90 second book review: Red Queen

Red Queen, by Matt Ridley, is another book that made it on my “to read” list somehow that I can’t quite remember, and came to be on my “to read” pile by way of Half Price Books. Since I can’t remember how I became aware of it, I also can’t remember what interested me about it initially or what I hope to get out it when I added it to my list. When I saw it on the HBP books shelf thought I recalled it was “on the list” and upon scanning the back and inside covers it seemed to fit in a genre of books that I typically enjoy: pop science.
Red Queen fits that genre to a tee, although it focuses on a domain of science that I have never felt particularly strong in: biology. I think I have taken a grand total of one biology course, my sophomore year of high school. I don’t recall doing particularly poorly…or particularly well. I also don’t recall being particularly interested. At least not as interested as I was in what I saw at the time as the “purer” science of physics and it’s close relationship with the maths. I somehow avoided biology as a college course altogether, yet here I found myself reading a nearly 400 page biology book. Strange are the path ways that self directed learning will take you sometimes.
The title of the book comes from Lewis Carroll’s character of the same name in Through the Looking Glass. In that story the Red Queen (not to be cofused with the Queen of Hearts in the first book) has a dialog where she explains that she has to keep running faster and faster just to keep in the same place since the scenery around her is accelerating as well. In mathematic, rather than literary terms, the story focuses on the idea of a zero sum game. Which is the claim that Ridley makes about evolution.
I have been giving more thought and study to evolutionary theory of late. Some of that is from my interest in one of the story lines in Sapiens: that cultural evolution through language and narrative, became a faster mechanism than biological evolution and that’s why we Sapiens rule the planet today. The rest of it comes from the opening of the Arc Museum just a few miles from my house. Suddenly the ability to succinctly state and defend the case for evolutionary theory has become much more relevant.
Ridley argues that rather than some of the traditional conceptualizations of evolution as a progressive, if not always linear process, it is in fact circular. At any given point in time, one branch of the evolutionary tree may be able to get ahead of its competition, but given time for enough random mutations and selection to occur, the leader is overtaken and the cycle begins again. Evolution may seem progressive if you pick specific start and end times, but taken as a whole, it never really gets anyone anywhere. He writes:

“Before ‘civilization’ and since democracy, men have been unable to accumulate the sort of power than enabled the most successful to be promiscuous despots. The best they could hope for in the Pleistocene period was one or two faithful wives and a few affairs if their hunting or political skills were especially great. The best they can hope for now is a good-looking younger mistress and a devoted wife who is traded in every decade or so. We’re back to square one.”

(NB: There are a lot of quotes like the above throughout the book. Ridley points out early on that he is not making any moral judgements about the behavior he describes. He is merely trying to describe the behavior as it happens and come up with a narrative that explains why that fits the facts. That’s called science.)
He bolsters his argument with theory after theory from a variety of different biologists (all supported with experimental evidence). The book is literally chock full of them, so I will just list a few that I found interesting here:

  • The early church was so obsessed with sexual matters for less heavenly and more earthly reasons. Namely, as a way to preventing private wealth accumulation and leaving more church coffers:

“It (the church) had little to say abut polygamy or the begetting of 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 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.”

  • Three of the things that many evolutionary theorists point to as being uniquely human my have evolved in parallel and were dependent on each other:

“Men keep an eye on their wives by proxy. If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother or his neighbor is his wife was up to anything during the day. In the African pygmies that Wrangham studied, gossip was rife and a husband’s best chance of deterring his wife’s affairs was to let her know that he kept abreast of the gossip. Wrangham when on to observe that this was impossible without language, so he speculated that the sexual division of amor, he institution of child rearing marriages and the invention of language – three of the most fundamental human characteristics shared with no other ape – all depend on one another.”

  • The development of our oversized brains (as compared to our ape brethren), and the resulting cognitive capabilities that make us unique, may have been an accidental outcome of sexual selection for youth:

“If men began selecting mates that appeared youthful, then any gene that slowed the rate of development of adult characteristics in a woman would make her more attractive at a given age than a rival. Consequently, she would leave more decedents, who would inherit the same gene. Any neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adult life and which is also credited with allowing further brain development after birth) gene would give the appearance of youthfulness. Neoteny, in other words, could be a a consequence of sexual selection and since neoteny is credited with increasing our intelligence (by enlarging the brain size at adulthood), it is to sexual selection that we should attribute our great intelligence.”

  • The basic genetic programing that all modern men and women are walking around with:

“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.”

“Likewise int he mind of the 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.”

Beides a series of fascinating evolutionary theories, I came away impressed with the imaginations of the various biologists that came up with these theories. I have become aware of an entirely different approach to narrative construction that is more complex than the straightforward physics of force A applied to point 1 results in force B at point 2. Evolutionary narrative construction involves enough varied groups and and interests that a Game of Thrones writer would be well served by picking up a copy of this book for plot ideas.
Ridley knows that many of his ideas will be used by some to make political arguments on one side or another since he writes in the Epilogue:

“No doubt its (red queen evolutionary narratives) politicization and the vested interests ranged against it will do as much damage as was done to previous attempts to understand human nature.”

He shares his story anyway since having these stories is how we break out of the seeming pre-destiny of genetics. Our genetic “programming” may seem to some like an inescapable prison. I view it differently (thanks to Sapiens): the power of language and story has given us both the tools to become aware of our base level “programming”. With this awareness we can then write a new higher level “program” that over rides what our genetics tells us to do. Culture eats genetics for breakfast every day. We just have to decide what we’re cooking.







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