absence, teen pregnancy, school dropout, and persistent poverty rational facultative, developmental, and evolutionary responses. They trim the branches and neglect the root. These policies ask their beneficiaries to behave contrary to the reality in which they live.

Nonetheless, decreasing extrinsic mortality is tantamount to removing a selective pressure favoring a fast life history, or alternatively, removing an impediment against the development of a slow life history. Only increasing intrinsic mortality actively promotes K-selected evolution.8 Yet, while decreasing extrinsic mortality is both effectual and humane, increasing intrinsic mortality is only effectual to the degree that it is inhumane. Evolution proceeds by differential destruction. To produce maximal pressure on the American population through intrinsic mortality would amount to the complete withdrawal of all humanitarian effort. Such a withdrawal of a basic assurance of food, shelter, and healthcare will remind many of passive eugenic interventions (Johan et al. 1999; Bashford and Levine 2010). As Richard Dawkins has said, a society based on applied evolutionary principles might be the worst of all possible societies.

Moreover, long before either Dawkins or life history evolution, and only shortly after evolution’s first formulation, Darwin wrote of this bind between humane action and effectual selection:

We civilized men... do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment... Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.9

Though as Hofstadter (1944/1992, p. 91) states, this only showed Darwin to recognize social philanthropy to alter the selective regime, and it did not follow that Darwin advocated eradicating the former to preserve the latter unchanged. The social instincts in mankind, altruism, sympathy, empathy, charity, and their like, what Darwin thought to be the “noblest part of our nature” (Hofstadter 1944/1992, p. 91), are pitted against positive eugenic selection, and even negative eugenic selection through inaction.

To those attempting to progress from understanding to application, it is not only important to question the humanity of means but the objectivity of ends. The same evolutionary perspective that explains r-selected behaviors refutes their absolute inferiority. This is not a species of relativism, moral, or postmodern. On the contrary, it is only inescapable logic of the most hard-nosed evolutionary variety. The false aegis of a Boasian10 explanation obscures the evolutionary origins of r-selected behavior, which in turn allows them to be judged inferior social ills. In contrast, evolution eschews the language of good and bad in favor of adaptive and maladaptive. It therefore follows that r-selected traits are not social ills, but adaptations to circumstances, just as white fur is an adaptation to snow covered turf. Equally, evolutionary understanding hamstrings pretensions to context-independent K-selected superiority. Evolutionary insight must marry explanation and implication. By this it is meant that one must not understand r-selected behavior as the evolved pattern it is, only to incongruously continue to think it objectively and absolutely inferior. At the risk of repetition for the sake of clarity, one can only say that K-selected behavior is superior relative to conducive environments and specific selective pressures. Alternatively, one must acknowledge that within other environmental contexts and under different selective pressures, r-selected behavior is superior. It follows, that in advocating for the K-selected values Murray laments the loss of, one is taking a position as a partisan engaging in value judgment. This is not to condemn the value judgment but only to deny to it the imprimatur of evolution.

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