Ridley: The Red Queen

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Matt Ridley, The Red Queen : Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. New York : Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994 (first American edition). 405 pages.

Charles Darwin is famous -- or notorious -- for contributing the idea that natural selection is the agent of evolution; however, natural selection is not the only kind of selection imaginable, as Darwin himself recognized. Although he allowed as how sexual selection might be possible, or even likely as an additional contributor to evolution, he thought its importance slight.

Sexual selection is the idea that competition within one gender of a species to gain reproductive access to the other gender could lead to adaptive evolution of that species' characteristics. Behold the peacock: the poster-child for sexual selection. Why in the world, one wonders, would the peacock species go to such lengths to develop what appears so useless an appendage as the gaudy peacock's tail? Enter the peahen, the agent for sexual selection in peacocks. Competition for reproductive access leads to the unstable tendency for sexually seductive ornaments or behaviors to go grow madly until the cost becomes too great. Ridley likens this to the problem of Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, who has to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place.

The myriad ways in which sexual selection can express itself are typically subtle. Exploring all the ways in which sexual selection may, might, would, could, or probably did contribute to that complicated cocktail we call "human behavior" is what this book is all about. It means following a path that meanders through a big garden; not surprisingly, to understand the contribution of sexual selection to human nature rather demands a thorough discussion of both sexual selection and human nature.

Ridley avows at the beginning of the book that he is an adaptationist, one of those adherents of the Darwinian approach to evolution who tend to believe that every imaginable characteristic of a species is an adaptation that resulted from selective pressures. Thus comes the partly justifiable criticism that explanations from adaptationists tend to sound like "just so" stories, and they've got one for everything.

To my taste this was not the best stance from which to argue the case for sexual selection as the main force in molding human behavior, simply because I, myself, am far from being an adaptationist. But give Ridley a chance, I thought: even a bad or erroneous theory can be more useful and production at stimulating new insights than one that precludes asking interesting questions like "how" and "why". The watchword should, however, be vigilant skepticism lest one be too easily beguiled by one's own just-so stories.

In the end I'd say Ridley did an outstanding job at keeping a critical eye on the stories he related. By the end of the book the case that sexual selection is significantly culpable, if not solely responsible, for a big chunk of evolutionary adaptation, both animal and human, is convincing.

I don't know whether it was Ridley that warmed to his topic as he wrote the book, or whether it was my interest that increased. Regardless, my feeling that Ridley's writing was a bit scattered and casual dissipated fairly soon and the book cohered by the time I'd reached the very lucid epilogue. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the difficulty of collecting together and making sense of so many facts and competing theories to describe them while keeping the target firmly in mind.

Here are two excerpts that give an idea of Ridley's style, and his enthusiasm tempered with skepticism towards the ideas he's describing. The first comes at the end of a chapter ("Monogamy and the Nature of Women") considering the human-female side of sexual selection.

When we study sage grouse or elephant seals in their natural habitat, we can be fairly sure that they are striving to maximize their long-term reproductive success. But it is much more difficult to make the same claim for human beings. People strive for something, certainly, but it is usually money or power or security or happiness. The fact that they do not translate these into babies is raised as evidence against the whole evolutionary approach to human affairs. But the claim of evolutionists is not that these measures of success are today the tickets to reproductive success but that they once were. Indeed, to a surprising extent they still are. Successful men remarry more frequently and more widely than unsuccessful ones, and even with contraception preventing this from being turned into reproductive success, rich people still have as many or more babies as poor people.

Yet Western people conspicuously avoid having as many children as they could. William Irons of Northwestern University in Chicago has tackled this problem. He believes that human beings have always taken into account the need to give a child a "good start in life." They have never been prepared to sacrifice quality of children for quantity. Thus, when an expensive education became a prerequisite for success and prosperity, around the time of the demographic transition to low birthrates, people were able to readjust and lower the number of children they had in order to be able to afford to send them to school. Exactly this reason is given today by Thai people for why they are having fewer children than their parents.

There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gathers, but deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple male hunter-gatherer rule: Strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy other men's wives who will bear bastards. It began with a man who shared a piece of prized fish or honey with an attractive neighbor's wife in exchange for a brief affair and continues with a pop star ushering a model into his Mercedes. From fish to Mercedes, the history is unbroken: via skins and beads, plows and cattle, swords and castles. Wealth and power are means to women: women are means to genetic eternity.

Likewise, deep in the mind of a modern woman is the same basic hunter-gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: Strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest food and care in your children; strive to find a lover who can give those children first-class genes. Only if she is very lucky will they be the same man. It began with a woman who married the best unmarried hunter in the tribe and had an affair with the best married hunter, thus ensuring her children a rich supply of meat. It continues with a rich tycoon's wife bearing a baby that grows up to resemble her beefy bodyguard. Men are to be exploited as providers of parental care, wealth, and genes.

Cynical? Not half as cynical as most accounts of human history. [pp. 243—244]

This next, shorter excerpt comes from near the end of the book, just before the short epilogue, ending a chapter in which Ridley examined possible explanations for why the human brain evolved to such a large size so quickly, and what purpose such an adaptation may have served – in the context of sexual selection, of course.

It is a disquieting thought that our heads contain a neurological version of a peacock's tail – an ornament designed for sexual display whose virtuosity at everything from calculus to sculpture is perhaps just a side effect of the ability to charm. Disquieting and yet not altogether convincing. The sexual selection of the human mind is the most speculative and fragile of the many evolutionary theories discussed in this book, but it is also very much in the same vein as the others. I began this book by asking why all human beings were so similar and yet so different, suggesting that the answer lay in the unique alchemy of sex. An individual is unique because of the genetic variety that sexual reproduction generates in its perpetual chess tournament with disease. An individual is a member of a homogeneous species because of the incessant mixing of that variety in the pool of fellow human beings' genes. And I end with one of the strangest of the consequences of sex: that the choosiness of human beings in picking their mates had driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expansion for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness, and individuality turn other people on. It is a somewhat less uplifting perspective on the purpose of humanity than the religious one, but it is also rather liberating. Be different. [p. 344.]

-- Notes by JNS

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