Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Red Queen

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
© 1993 Matthew Ridley
404 pages

The Red Queen begins with a question: why do creatures have sex? Why did it evolve? The answer, Matt Ridley believes, lies in the principle of the Red Queen. A character featured in Lewis Carroll's  Through the Looking Glass, she announced to Alice that in her world, it took all the running one could do simply to remain in one place. This characterizes the constant struggle for domination between species in the natural world,  a struggle between creatures not only visible to us, but between parasites within our bodies  and our immune systems.  Every move is countered, every success overturned; such is the impetus for evolution. In The Red Queen, Ridley explains his reasoning, and demonstrates how  evolutionary principles subtly drive the expression of human sexuality.

There's a lot of tension in this work, first when Ridley makes his case and somehow incorporates aspects of evolution from disparate camps (gene-centered, individually-driven, species-based) , and in the heart of the book as he examines the implications. This is especially true in the chapters, "Polygamy and the Nature of Men" and "Monogamy and the Nature of Women":  while it is true men have a genetic inclination to sow seeds and women one to invest in a partner,  behavior as studied indicates that things are not to trite. In the last chapters of the book, Ridley looks at sexuality as a possible cause of advanced human intelligence (competition and tension between the sexes and individuals), which is amusing given the power sexual interest has to render victims dumbstruck and seemingly foolish.

Since its publication, The Red Queen has proven influential; I knew of it long before I read it because of its place in the literature, being cited often. That may attest to the science, which is is speculative but sensible based on what he presents. He certainly makes for an entertaining author,  one whose arguments are open to virtually anyone regardless of scientific reading;  he begins with a technical, biological edge before spending most of the book on behavior -- a softer, fuzzier realm for readers.

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