Ridley: The Red Queen (2)

From Scienticity

Jump to: navigation, search
Scienticity: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Readability: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Hermeneutics: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Charisma: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Recommendation: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Ratings are described on the Book-note ratings page.

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

I’ve been meaning to read The Red Queen for quite a while. I read his book Genome about three years ago, and it impressed me so much The Red Queen had been on my to-be-read list ever since. In fact, I even gave a copy of it to my uber-science sister (who doesn’t really like to read) for her birthday one year, and she enjoyed it. So when I discovered my new library had it, I immediately clicked the ‘hold’ button and went for it!

It is much older than I expected, with a 1993 publication date, which always makes me hesitate a bit with science books (the fields all seem to move so quickly nowadays), but fortunately Ridley presents the theories in a ‘this might not be true’ manner that makes the book less vulnerable to age. And what theories would those be? Well, they’re a bit controversial, but essentially Ridley argues the men and women have both physical and intellectual differences brought on by evolution. The less controversial part, from a 2008 perspective, is that men and women respond to sex differently due to evolution (essentially, it’s natural for men to go for quantity and women to go for quality). I’m sure that I’ve read more recent science stuff challenging this, saying that it might be in men’s evolutionary best interests to stick around and help raise their offspring as well, but I still enjoyed reading Ridley’s exploration of the theory.

He was obviously concerned that if he immediately said “evolution has created real gender differences in humans” people would write him off immediately, so he begins his approach more obliquely. After an introduction explaining that he likes to ask the question ‘why’ (”Why does a man fall in love with a pretty woman?” etc.), he jumps back to a more fundamental concern: why has sex evolved at all? After all, if a creature reproduces asexually, then all of her (the default gender) genes are being passed on, which seems better. Sex seems to make things much more complicated, so there must be some kind of payoff. Eventually, Ridley explains that it comes down to parasites, and here’s where we meet the Red Queen theory for the first time. In Alice and Wonderland, the Red Queen is a very fast runner who never gets anywhere, because her world is moving just as quickly. Transferred to biology, Red Queen theories argue that evolution is a kind of arms race, with the genes just trying to keep up. In this case, sex evolved because of a permanent contest between parasites and their hosts; more genetic variety makes it easier for hosts to combat the parasites. Eventually, however, the parasites find a new way in, so then the hosts must develop new defenses, on and on in a Red Queen constant movement without progress kind of dance. I found this the dullest chapter; it was interesting, but not really compelling.

Fortunately, that all changes about a hundred pages in, when Ridley moves on to looking at why we have two genders, and why they’re determined genetically (instead of, say, by temperature or size or age, like in other kinds of animals). And then things get really interesting, when he turns to birds. In many species, the male birds have developed something distinctive to use in courting (the nightingale’s beautiful song, the peacock’s impressive tale, etc.). The key question, again, is why. Ridley clearly explains the idea of female selection; since the female peacock was more attracted to a male peacock with a gaudy tail, more of his genes were passed down than the non-gaudy males, so over generations the males’ tails became more and more elaborate. Of course, then there’s the question of why the female was originally attracted to the gaudy tale, and Ridley goes into lots of theories about that too. One of the reasons I really loved this book is that Ridley presents competing theories and carefully explains the evidence for and against them. He makes it clear which theory he sides with, but leaves it up to the reader to weigh the evidence for him/herself. To me, it’s a real relief to meet a science writer who presents more than one theory. Not that most science writers don’t, Ridley just does it very well.

It’s not until chapter six, and page one hundred seventy one, that Ridley gets up the courage to turn his talk to humans. It’s obvious that all of his discussion about the effects of evolution on other animals was laying a groundwork for the reader to be ok with discussing the effects of evolution on people, and Ridley devotes no little amount of time pointing out that humans are animals and attacking anthropology and sociology. Remember, this was back in 1993; I don’t know all that much about anthropology & sociology, but apparently back then it was de rigeur to deny that evolution affected human nature and to say that all human quirks come from culture. This doesn’t amuse Ridley, and he comes down pretty hard on both disciplines. He also makes some passing jabs at feminism, asserting that most feminists have contradictory beliefs: that men and women are equal, and that the world would be different if women were in charge. Most of this is just defensiveness; since Ridley argues that there are biological differences between the male and female brains, he’s obviously trying to head off attacks beforehand. He emphasizes more than once that just because he says something is due to evolution, and thus ‘natural,’ doesn’t mean he condones it or that people should give in to their urges.

As long as you can look past all of this defensiveness, which was pretty easy for me (and I’m a proud feminist!), the theories he puts forth are intriguing. I am not sure I completely buy them, but they definitely provided food for thought; it helps that’s he done his research and has a pretty extensive endnotes and bibliography section. Since over one hundred fifty pages of the book look at various aspects of how sex and evolution affect human nature, I’m obviously not going to be able to go into a lot of detail here. However, he looks at things such as why people judge beauty the way they do, why men tend to be more polygamous and women more monogamous, he briefly touches on male homosexuality and some of its possible physical causes, and why humans kept evolving bigger and bigger brains. Finally, in his epilogue, he admits that the Red Queen theory might be misguided anyway. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking about.

All in all, I’d recommend this to people interested in evolutionary biology, or who are interested in reading about the battle of the sexes from a scientist’s point of view. It’s well-written, engaging, and will definitely get you thinking if nothing else! It mixes in more than just science, as you’ll see from my favorite passages. Plus, it’s not at all PC, which is rather refreshing.

Favorite Passages

"The 'great war' of 1914-18 killed 25 million people in four years. The influenza epidemic that followed killed 25 million in four months."

"Sex is about disease. It is used to combat the threat from parasites. Organisms need sex to keep their genes one step ahead of the parasites. Men are not redundant after all; they are woman’s insurance policy against her children being wiped out by influenza and smallpox (if that is a consolation). Women add sperm to their eggs because if they did not, the resulting babies would be identically vulnerable to the first parasite that picked their genetic locks."

"If you include Chelsea Clinton, daughter of the forty-second president of the United States, it is a curious statistical fact that all the presidents have between them had ninety sons and only sixty-one daughters. A sex ratio of 60 percent male in such a large sample is markedly different from the population at large, though how to came about nobody can guess--probably by pure chance. Yet presidents are not alone. Royalty, aristocrats, and even well-off American settlers have all consistently produced slightly more sons than daughters. So do well-fed opossums, hamsters, coypus, and higher-ranking spider monkeys."

"But we are not birds. The only way to be certain of rearing a boy is to kill a girl child at birth and start again, or to use amniocentesis to identify the gender of the fetus and then abort it if it’s a girl. These repugnant practices are undoubtedly on offer in various parts of the world. The Chinese, deprived of the chance to have more than one child, killed more than 250,000 girls after birth between 1979 and 1984. In some age groups in China, there are 122 boys for every 100 girls. In one recent study of clinics in Bombay, of 8,000 abortions, 7,997 were of female fetuses."

"Contrary to popular belief a preference for boys over girls is not universal. Indeed, there is a close relationship between social status and the degree to which sons are preferred. Laura Betzig of the University of Michigan noted that, in feudal times, lords favored their sons, but peasants were more likely to leave possessions to their daughters. While their feudal superiors killed or neglected their daughters or banished them to convents, peasants left them more possessions. Sexism was more a feature of the elite than of the unchronicled masses."

"A man can 'win' a woman by competing with other men, or he can woo her, or both."

"Once most females are choosing to mate with some males rather than others and are using tail length as the criterion…then any female who bucks the trend and chooses a short-tailed male will have short-tailed sons. …All other females are looking for long-tailed males, so these short-tailed sons will not have much success. At this point, choosing long-tailed males need be no more than an arbitrary fashion: it is still despotic. Each peahen is on a treadmill and dare not jump off lest she condemn her sons to celibacy."

"There seems to be something about steroid hormones that unavoidably depresses immune defense. This immune effect of testosterone is the reason that men are more susceptible to infectious diseases than women, a trend that occurs throughout the animal kingdom. Eunuchs live longer than other men, and male creatures generally suffer from higher mortality and strain."

"Low was looking to explain why young women have fat on their breasts and buttocks more than on other parts of their bodies. The reason this requires explaining is that young women are different from other human beings in this respect. Older women, young girls, and men of all ages gain fat on their torsos and limbs much more evenly. If a woman of twenty or so gains weight, it largely takes the form of fat on the breasts and buttocks; her waists can remain remarkably narrow."

"Fish have magnificent color vision: whereas we use three different types of color-detecting cells in the eye (red, blue, and green), fish have four, and birds have up to seven. Compared to the way birds see the world, our lives are monochrome."

"The Church’s obsessions with sexual matters were very different from St. Paul’s. It had little to say about polygamy or the begetting of many bastards, although both were commonplace and against doctrine. Instead, it concentrated on three things: first, divorce, remarriage, and adoption; second, wet nursing, and sex during periods when the liturgy demanded abstinence; and third, 'incest' between people married to within seven canonical degrees. In all three cases the Church seems to have been trying to prevent lords from siring legitimate heirs. If a man obeyed the doctrines of the Church in the year 1100, he could not divorce a barren wife, he certainly could not remarry while she lived, and he could not adopt an heir. His wife could not give her baby daughter to a wet nurse and be ready to bear another in the hope of its being a son, and he could not make love to his wife 'for three weeks at Easter, four weeks at Christmas, and one to seven weeks at Pentecost; plus Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays-days for penance or sermons; plus miscellaneous feast days.' He also could not bear a legitimate heir by any woman closer than a seventh cousin--which excluded most noble women within three hundred miles. It all adds up to a sustained attack by the Church on the siring of heirs, and 'it was not until the Church started to fill up with the younger brothers of men of state that the struggle over inheritance-over marriage-between them began.'"

"There is no a priori reason for assuming that men and women have identical minds and no amount of wishing it were so will make it so if it is not so. Difference is not inequality."

"Therefore, there is absolutely no justification from evolutionary biology for the view that men should earn and women should darn their socks. There may be professions, such as car mechanic or big-game hunger, that men are psychologically more suited to than women, just as there are professions, such as doctor and nanny, that women are probably naturally better at. But there is no general support in biology for sexism about careers."

"Indeed, the overwhelming fascination of men with female youth argues that pair bonds have lasted lifetimes. In this we are quite unlike any other mammal. Chimpanzees find old females just as attractive as young ones as long as both are in estrus.

"In Regency England, Louis XIV’s France, medieval Christendom, ancient Greece, or among modern Yanomamo, men followed fashion as avidly as women. Men wore bright colors, flowing robes, jewels, rich materials, gorgeous uniforms, and gleaming, decorated armor. The damsels that knights rescued were no more fashionably attired than their paramours. Only in Victorian times did the deadly uniformity of the block frock coat and its dismal modern descendant, the gray suit, infect the male sex, and only in this century have women’s hemlines gone up and down like yo-yos."

"Virtually all novels and plays are about the same subject, when disguised as history or adventure. If you want to understand human motives, read Proust or Trollope or Tom Wolfe, not Freud or Piaget or Skinner. We are obsessed with one another’s minds. 'Out intuitive commonsense psychology far surpasses any scientific psychology in scope and accuracy,' wrote Don Symons. Horace Barlow points out that great literary minds are, almost by definition, great mind-reading minds. Shakespeare was a far better psychologist than Freud, and Jane Austen a far better sociologist than Durkheim. We are clever because we are--and to the extent that we are--natural psychologists."

-- Notes by EVA

Personal tools
science time-capsules