Slow and Fast Life Strategies

Scott Alexander’s recent book review of Marco del Giudice’s Evolutionary Pyschopathology intrigued me, particularly for its introduction of the slow vs. fast life strategies model.

The Idea in Brief: Organisms have different life strategies, largely driven by natural selection. Key characteristics include reproductive behavior and parental investment. For example, some fish will lay 10,000 eggs and wander off, 99.9% of which will be eaten by predators, leaving 10 eggs to carry on the genetic material. On the opposite end of the spectrum, elephants will be pregnant for 1.5 to 2 years, followed by over a decade of close parental nursing and protection before the baby elephant is truly independent in the environment. These varying strategies naturally have dramatic effects on the patterns of an organism’s life, including juvenile development, age of sexual maturity, first reproduction, number of offspring, parental investment and biological aging.

Scott offers a simple and relatable idea: fast strategies (the “live fast and die young”) are well-suited for high-risk environments. Here, sheer volume of offspring will best ensure genetic survival, and average parental investment is correspondingly spread-thin across the offspring. Organisms in this scenario have high risk-tolerance given the downside is death without reproduction and the upside is disproportionately greater (large volumes of reproduction).

Slow strategies on the other hand are better suited for predictable and/or complex environments that can be mastered over time and effort. Maturity is slow while the offspring needs to achieve mastery before independence. An unlimited time horizon affords the luxury of picky mating preferences and high risk aversion. Tying in the Big Five Personality test, high conscientiousness and agreeableness correlates strongly with the slow life strategy; these organisms can lower their guard and seek close, reciprocal ties with others given their positive aspirations for the returns from their diligent efforts and vigilance.

Four archetypal life strategies are proposed:

  • Antagonistic/Exploitative Strategy: The Machiavellian

Fast life strategy that advances by deception to capture its own survival. No emphasis on reciprocity, but will develop charm and superficial social ease but ethically deficient.

  • Creative/Seductive Strategy: The Britney Spears?

Expects a short, noisy life. Optimizes for advancement via sexual selection, hence an emphasis on attractiveness, creativity, flirtation and popularity.

  • Prosocial/Caregiving Strategy: The Model Citizen

Slow strategy to become the well-liked pillar of the community. Builds a noble reputation to maximize its ability to survive life’s iterated games, through dependability, friendliness, honesty and conformity.

  • Skilled/Provisioning Strategy: The Woz

Slow strategy that focuses on gaining skills and abilities that may take years to bear fruit via intelligence, proclivity for learning and detail-orientation, sometimes at the expense of popularity, friendliness or seduction. Once their community indispensability is proven and high-status achieved, options to reproduce will ensure genetic continuity.

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