Bits of Books - Books by Title

The Red Queen

Sex and The Evolution of Human Nature

Matt Ridley

More books on Evolution

Can only understand behaviour in terms of replication of genes.

Humans unique in that whereas every sparrow or deer or trout will do everything

that every other sparrow deer or trout does, every human individual is a specialist of some sort.

We are descended from people who chose the best available genes for their children. So, if we spot someone with good genes, it is our inherited habit to seek to buy those genes - ie, people are attracted to people of high value - the healthy, the fit, and the powerful.

'Adaptionists' believe that animals and plants, their body parts and their behaviours, consist largely of designs to solve particular problems.

Easy to understand that body 'design' is evo selected (ie we are descended from people whose eyes/stomachs/brains etc did a slightly better job than those of their peers), but struggle to accept that behaviour is similarly 'designed'.

Concept that 'progress' is relative is called the Red Queen, after the chess piece Alice meets, who perpetually runs but never gets anywhere bc the landscape moves with her. When an org evolves an advantage, it 'causes' it's prey to evolve better defences

What is the reason for sex? In words of John Maynard Smith "We have the answers. We cannot agree on them, that's all." If some humans could reproduce asexually, clones would very quickly vastly outnumber sexual humans and men would die out. But this hasn't happened, implying that there must be a benefit, outweighing the 'cocts' of sex.

A normal human being has 2 copies of each of about 75,000 genesin every cell of their body. When a man impregnates a woman, each one of his sperm contains one copy of each gene, 75000 in all, on 23 chromosomes. These get added to the 75,000 single genes on 23 chromosomes in the woman's egg to make a complete embryo with 75,000 pairs of genes on 23 chromosomes.

Parasites biggest danger to humans - various plagues/epidemics keep killing. Parasites and hosts locked in a Red Queen battle: the more successful the parasite's attack, the more selection for host's which resist that attack. And the better the host defends, the more natural selection will promote the parasites that can overcome those defences.

(NY Times)

SEX! Without it, we wouldn't exist; there would be nothing more complex than blue-green algae in some scummy pond. Love makes the world go round? No, sex does, providing the endless variety of types from which evolution selects and making the choosing of breeding partners the main event in the evolutionary drama.

At least, this is the latest version of Darwinism shared by three new books -- "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature," "The Sex Imperative: An Evolutionary Tale of Sexual Survival" and "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating." All of them proclaim that sex -- not the survival of the fittest -- is the force behind everything from the evolution of peacocks' tails to the ballooning of human brains. And all three reflect more than a revision of evolutionary theory, for they concern the shaping of human nature itself. Two decades ago Edward O. Wilson, in his monumental book "Sociobiology," prophesied (or, some would say, threatened) that "having cannibalized psychology, the new neurobiology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology." These books try to fulfill that prophecy by showing that biology can provide deeper and more far-reaching explanations of human nature than studies of culture can.

The authors bring a diverse set of qualifications to this task. David M. Buss, the author of "The Evolution of Desire" and a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, seems to be a trifle edgy about how his colleagues will take his allegiance to sociobiology. The other two seem more at ease. Kenneth Maxwell, the author of "The Sex Imperative," is an emeritus professor of biology at California State University in Long Beach, and Matt Ridley, the author of "The Red Queen," though he has been primarily a science editor at The Economist, has also published ethological papers on the mating habits of birds.

Although the books differ in focus, they inevitably overlap in content: Mr. Ridley and Mr. Maxwell both discuss the enormous size of whales' testicles (100 pounds for the blue whale, according to Mr. Maxwell; up to a ton for the right whale, claims Mr. Ridley). And all three authors tell the same story about President Coolidge, his wife and the rooster. (In Mr. Maxwell's telling, when the Coolidges "were touring a poultry farm accompanied by separate guides, Mrs. Coolidge asked how often the rooster performed his duty and was told, 'Several times a day.' She said, 'Tell that to Mr. Coolidge.' When the message was relayed to the President, he asked whether the rooster did it all with the same hen, and was told, 'No, each time with a different hen.' The President replied, 'Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.' ")

Mr. Maxwell's book is the least polemical of the three. Where Mr. Buss and Mr. Ridley are interested in making a case against the prevailing view of humans as primarily cultural animals, Mr. Maxwell simply presents life's stunning array of sexual tools and tactics in order to illustrate the adaptability of life forms to their environments. Between Mr. Maxwell's first two chapters, on life's origins and evolutionary theory, and his last three, on the heady future of sperm banks, in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering, he sandwiches 14 detailed chapters about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of sex in our own and other species. Did you know that some lizards have two penises, and that most birds don't have any and must resort to what the author coyly calls "cloacal kissing"? Did you know that when a dog and a bitch get stuck, it's no accident, just the male dog's way of making sure no other dog inseminates "his" female? Have you heard of the Kansas con man "Dr." John R. Brinkley, who became a millionaire in the 1920's and early 30's by transplanting goats' testicles into aging roues? (The men got to pick their own goats.) If you find such things fascinating, this is your book.

For "The Evolution of Desire," Mr. Buss and his colleagues interviewed 10,000 people from 37 different cultures about their courtship and sexual practices; oddly enough, though, the full results of this survey are never presented, even in summary form. Drawing impressionistically on this survey, Mr. Buss marches, sometimes ploddingly, through the human mating cycle, providing animal analogies along the way, to show that every quirk of the mating game in every culture can be attributed to the gene's single-minded agenda: reproduce yourself and zap your competitors whenever possible. Thus, Mr. Buss analyzes how we select partners for long-term and short-term relationships (for long-term relationships, we tend to go for secure mates who will be good parents; for short-term relationships, we choose mates who will be vigorous and energetic), and he describes how men and women differ in their strategies for choosing mates (women choose more stable relationships because they must carry their young for nine months and then nurture them for years; men tend to be more promiscuous because they can scatter their seed with impunity).

Mr. Ridley's book, "The Red Queen," is the most thoughtful (and he's by far the best writer). The "Red Queen" in his book is the "Alice in Wonderland" character who had to run as fast as she could just to stay in the same place. The term was first used, as Mr. Ridley mentions in passing and belatedly, by Leigh Van Valen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, to describe "arms races" between prey and predator species in which each side improves its equipment but neither gains an advantage. In other words, each runs in place not to win the struggle for survival, but merely to avoid losing it.

Mr. Ridley tailors the Red Queen analogy -- not without occasionally stretching and tearing it -- to fit competition between the sexes. He makes a convincing case that sex itself originated in an arms race between parasites and their hosts. Asexual organisms, whose DNA never changes, make sitting ducks for parasites, who quickly learn their hosts' weaknesses. But sexual species, whose DNA varies with each generation, can always keep one jump ahead of the parasites.

Mr. Ridley argues that once sex was established, it began to drive evolution. In choosing their mates, organisms -- usually the females of the species -- determine to some extent what the next generation will be like. Although females try to make good reproductive choices by picking out males whose outward appearance indicates health and vigor, whatever attributes they do choose spread through entire species, even when those choices seem quirky. For instance, female birds may choose mates with gaudy plumage and long tails, even though these attributes attract predators and make flight difficult; maybe, if they could explain their choice, they would say that male birds who have survived with such handicaps must be extra tough and smart!

Perhaps Mr. Ridley's most daring claim involves the explosive growth of hominid brains, and hence the vastly enhanced intelligence of human beings. According to him, intelligence could have evolved only if humans had persistently selected smarter and smarter mates. Although he neatly demolishes some alternative theories of brain growth, he fails to explain why only hominids found intelligence sexy, or why, in Mr. Buss's cross-cultural survey, women ranked intelligence only fifth out of 18 desirable attributes. (The first four seem to be love, dependability, emotional stability and ambition.)

The arguments advanced by Mr. Buss and Mr. Ridley may arouse hostility in two types of readers: those who believe that culture has a bigger hand than biology in ruling human behavior, and those who deny fundamental differences between the mentalities of the two sexes. Mr. Buss partly defends himself against the first group by showing that the results of his survey of mating habits were surprisingly uniform. And Mr. Ridley defends himself against the second group by insisting that sexual equality doesn't depend on sexual sameness (although his choice of Camille Paglia as his authority on feminism won't help him here).

For the most part, though, the authors are antipathetic to those who oppose sociobiology. They observe, correctly I think, that the social sciences have spent too much effort cataloguing relatively superficial differences between humans and too little effort studying the deeper bonds that unite humans with one another and with other species. Yet doubts remain about the authors' sociobiological leanings: are we really getting to the truth of human nature, or are we simply replacing one bias with another?

One's suspicion is especially aroused by remarks like this by Mr. Buss: "Fast food chains are popular precisely because they serve [ fat, sugar, protein and salt ] . . . . They reveal the food preferences that evolved in a past environment of scarcity." Really? The desire for cheapness and quickness in our ever-faster and more regimented societies couldn't have anything to do with it? Mr. Buss sounds this kind of deterministic note more often than Mr. Ridley.

WHEN Mr. Buss makes analogies between humans and other creatures, he picks any species he pleases, from shrike to sunfish, provided that one feature of its behavior seems to match one in the human repertory. Mr. Ridley is more careful. He draws his analogies either from species that are closely related to humans or from those that seem to share behavior similar to ours -- for example, from ibises and swallows, which, like us, form monogamous unions but live in large groups.

Still, no matter how careful one is, it is unclear just how helpful interspecies analogies are, anyway. When a bird practices what zoologists call "extra-pair copulation," can we really call this adultery? "That is what it is," Mr. Ridley declares flatly. While "adultery" sounds sexier than "extra-pair copulation," confusing the two terms amounts to ignoring the vast body of law, custom and religious doctrine (wholly unknown to swallows) that defines adultery among humans. Moreover, the intent of the two activities is completely different. Those who engage in extra-pair copulation usually aim to make babies; adulterers usually try to avoid making them.

Mr. Ridley is a also shaky in handling the subject of homosexuality. On the one hand, he sees the promiscuity of male homosexuals as typically masculine behavior; on the other hand, he attributes homosexuality to a lack of testosterone at a crucial prenatal stage, which, he says, causes male homosexuals to act more like women than like men. Maybe there's an answer to this apparent contradiction, but Mr. Ridley doesn't supply it.

Behind these particular concerns with Mr. Ridley's and Mr. Buss's books lies a more general one: Isn't it a bit odd that the latest pronouncements of science should so often echo the cynical, age-old "wisdom" of locker rooms and bars? If this criticism seems harsh, consider Mr. Ridley's contention that "the best [ that men ] can hope for" in a civilized society "is a good-looking younger mistress and a devoted wife who is traded in every decade or so." If sex is war, can we learn the whole truth about it when all three reports come from the same trench, from a man's point of view? Mightn't a woman give a different perspective, especially since her view, according to sociobiology, is genetically bound to be completely different?

And there is a final paradoxical question that needs to be raised: Isn't it possible that the belief that biology plays a bigger role than culture in shaping human nature is itself determined by culture, by the shift from the Great Society to the post-Reagan ethos of everyone for himself?

Both Mr. Ridley and Mr. Buss insist that they are describing not what humans should be like, but what they are like. Fair enough -- but is it all that they're like? Sociobiology explains things we share with other species, not those that make us different. I'm not saying we should defend the blinkered, culture-is-all orthodoxy. Yet a biology-is-all orthodoxy is equally blinkered and confining. Maybe the swinging of the intellectual pendulum makes as good an object lesson as any about the ever-elusive mystery of human nature.


The question Darwin failed to answer was why. Why on earth should females prefer gaudiness in males? Even if the "preference" was entirely unconscious and was merely an instinctive response to the superior seduction technique of gaudy males, it was the evolution of the female preference, not the male trait, that was hard to explain.

Sometime during the 1970's it began to dawn on people that a perfectly good answer to the question had been available since 1930. Sir Ronald Fisher had suggested then that females need no better reason for preferring long tails than that other females also prefer long tails. At first such logic sounds suspiciously circular, but that is its beauty. Once most females are choosing to mate with some males rather than others and are using tail length as the criterion -- a big once, granted . . . -- then any female who bucks the trend and chooses a short-tailed male will have short-tailed sons. . . . All the other females are looking for long-tailed males, so those 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. The result is that the females' arbitrary preferences have saddled the males of their species with ever more grotesque encumbrances. Even when those encumbrances themselves threaten the life of the male, the process can continue -- as long as the threat to his life is smaller than the enhancement of his breeding success. From "The Red Queen."

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress