The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, by Matt Ridley

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, by Matt Ridley
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, by Matt Ridley

Why sex is the reason humans are at the top of the food chain.

I first came upon Matt Ridley when Slashdot reviewed Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Parts (here and here ). Ridley’s finely-honed technical writing style could make a treatise on the Boston White Pages intriguing and enlightening, and his treatment of the human Genome was simply eye-opening. I had to have more, and went out immediately to order every Ridley book I could find. Luckily, The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue were already available and his latest, Nature via Nurture was just hitting shelves. Prepare yourself for my ongoing Overview of Ridley in Three Parts.

After laying our souls (and chromosomes!) bare in Genome, Ridley swiftly moves on to a topic that is variously fascinating and taboo: Sex. Every Slashdot user it seems wants more information about it. Ridley immediately tackles the Paradox of Sex: In an asexual organism, every individual of the species can create offspring. In sexual creatures (like people!), only the female can produce young. What’s so great about sex then, that overcomes this obvious numerical handicap? In eleven brisk chapters, Ridley unravels the riddles with examples of how and why other species Do It (or Don’t It), and what it all means.

Table of Contents
Human Nature
The Enigma
The Power of Parasites
Genetic Mutiny and Gender
The Peacock’s Tale
Polygamy and the Nature of Men
Monogamy and the Nature of Women
Sexing the Mind
The Uses of Beauty
The Intellectual Chess Game
The Self-Domesticated Ape

Topics explored (though not claimed to be definitively explained) include mitochondrial DNA, dowries, the genetic foundations of harems, how males of a species could develop flagrant ‘handicaps’ like bright coloration or songs, monogamy, polygamy, adultery and a small species of New Zealand snail that suffers from a parasite named (I’m not making this up) Microphallus. One of the most compelling concepts is that a species’ strongest competitor (and driving force behind their evolution) is their own kind, not their foes. In the end it is this argument, called The Red Queen (after a Lewis Carrol character that runs quickly but never gets ahead) that explains so much of our evolutionary hodgepodge of DNA and instinctive behaviour.

Around the world The Red Queen hustles, dissecting the environmental clues given by the mating rituals and biology of various species, asexual, sexual, heterosexual, hermaphroditic and otherwise, comparing them to Homo Sapiens, “the sexiest primate alive” (except for bonobos). As for humans, Ridley divulges how walking upright and our large brains are connected to our comparatively slow maturation, long lifespan and lack of hair. Always in the background is the unquestionable tenet: No one is descended from a celibate organism.

Ridley daringly takes on feminism and gender equality by pointing out that males and females DO differ genetically (duh!) and that in other species the effect of this difference is quite marked. Rather than degenerating into a misogynistic orgy of gender-bashing, he exposes the reasons why (among other differences) men might actually be better at reading maps and women might be more social. Both genders have to get along in order to continue the species, so understanding our differences may be a boon to all. While in the mood for controversy, Ridley delves into the reasons for the genetic-confounding phenomena of homosexuality in a species.

You don’t need to have read Genome to read Red Queen, but if you have, you might find all of the puzzles fitting together into an even bigger picture, to be further sketched out in The Origins of Virtue and Nature Via Nurture. This book is not illustrated and probably won’t help you get a date next weekend, but it might explain why you’re instinctively attracted to those three young blondes at the bar. And why they’re all more interested in the cinderblock quarterback of the football team. And despite what my inbox tells me, it has nothing to do with the size of a certain part of your anatomy, but rather the size of… well, go read the book.

Check out Ridley's other books as well, he's an amazing writer.

Slashdot printed this review in July 2003. There are many interesting and informative comments.

Here's a summary of the book, by chapter.

Wikipedia's take on The Red Queen Concept

The publisher's official site