On The Red Queen

The Red Queen

The Red Queen is a book that describes the evolutionary psychology of sex. In a series of fascinating arguments, author Matt Ridley uses Lewis Carroll’s character from Through the Looking Glass to explain why humans have sex. Just as the Red Queen must keep running in order to stay in the same place, humans constantly battle to stay ahead of internal predators. Ridley argues that humanity’s best strategy for defeating these predators is sex, since it is the only way to break that endless cycle. He provides interesting insights into human nature, and in the process he also proposes explanations for things like concepts of beauty, reasons why men propose marriage, and why women are more likely to become pregnant through adultery.

Ridley’s arguments are powerful and convincing, partly because he relies on existing research and scientific evidence as proof, but also because of his own authoritative style. At the very least, his notions are entertaining and fun to consider.

The Book

The Red Queen is presented in 10 chapters, beginning with a discussion of human nature and ending with an epilogue bearing the intriguing title, The Self-Domesticated Ape. There are a number of key themes. Perhaps the most salient argument is that there is a common human nature shared by all people, and that sex is the driving force. Of course, Ridley points out that there are many species that can reproduce asexually. He poses the question, “Suppose all members of a species were asexual but one day one pair of them invented sex. What benefit would it bring?” He then considers the answer in the context of the Red Queen. Why, then, are humans different and what is the nature of sex?

“It is stasis, not change, that is the hallmark of evolution.”

Ridley begins by providing the example of a commonality found in every culture: smiling. He argues that a baboon’s smile threatens, whereas a human smile means pleasure in every culture of the world. He then takes this a few steps further. The desire to reproduce through sexual activity proves the existence of a common human nature because it is an activity that passes on one’s characteristics to one’s offspring. He also suggests that free will only exists for the purpose of contributing to human reproduction. Ridley then rounds out the argument by stating that “there are few features of the human psyche and nature that can be understood without reference to reproduction.” Sexuality, according to Ridley, is the common factor that ties all human nature together, even while each human being remains completely unique.

After providing proof that humans all share the same genetic roots, Ridley explores the differences between the human natures of male and female. This is where Ridley provides some of his most unique yet compelling arguments. He compares men’s attitudes towards sex and relationships in contrast to those of women. He also provides evidence that the concept of physical beauty is also an essential element of human nature. Ridley explores the purpose of sex by making intriguing observations regarding examples found within the animal kingdom, as well as those seen throughout history and in cultures around the world.

Men and polygamy: Women and monogamy.

“Mankind is a polygamist and a monogamist, depending on the circumstances.”  Although humans are mainly monogamous, men are by nature polygamous, according to Ridley. This makes evolutionary sense, since men are more aggressive and compete for women. Powerful men, by extension, usually have more than one mate. Ridley supports this with evidence that harems are symbols of wealth and that historical and cultural practice of polygamy is associated with power and money.

“In the chess game of sex, each gender must respond to the other’s moves. The resulting pattern, whether polygamous or monogamous is a stalemate rather than a draw or a victory.”

Ridley also suggests that human nature dictates that the gender with primary responsibility for creating and raising offspring, in other words, women, will avoid extra mating. Women will, however, take another partner if she subconsciously considers her mate’s genetics to be mediocre or substandard. According to Ridley, she will also be more likely to conceive through adultery – yet further evidence of the evolutionary purpose of sex.

Beauty and Genetics

“Evolution is more about reproduction of the fittest than survival of the fittest.  The notion that beauty (as seen in the eye of the beholder) is essential to reproduction is not a new one. According to The Red Queen, people are attracted to those with good reproductive and genetic potential: in other words, the powerful, the healthy, the fit, the beautiful. Whether he realizes it on a conscious level or not, a man falls in love with a woman because she is potentially fertile and will help propagate his gene pool. Ridley expands the idea even further by providing a rationale for why men are attracted to thin, blonde women. He also provides an evolutionary explanation for why rich men marry beautiful young women.

The Red Queen

“Sex is not about reproduction, gender is not about males and females, courtship is not about persuasion, fashion is not about beauty, and love is not about affection.”  Ridley’s description of the looking glass world where nothing is as it seems, and how this can lead to understanding the purpose of sex.

One of Ridley’s more circular arguments relates to the title of the book itself. He notes that progress and success are always relative concepts, and that “every success contains the seeds of its own overthrow.” He notes that cars travel through the busy streets of London at a pace that is no faster than horse-drawn carriages, offering this as proof that progress is always a struggle to stay in the same place by improving. In biology this concept is known as the Red Queen, the chess piece from Through the Looking Glass that can never advance because the landscape moves along with her. Most people would likely agree that in spite of technological developments of time-saving devices we seem to have less and less free time.

“Whatever determines sexual attraction, the Red Queen is at work.” Ridley uses the Red Queen analogy in a very different way, as seen through the looking glass, to explain sex as a way to keep genes ahead of parasites and viruses. Sexual selection provides a way to enhance genetic reproduction and conquer the factors that try to weaken it. Sex, therefore, allows movement forward.

Sex and Intelligence

“Evolving is not a goal but a means to solving a problem.”

Ridley concludes the book with another fascinating argument, the notion that human intellect is a product of sexual selection. He provides evidence that evolutionary anthropologists believe that big brains contribute to reproductive success by enabling men to outwit other men in a fight for a superior mate. He draws a comparison between the peacock’s tail and human intelligence, arguing that the brain’s intellect is a product of sexual selection, used to attract mates by displaying charm, wit, and inventiveness. Humans, therefore, survive not because they are intelligent, but because their intelligence attracts a mate through whom they can successfully reproduce.

Lessons The Red Queen Teaches

Readers of The Red Queen may find some of Ridley’s notions work well as explanations for their own sexual behavior. Sex as a way to defeat disease provides a pleasurable justification for engaging in the practice. It helps us perceive sexual obsession as a positive thing that is necessary to the health of the species. A woman who has perhaps been unfaithful now has an explanation for her behavior in evolutionary terms, as a necessary way to improve her genetic offspring. Of course, people who value intelligence may find Ridley’s explanation of human intellect less than satisfying, as it reduces brain power to a reproductive drive. Some particularly engaging features of the book relate to the role of dance, music, and humor as being unique to humans. Since sex is the foundation of human nature, dance, music, and humor are therefore important to the sexual relationship.

“A second way of determining gender is to leave it to the environment.” Ridley explains gender as a product of the evolution of human nature, with subsequent implications of gender on sexual decisions. Some of his ideas about gender roles and gender differences are not new, but they are presented in “through the looking glass” fashion, making the reader consider them from another viewpoint. Ridley comments that “Almost no subject is as steeped in myth and lore than the business of choosing the gender of children.” What would happen if we were gender neutral? How does gender selection work among animals, and why is it problematic for humans? How does gender fit with theories of sexual selection?

Ridley’s arguments may seem convincing to readers partly because he freely cites concepts from great thinkers and philosophers such as Jung, Freud, Darwin, and Richard Dawkins to back up his ideas. He also comes from a scientific perspective free of moral influences, including religion and social mores. His ideas about the nature of sex and the reasons humans use free will to reproduce sexually are logical and help provide an acceptable explanation for sexual behavior. Although Ridley presents his arguments in a very decisive and authoritative manner, he also modestly admits that he may well be proven wrong. Readers are left hoping that he won’t.

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I wrote this book review for Neil Strauss and the original posting can be found on the Inner Circle website.

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