The Red Queen
Published by Perennial
The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the
other things round them never changed their places at all: however
fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. "I wonder
if all the things move along with us?" thought poor puzzled
Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried,
"Faster! Don't try to talk!"
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
This book is an in-depth analysis of the Red Queen principle in terms of sexuality, both human and otherwise. Ridley's argument is that sex is humanity's best method for outwitting predators, both internal and external, and the entire book is nothing but expositions on various aspects of that idea with many examples from humanity and otherwise (with journal references a go go).
Ridley starts out with a very brash in your face statement: all of human behavior is inherited. He's clearly on the nature side of the nature vs. nurture debate; to him, nurture is merely just an imprint on our natural impulses. And what's our natural impulse? Sex, sex, and more sex.
Soon after, Ridley's general view is summarized as thus: "Sex is not about reproduction, gender is not about males and females, courtship is not about persuasion, fashion is not about beauty, and love is not about affection. Below the surface of every banality and cliche there lies irony, cynicism, and profundity." A pretty shocking statement, but he leaves himself three hundred pages to back it up.
Ridley makes the case that sex merely exists as a method to mix up genes, not as a method to reproduce. Our drive to have sex is not the drive to have lots of children; there would be better methods for doing that. Instead, we are selective: rather than using energy to just cast about our genetic seed, we put a lot of work into selecting an appropriate mate.
If women didn't exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.
- Aristotle Onassis
This overall Red Queen sexual worldview brings to mind many interesting questions about our sexual peccadilloes. Ridley's explanations for a few of these sexual issues are discussed below; this is an intentionally incomplete list in order to encourage those interested to pick up this fascinating book.
Why do men consider "thin" women attractive? Men are predispositioned to select women who look biologically as though they would be a successful mother. The ramification of this is that men will select women who look healthy (i.e., don't have excess fat), but also have large hips (suggesting a greater likelihood of successful birth) and large breasts (suggesting the ability to feed the child). Hence the success of Jennifer Lopez.
Why are men nothing but a bunch of cheating bastards? Men have a lot less energy to invest in the process of producing children; their true involvement is over at the moment of fertilization of the egg. Thus, it makes sense for men, in order to maximize their chances of passing on their genes, to have sex with as many women as possible.
If that's the case, then why do many men commit themselves to monogamy? The philandering nature of men is counterbalanced by the selective nature of women; women won't have sex with just anyone. Thus, to offer something greater to their mate, men will often agree to a monogamous relationship with them and aid in the child rearing process, as this will increase the chances of a successful, sexually viable child to continue the tradition of passing on genes.
Why are some societies oppose first cousin marriage, while other cultures embrace it? It largely depends on the population density of the culture. In dense cultures, people are more likely to spend time with their first cousins during early childhood, and it is in our human predisposition to find people that we interact with during our early childhood to not be sexually attractive when we're older (that's why an Oedipus complex makes people uncomfortable). Thus, in less dense populations where most human interaction is with our nuclear family, first cousin intermating seems acceptable, and is quite often preferred (as in the 1800s South in the United States).
The Red Queen addresses each of these issues in much greater detail and also addresses many others, such as the causes of and reasons for homosexuality, the issues both genders have with fashion, the need for competitiveness and political games, why first born sons usually receive most of an inheritance, and why people don't choose polygamy or polyandry. It all comes back to our genes and our ongoing fight to pass them on and outsmart those around us, in the eyes of Ridley.
The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.
- Ogden Nash
Potential readers of this book are going to wind up in two camps: this book is boring biology, or this book is fascinating. Ridley makes a very strong effort to pull in those in the "boring biology" crowd with a lot of anecdotal evidence (notes on men and women cheating, stories of polygamy and polyandry, tales of incest, and so forth) and a fair amount of humor (Calvin Coolidge's prodigous sexual appetite is mentioned). I personally found it a bit on the dry side, but it goes down a lot easier than Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins. Overall it is recommended, especially to those with an interest in sex; similar books include The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker.
This writeup was written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.