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The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993)
by Matt Ridley
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I might have rated this more highly if I hadn't just come off a spate of reading very similar and slightly better works that incorporate much of its content in pithier form (Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, though those were both written afterwards), yet its central metaphor of sexual selection as arms race is compelling enough that I finished it alongside the superior Dennett and Pinker books anyway. The "red queen" of the title is derived from the famous character in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass who at one point tells Alice that in her world, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. Life is similar, in that hard-won evolutionary advantages are obsoleted almost instantly as competitors adapt to keep up - the book is about how sexuality is used both on a macro level between species, as a gene-shuffler that can provide a leg up over parasites and asexual organisms that are forced to evolve a bit more slowly; and on a micro level within species, as males and females choose different game-theoretic strategies to maximize reproductive fitness. Obviously we're most interested in human sexuality, so the book does not disappoint in its exploration of titillating topics like adultery, incest, homosexuality, polygamy, promiscuity, age differences, dimorphism, fashion, and communication, with plenty of comparisons to analogous behavior in the animal kingdom. There's also plenty of pages on whether all this exciting behavior is due to nature or nurture, which I did not find to be as well-written as Dennett or Pinker's very similar sections in their books (strawmen start popping up in conjunction with loaded subjects like feminism, though this happened somewhat in Pinker's book as well); readers who aren't idiots will be unsurprised that Ridley falls into the sensible "it's both, to some degree, depending on what you're talking about" camp. I found the red queen idea to be a an illuminating metaphor and I enjoyed Ridley's take on sexual selection, even if as a work specifically on evolutionary biology it didn't rise to the level of Richard Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype, which I consider to be one of the best books existing on the subject, but since I read it right next to books that seemed to recapitulate most of its insights in fewer pages I'm not sure I would recommend it above either. It was a better-written treatise on human sexuality than your average porn, though, that's for sure.
The author is at his best when he constantly asks "why?" on issues that may seem mundane or which we take for granted. Why sex not asex? Why does our concept of beauty take on its current form? Why are we mostly monogamous? How has sexual selection shaped out intelligence? My only gripes about this thought provoking read are that it's about a decade old (painfully obvious by the incorrect statistics on the human genome) and Ridley sometimes overstates his conclusions for the sake of the lay audience.
Stuck choosing between 3 and 4 stars, as I did really enjoy this book, but felt it lost steam a bit in the second half (the "human nature" part). I liked engaging with the various arguments put forward, and it was certainly a lively read. I thought Ridley came across as arrogant and dismissive of other disciplines, but his writing is easy to read, and he was concise in articulating his arguments.
I loved all of the chapters about non-human animals. The experiments were often amusing, and his obvious interest shone through. Later on, when he starts talking about humans, I felt he was arguing somewhat against strawmen. He didn't cite anyone for many of the points he was allegedly arguing against, so you just have to take his word for it that all the other disciplines are irrational and incapable of explaining human nature. I think that's poor academic practice and I wasn't impressed.
There are a couple of sections about homosexuality where I didn't feel he explored the issue very well in terms of adaptational value. It's just assumed that there's a "gay gene". There's mostly only talk of gay men, none of lesbians, and it's assumed that sexual behaviour is binary (hetero/homo) when we know the largest sexual minority is bisexuals. I'd be interested to see a proper exploration of sexual fluidity and cultural comparison from an evolutionary perspective.
This definitely made me want to pick up [b:Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding|6251387|Mothers and Others The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding |Sarah Blaffer Hrdy|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1347821755s/6251387.jpg|6434265] again, which I had put down a while ago (I find hardbacks physically annoying to read, and always worry about damaging them). He cites Hrdy but I don't think she'd written that when he was writing this. Perhaps a lot of research couldn't be included because this book is 20 years old, so I have the unfair advantage of hindsight.
He talks a lot about sexual selection of (human) female traits, but not so much about male ones. I think he could have gone more in depth with that, as it's a really interesting subject. Another book I'm partway through that's full of information on this is [b:Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems|7021914|Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems|Alan F. Dixson|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1349019944s/7021914.jpg|6084349]. Again, it's published years after Ridley's book, so is much more up to date.
Overall: enjoyable, definitely easy to read, sparks thought and debate. It does feel biased against other academic disciplines and the format didn't work so well for the explanations of "human nature", and I'd take a lot of what he says with a huge pinch of salt. Good springboard for doing your own research and making your own arguments.
Dry at the start, picks up at some points, but sometimes inaccessible.
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.
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English (5)
Sex is as fascinating to scientists as it is to the rest of us. A vast pool of knowledge, therefore, has been gleaned from research into the nature of sex, from the contentious problem of why the wasteful reproductive process exists at all, to how individuals choose their mates and what traits they find attractive. This fascinating book explores those findings, and their implications for the sexual behaviour of our own species. It uses the Red Queen from 'Alice in Wonderland' - who has to run at full speed to stay where she is - as a metaphor for a whole range of sexual behaviours. The book was shortlisted for the 1994 Rhone-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. 'Animals and plants evolved sex to fend off parasitic infection. Now look where it has got us. Men want BMWs, power and money in order to pair-bond with women who are blonde, youthful and narrow-waisted ... a brilliant examination of the scientific debates on the hows and whys of sex and evolution' Independent.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)599.938 — Natural sciences and mathematics Zoology Mammals Humans Genetics, evolution, development Evolution
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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.
«عندما يتعلق الأمر بالنجاة، فإن قدراتنا الدماغية فائضة عن الحاجة. أما بالنسبة للانتخاب الجنسي، فإن ذكاء الإنسان هو كذيل الطاووس؛ أداة إغراء. أي أننا أصبحنا أذكى لأن الأذكياء يحصلون على الشريك المناسب بسهولة أكثر».
«أعطتنا القشرة المخية الحديثة، وهي أحدث إضافة تطورية على الدماغ البشري، القدرة على تحفيز الآخرين وترفيههم - وهو أمر جوهري عند مغازلة شريك في عالمنا الاجتماعي.» ( )