Juan Pablo's Reviews > The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
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's review
Mar 31, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biology, evolution, red-queen, science, pop-science, non-fiction, human-nature
Read in March, 2010

As I was reading the first chapter, I kept thinking I was embarking on something written by a geek giggling at the word "sex"; I don't think I was entirely wrong, but if there was any giggling from the author at the mention of sex, it was for truly fascinating reasons.

I disliked the first chapter: anything titled "Human Nature" in this day and age seems preposterous. I kept on reading, nevertheless, hoping I'd find salvageable bits from this.

I was absolutely enraptured by chapter three, at which point Ridley was on his way in the dissection of one of the most fascinating concepts I've ever encountered. The first chapter was an overture, I'll stick to saying not particularly well written, but should just be understood as such; the opera begins in chapter two.

Mental experiment: Say you have four people, two of them a couple, male and female, who reproduce sexually, and the other two asexually reproducing females (it's called parthenogenesis, bear with me). They reproduce, what do you have? The couple has one offspring, the asexuals have one each for a total of two offspring. Asexual reproduction seems to be twice as efficient as sexual reproduction, so, why sex?

Because it's fun, some might say, but this book, which kicks off with the sex enigma, provides far more informative analysis of the matter, which has been a mainstay in evolutionary biology. Turns out parasites have a lot to do with this evolutionary device...

Remember the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll's wonderland? She runs around but never gets anywhere because the world moves along with her. Well, that's where the title of the book and the name of a fascinating concept come from. A host and a parasite are entangled in a Red Queen situation, where the faster evolving parasite succeeds as he breaks the host's defenses and the host succeeds when he prevents the parasite from doing so, thus running but never getting anywhere because of the changing situation. This may be referred to as an arms race as well in military imagery, but I feel the absurdity of Carroll's character makes Red Queen preferable.

This Red Queen concept, and I'm sure wikipedia will do a much better job of explaining it than me, holds sway in many of evolution's questions and beyond. Ridley is witty and entertaining in his exposition, creating a truly eye-opening experience in this book for anyone with an interest in the ideas that shape our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. The book explores evolution via sexual selection, never missing illustrative examples along the way, and does a fair job at presenting the different views that have historically shaped how science understands sex and its consequences.

Ridley used to be science editor at The Economist, which leads me to believe adds to the conciseness and clarity in his writing. Throughout the final chapters of the book, he delves into human nature, having gained much credibility from the writing that preceded them. His treatment of such a debated subject is incredibly illustrative of the many forces usually ignored by the disciplines that usually deal with such a subject, and provides us with an extensive look at how evolution and the Red Queen can inform.

I think I'll be coming back to this book many times from now on in my thought and in my understanding of everything around me.
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