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The Red Queen : Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (original 1993; edition 1995)

by Matt Ridley

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1,613184,504 (4.06)66
Member:grunin
Title:The Red Queen : Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
Authors:Matt Ridley
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1995), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Collections:Your library
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Tags:Science, Eros, u

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The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley (1993)

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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
"The Red Queen" by Matt Ridley is an enjoyable, interesting, but slightly flawed biology book. Ridley's thesis is that sexual selection (in animals of all sorts, not just humans) is responsible for the development of many important traits, rather than pressures from the environment (such as the needs to find food, traverse the landscape, avoid predators, etc.). The importance of sexual selection can be easily overlooked, as we seek some sort of environmental advantage in every evolved trait. But the most powerful drivers of evolution are "Red Queen" races- instances where the goalposts keep moving, like an arms race, so you have to keep changing in order simply to maintain your genes' commonality from generation to generation. Predatory/prey and organism/parasite are two such relationships, but arguably, an even more acute one arises from competition between members of the same species for mates, and in particular, for the highest-quality mates, whose genes or nurture will give one's offspring the best odds of success.

Most of the book focuses on non-human animals, and this is where the book is strongest. Ridley builds off of the gene-centered view of evolution first brought to prominence by Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene," and some of Ridley's best content focuses on the ways whereby what promotes the commonality of a gene differs from what helps the organism to survive and reproduce. (Perhaps reading Dawkins' book would provide more detail on these things.) Another good part of Ridley's book is his discussion of why sexual selection persists and became common, even though it carries a tremendous, 4x penalty over asexual reproduction in terms of passing a single organism's genes to the next generation (half as many children, each of which has half of a single parent's genes).

Ridley shows that humans, like all animals, have been shaped by the pressure of sexual selection as an evolutionary driver. However, Ridley doesn't spend much time on fairly simple examples like height, which would seem to be comparatively easy to prove (a preference for tall men is common among women across many cultures, and that results in taller children of both sexes, changing the goalposts for what counts as "tall"). Instead, Ridley tries to explain aspects of "human nature" as results of evolutionary effects of sexual selection. He may be right to varying degrees, depending on which trait one is considering, but the connections are more tenuous, and it's harder to even measure the strength and commonality of various parts of "human nature." He also gets a little overly-defensive about his views, apparently out of a fear that someone might accuse him of promoting sexism, racism, or provide backing to eugenics (each of which he explicitly disavows).

My favorite part of the section on humans concerned not human nature per se, but the development of intelligence. Ridley points out that the levels of intelligence achieved by homo sapiens are vastly in excess of what is required to solve any of the problems or challenges people encountered in prehistoric Africa. The most likely explanation, Ridley claims, is that intelligence was helpful in securing mates (whether via being charming, good at judging others' character, trickery, etc.), and only the challenge posed by the need to compete with and outwit other humans could explain the relentless march toward greater and greater intelligence in human ancestors. (He does not address why other animals, many of whom also compete for mates, might not face the same pressure for intelligence.)

Overall, I found the book to be interesting, but some of the best parts felt like a trailer for Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene," and some of the other parts felt like a bit too much speculation, leaving me uncertain of what actually is the cause of various biological features. At the least, the book does a good job giving you a feel for the terrifying complexity of disentangling the reasons behind the evolution of a particular animal: you have to understand what happens over vast time scales, at the level of proteins and genes (sometimes orthogonal to or even contrary to the organism's interests), at the level of survival in the environment, and in the context of a competition for the best mates with strongly cultural aspects. It makes me feel that one must be humble when espousing a theory purporting to explain the workings of evolution: though the core concept of survival and propagation of genes seems simple, it is anything but.

For those readers interested in a look at evolution outside the context of biology, as a substrate-independent algorithm for finding niches, optimizing, and seeking out new local maxima of welfare, I recommend "The Origin of Wealth" by Eric Beinhocker. Beinhocker's book is far superior to "The Red Queen" and provides a very helpful framework for understanding the effects of evolution without respect to biology. This then makes biology an application of a more general principle, which may be more intellectually satisfying. ( )
1 vote jrissman | Jul 5, 2016 |
I listened to this on audiobook, and perhaps that made some sections less compelling and easy to find my attention drifting. The main premise, that of the "Red Queen," is an interesting one - that we evolve only to ultimately stay in approximately the same place we have been in relation to our environment and our competitors. When he talked about why some traits were more likely to succeed than others, and why we didn't all just end up reproducing asexually, I was attentive. But when he went off on seeming tangents about algae or other limited creatures, I was a bit less intrigued.

He takes a strict evolutionary approach to why human behavior is the way it is, and he has no patience for social scientists. Anthropologists, sociologists; they're all just a bunch of people chasing their tails trying to explain things that only make sense when scientifically explained! Also singled out for distaste: feminism and political correctness, which Ridley is sure will shut down research into the differences between men's and women's brains. As is probably clear, I didn't much care for his attitude at times. The book is twenty years old, so there are several things he mentions as "current research" or "awaiting results" that I'm pretty sure have already been nailed down with a lot more information, but that's to be expected.

Overall, I found it a somewhat dry read with interesting bits dispersed throughout. ( )
2 vote ursula | Feb 9, 2015 |
Matt Ridley has done an exceptional job in this book to provide insights on Evolution and the role played by Sex in the process. I have read a couple other books, Selfish Gene and Why Evolution Is True on the topic of evolution but the perspective taken by Matt is unique and remarkable.

The book can be vaguely divided into two parts. The first part talks about what sexual selection is and how sexual reproduction happens. There's a deep dive that talks about Meiosis mentioning Recombination and Outcrossing. This information is crucial to understanding many of the concepts in the book.

The second part of the book is about how two genders of the same species differ and the reason for those differences - just as the title says 'Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature'.

Chapters 6 and 7 are truly interesting and talk about polygamy in men and monogamy in women. "Polygamy and 3-D spatial skills seem to go together in several species." - Brilliant!

Witty and kept me curious till the end. ( )
  nmarun | Mar 11, 2014 |
Referring to Lewis Carroll's Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass, a character who has to keep running to stay in the same place, Matt Ridley demonstrates why sex is humanity's best strategy for outwitting its constantly mutating internal predators. The Red Queen answers dozens of other riddles of human nature and culture -- including why men propose marriage, the method behind our maddening notions of beauty, and the disquieting fact that a woman is more likely to conceive a child by an adulterous lover than by her husband. Brilliantly written, The Red Queen offers an extraordinary new way of interpreting the human condition and how it has evolved. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Jul 28, 2013 |
Amazon preorder
  romsfuulynn | Apr 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
There is a wealth of information here, and it is an excellent source for researchers because of its descriptions of studies and its extensive extensive reference section, as well as being an interesting book for a scientifically literate public.
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060556579, Paperback)

Referring to Lewis Carroll's Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass, a character who has to keep running to stay in the same place, Matt Ridley demonstrates why sex is humanity's best strategy for outwitting its constantly mutating internal predators. The Red Queen answers dozens of other riddles of human nature and culture -- including why men propose marriage, the method behind our maddening notions of beauty, and the disquieting fact that a woman is more likely to conceive a child by an adulterous lover than by her husband. Brilliantly written, The Red Queen offers an extraordinary new way of interpreting the human condition and how it has evolved.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:56 -0400)

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