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

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
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it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction-equals-not-not-real
Recommended for: big-brained sexy apes

an exposition of the basic idea that 'man is a self-domesticated animal', only far more interesting and accessible than that sounds. matt ridley tackles the question of why human beings reproduce sexually- you'd think the answer'd be 'because it's fun!', but you'd be wrong- when in the race for genes to reproduce themselves in mass quantities, asexual reproduction is more efficient and a more certain success, numbers-wise.

the general answer has to do with parasites, and with the idea that like alice in wonderland's red queen, who is always running but staying in the same place because her surroundings are constantly moving too, creatures are locked into an evolutionary arms race where the sooner you evolve a defense, the sooner your enemies evolve a method to crack that defense, etc. etc. we have only to read the thousands of horrifying recent articles about new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria cropping up everywhere to understand intimately that this red queen hypothesis makes sense and what it means for us.

from establishing the red queen as the basis for sexual reproduction, ridley goes on to attempt to explain the existence of a universal human nature through the lens of the effects of sexual selection on evolution. we think our lives and natures are determined by our free wills, but what if free will itself is an evolutionary ploy? or, what if evolution, instead of pitting species against species for resources and survival, is actually a vicious competition between members of the same species- like between men and women, for example? he discusses everything from why men universally prefer young women, to the standards of beauty that govern young women's lives, to why monogamy- and subsequently, adultery (as well as the strictures against it)- is the preferred organization of sexual couples the world over. he also covers the long and colored history of polygamy in humans, and compares the way we organize our lives with how our closest relatives the apes organize theirs, as well as flies, pheasants, mice, and all manner of distantly related beasties.

i'm not doing justice to the beautiful complexity of this book, but i enjoyed it a lot and felt that i learned quite a bit too. it is well paced to ensure the understanding of even the most scientifically-deficient reader, i think, and he establishes his hypotheses so well that each chapter feels very common-sense and revelatory. also, being somewhat of an amazon at times, i got a lot of laughs from his constant assertion that males are not useless, and in fact they serve such and such service which he would then elaborate upon. he assumes- and assumes that we assume- that males are an aberration, or a waste of genetic space, because they well, kind of are? genetically speaking, that is, and without factoring in the usefulness of sex and genders according to the red queen hypothesis. good stuff. i also appreciated being exposed to the idea that, contrary to what our moralizing society would like us to believe, many of the things that make us well adapted to survival and reproduction are not things that make us good or even basically decent people. and i liked that he makes that clear while also making it clear that just because something is 'natural' does not mean it is right or inevitable, and that our laws, which have evolved along with us like anything else, can be upheld and followed even in the face of our own natural impulses- towards violence or sexual injustice, for example.

the idea of 'change without progress' is one that flies in the face of our onward and upward modern mentality, but all it takes is a quick look around at our complicated lives and the manifold ways we've fucked everything up or failed to properly understand anything in all the years we've been 'making progress' to intuitively know that while the red queen may not be the entire explanation for why we are the way we are, it goes a long way towards an answer, one untainted by our 'reason' or morals or politics.
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Reading Progress

May 30, 2008 – Shelved
November 22, 2008 –
page 77
May 3, 2010 – Started Reading
June 1, 2010 –
page 135
June 6, 2010 – Shelved as: non-fiction-equals-not-not-real
June 6, 2010 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Clif Trina, you are proof of what he says about women being more adept at language/speech. Very well written review.

I don't agree that he questions free will. I think he makes a case that we have it. In fact, people can choose not to reproduce - in defiance of everything that evolution has designed us to do. As for sex being fun - it has to be. It has to be the single most enjoyable thing possible for us physically to provide the most powerful incentive for us to keep our kind going.

The fact that when we have sex we can get a transcendent feeling that seemingly takes us out of our mind but is purely produced by the body, indicates one should be wary of the significance some wish to give to super-sensual, other-worldly sensations. Drug induced visions and sensations back up this wariness to read too much into things some consider spiritual.

trina thank you, clif! i loved this book and can talk about it until the cows come home.

as for him questioning free will, i do remember that he does wonder whether our will can truly be free if evolution has a say in so many of our behaviors and penchants, though ultimately he seems to believe- as do i- that we can choose to overcome our natural tendencies and that a lot of the civilizing process is exactly that- society encouraging us to resist our baser urges.

your last point had not occurred to me, but it's spot on. people seem to think that looking for a scientific explanation for the things our bodies can do and feel takes the magic out of it, or makes it base or something, but to me, understanding that it's all part of nature and follows the same laws as everything else is the most amazing thing of all.

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