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The Red Queen Book Summary by Matt Ridley

What you will learn from reading The Red Queen;

– How evolution is a treadmill not a ladder.

– The sexual tastes of both men and women and the evolutionary logic behind them.

– How selection pressures within a species can be larger then selection pressures between species.

The Red Queen Book Summary:

The Red Queen is a fantastic look at the nature of human sexuality and how sex preferences have evolved using evolutionary logic.

If you’re interested in human nature and why and how the sexes may differ in their preferences, then this is the book for you.


The Red Queens Prophet:

The Red Queen’s first prophet, Leigh Van Valen, a single-minded student of evolution.

One day in 1973, before his beard was so grey, Van Valen was searching his capacious mind for a phrase to express a new discovery he had made while studying marine fossils. The discovery was that the probability that a family of animals will become extinct does not depend on how long that family has already existed. In other words, species do not get better at surviving (nor do they grow feeble with age, as individuals do). Their chances of extinction are random.

The significance of this discovery had not escaped Van Valen, for it represented a vital truth about evolution that Darwin had not wholly appreciated. The struggle for existence never gets easier.

However well a species may adapt to its environment, it can never relax, because its competitors and its enemies are also adapting to their niches. Survival is a zero-sum game. Success only makes one species a more tempting target for another rival species.

This is one of the great recurring themes of human history, the balance between co-operation and conflict. It is the obsession of governments and families, of lovers and rivals. It is the key to economics. It is, as we shall see, one of the oldest themes in the history of life, for it is repeated right down to the level of the gene itself. And the principal cause of it is sex. Sex, like marriage, is a cooperative venture between two rival sets of genes. Your body is the scene of this uneasy coexistence.


Progress is relative – The Red Queen:

One of the peculiar features of history is that time always erodes advantage. Every invention sooner or later leads to a counter invention. Every success contains the seeds of its own overthrow. Every hegemony comes to an end. Evolutionary history is no different. Progress and success are always relative.

This concept, that all progress is relative, has come to be known in biology by the name of the Red Queen, after a chess piece that Alice meets in Through the Looking Glass, who perpetually runs without getting very far because the landscape moves with her.

In the world of the Red Queen, any evolutionary progress will be relative, so long as your foe is animate and depends heavily on you or suffers heavily if you thrive, like the seals and the bears. Thus the Red Queen will be especially hard at work among predators and their prey, parasites and their hosts, and males and females of the same species. Every creature on earth is in a Red Queen chess tournament with its parasites (or hosts), its predators (or prey) and, above all, with its mate.

The fashion in evolutionary science is now to scoff at progress; evolution is a treadmill, not a ladder.


Selection within species > selection between species:

When the fittest are struggling to survive, with whom are they competing? With other members of their species, or with members of other species?

A gazelle on the African savannah is trying not to be eaten by cheetahs, but it is also trying to outrun other gazelles when a cheetah attacks. What matters to the gazelle is being faster than other gazelles, not being faster than cheetahs.

Nicholas Humphrey, a Cambridge psychologist, was the first to see clearly the solution to this puzzle. We use our intellects not to solve practical problems, but to outwit each other. Deceiving people, detecting deceit, understanding people’s motives, manipulating people – these are what the intellect is used for. So what matters is not how clever and crafty you are, but how much cleverer and craftier than other people. The value of intellect is infinite. Selection within the species is always going to be more important than selection between the species.


The Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent:

To conclude anything from such observations would be to fall into the trap that philosophers call ‘the fallacy of affirming the consequent’. Because sprinklers can wet the drive does not prove that they did wet the drive. Because something is consistent with the facts does not prove it is the cause of the facts.


The Parasite Host pendulum:

Parasites and their hosts are locked in a close evolutionary embrace.

The more successful the parasite’s attack (the more hosts it infects or the more resources it gets from each), the more the host’s chances of survival will depend on whether it can invent a defence. The better the host defends, the more natural selection will promote the parasites that can overcome the defence. So the advantage will always be swinging from one to the other: the more dire the emergency for one, the better it will fight. This is truly the world of the Red Queen, where you never win, you only gain a temporary respite.

Leaving aside for the moment such things as fleas and mosquitoes, let us concentrate on viruses, bacteria and fungi, the causes of most diseases. They specialise in breaking into cells, either to eat them, as fungi and bacteria do, or, like viruses, to subvert their genetic machinery for the purpose of making new viruses. Either way, they must get into cells. To do that they employ protein molecules that fit into other molecules on cell surfaces: in the jargon, they bind.

The arms races between parasites and their hosts are all about these binding proteins. Parasites invent new keys; hosts change the locks.

The Red Queen’s case is both subtler and stronger than that, though. It is that an individual, by having sex, can produce offspring more likely to survive than an individual that produces clones of itself. The advantage of sex can appear in a single generation. This 1s because whatever lock is common in one generation will produce among the parasites the key that fits it. So you can be sure that it is the very lock not to have a few generations later. For by then the key that fits it will be common. Rarity is at a premium.

Sexual species can call on a sort of library of locks that is unavailable to asexual species. This library is known by two long words which mean roughly the same thing: heterozygosity and polymorphism. They are the things that animals lose when their lineage becomes inbred.

Hamilton synthesised three lines of inquiry together and said: parasites are in a constant battle with hosts, a battle that is fought by switching from one resistance gene to another; hence the battery of different versions of genes. None of this would work without sex.

Sex is about disease. It is used to combat the threat from parasites. Organisms need sex to keep their genes one step ahead of their parasites.


Power, violence and women:

In people there is virtually no connection between strength and power, at least not since the invention of action-at-a-distance weapons like the sling shot, as Goliath learnt the hard way. Wealth, cunning, political skill and experience lead to power among men.

In Bosnia in 1992, the reports of organized rape camps for Serbian soldiers became too frequent to ignore. Don Brown, an anthropologist at Santa Barbara, recalls his days in the army: ‘Men talked about sex night and day; they never talked about power.’

Among the Yanomamö, war and violence are both primarily about sex. War between two neighbouring villages breaks out over the abduction of a woman, or in retaliation for an attack that had such a motive, and always results in women changing hands. The commonest cause of violence within a village is also sexual jealousy; a village that is too small is likely to be raided for women, but a village that is too large usually breaks up over adultery. Women are the currency and reward of male violence in the Yanomamo. Violent death is common in Yanomamö society.


The Nature of Human Males:

The nature of the human male, then, is to take opportunities, if they are granted him, for polygamous mating, and to use wealth, power and violence as means to sexual ends in the competition with other men – though usually not at the expense of sacrificing a secure monogamous relationship. It is not an especially flattering picture, and it depicts a nature that is very much at odds with modern ethical preferences: preferences for monogamy, fidelity, equality, justice and freedom from violence.

Males compete with each other for places in a pecking order. Most males are monogamous. Polygamy is prevented by wives who resent sharing their husbands lest they also share his contributions to child-rearing. Even though they could bring up the children unaided, the husband’s pay cheque is invaluable. But the ban on polygamous marriage does not prevent the males seeking polygamous matings. Adultery is common. It is commonest between high-ranking males and females of all ranks. To prevent it males try to guard their wives, are extremely violent towards their wives’ lovers and copulate with their wives frequently, not just when they are fertile.


Female tastes:

A female swallow needs a husband who will help look after her young, but by the time she arrives at the breeding site she might find all the best husbands taken. Her best tactic is therefore to mate with a mediocre husband or a husband with a good nest site and have an affair with a genetically superior neighbour.

This theory is supported by the facts: females always choose more dominant, older, or more ‘attractive’ (i.e., ornamented with longer tail feathers) lovers than their husbands; they do not have affairs with bachelors (i.e., presumably, those that have been rejected by other females), but with other females’ husbands; and they sometimes incite competitions between potential lovers and choose the winners.

This, of course, increases her incentive to find a mediocre, but hard-working husband and cuckold him by having an affair with a super-stud next door.* In any case, the principle marry a nice guy but have an affair with your boss, or marry a rich but ugly man and take a handsome lover – is not unknown among female human beings.


The Hunter Gatherer Sex Life:

There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gather but deep in the mind of modern man is a simple male hunter gatherer rule: strive to acquire power and use it to lure women will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy affaire with other men’s wives who will bear bastards. 

It began with a man who shared a piece of prized fish or honey with an attractive neighbour’s wife in exchange for a brief affair and continues with a pop star ushering a model into his Mercedes. Wealth and power are means to women; women are means to genetic eternity.

Likewise, deep in the mind of a modern woman is the same basic hunter-gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest food and care in your children; strive to find a lover who can give those children first-class genes. Only if she is very lucky will they be the same man.


Testicular sizes and Species Mating Systems:

It is not how often a male bird copulates that determines the size of his testicles but how many other males he is competing with. The monogamous species lie in between. Some have fairly small testicles, implying little sperm competition; others have huge testicles, as big as those of polyandrous birds.


Mate Guarding and Secrecy:

The noble savage, far from living in contented sexual equanimity, was paranoid about becoming, and intent on making his neighbour into, a cuckold. Little wonder that human sex is first and foremost, in all societies, a private thing, to be indulged in only in secret.

Species that practise effective mate guarding keep the adultery rate low. But some species cannot guard their mates. In herons and birds of prey, for example, husband and wife spend much of the day apart, one guarding the nest while the other collects food. These species are characterised by extremely frequent copulation. Goshawks may have sex several hundred times for every clutch of eggs. This does not prevent adultery, but it at least dilutes it.

Polygamy is rare in hunter-gatherer society, but wherever adultery has been looked for, it is common. By analogy with monogamous, colonial birds, therefore, one would expect to find human beings practising either mate guarding, or frequent copulation.

Richard Wrangham has speculated that human beings practise mate guarding in absentia. Men keep an eye on their wives by proxy. If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother, or his neighbour, whether his wife got up to anything during the day. In the African pygmies Wrangham studied, gossip was rife and a husband’s best chance of deterring his wife’s affairs was to let her know that he kept abreast of the gossip.

Wrangham goes on to observe that this is impossible without language. So he speculates that the sexual division of labour, the institution of child-rearing marriages and the invention of language – three of the most fundamental human characteristics that we share with no other ape – all depended on each other.


Jealously and Possession:

Cuckoldry is an asymmetrical fate. A woman loses no genetic investment if her husband is unfaithful, but a man risks unwittingly raising a bastard.

Jealousy shows low self-esteem, they say, and emotional dependency. Indeed it does, and that is exactly what the evolutionary theory would predict. A man held in low esteem by his wife is exactly the kind of person to be in danger of being cuckolded, for she has the motive to seek a better father for her children.

This may even explain the extraordinary and hitherto baffling fact that husbands of rape victims are more likely to be traumatised and, despite themselves, to resent their raped wives if the wife was not physically hurt during the rape. Physical hurt is evidence of her resistance. Husbands may have been programmed by evolution to be paranoiacally suspicious that their wives were not raped at all, or ‘asked for it’.

Wilson and Daly believe that a study of human society reveals a in detail, but mindset whose manifestations are diverse ‘monotonously alike in the abstract’. They are ‘socially recognised marriage, the concept of adultery as a property violation, the valuation of female chastity, the equation of “protection” of women with protection from sexual contact and the special potency of infidelity as a provocation to violence’. In short, in every age and in every place, men behave as if they owned their wives’ vaginas.”


Men and Personality:

Bruce Ellis has summarised the evidence that personality is critical in men. In a monogamous society a woman is often choosing a mate long before he has had a chance to become a ‘chief’ and she must look for clues to his future potential rather than rely only on his past achievements. Poise, self-assurance, optimism, efficiency, perseverence, courage, decisiveness, intelligence, ambition these are the things that cause men to rise to the tops of their professions and, not coincidentally, these are things women find attractive.


Self-worth and trading up:

The depressing part of Darwin’s insight is that it shows how beauty cannot exist without ugliness. Sexual selection, Red-Queen style, is inevitably a cause of dissatisfaction, vain striving and misery to individuals. Everybody is always looking for greater beauty or handsomeness than they find around them.

The answer is that we each instinctively know our relative worth as surely as in Jane Austen’s day people knew their place in the class system. The game shows with uncomfortable realism how we measure our own relative desirability from others’ reactions to us. Repeated rejection causes us to lower our sights; an unbroken string of successful seductions encourages us to aim a little higher. But it 1s worth getting off the Red Queen’s treadmill before you drop.


Learning and Instinct:

Take a second to challenge the conventional wisdom, which has dominated psychology and most other social sciences for many decades, that instinct and learning are opposite ends of a spectrum, that an animal that relies on instincts does not rely on learning and vice versa. This simply is not so. 

Learning implies plasticity, whereas instinct implies preparedness. So, for example, in learning the vocabulary of her native language, a child is almost infinitely plastic. She can learn that the word for a cow is vache, or cow or any other word. And likewise, in knowing that she must blink or duck when a ball approaches her face at speed, a child need have no plasticity at all.

To have to learn such a reflex would be painful. So the blink reflex is prepared, and the vocabulary store in her brain is plastic.


Our Programming:

When, in the 1980s, artificial-intelligence researchers joined the ranks of those searching for the mechanism of mind, they too began with behaviourist assumptions: that the human brain, like a computer, was an association device. They quickly discovered that a computer was only as good as its programs. You would not dream of trying to use a computer as a word processor unless you had a word-processing program.

The ‘connectionists’, who placed such high hopes in neural networks, had stumbled straight into the traps that had caught the behaviourists a generation earlier. Untrained connectionist networks proved incapable even of learning the past tense in English. 

Tooby and Cosmides argue that ‘higher’ mental mechanisms are the same. There are specialised mechanisms in the mind that are ‘designed’ by evolution to recognise faces, read emotions, be generous to one’s children, fear snakes, be attracted to certain members of the opposite sex, infer mood, infer semantic meaning, acquire grammar, interpret social situations, perceive a suitable design of tool for a certain job, calculate social obligations and so on. Each of these ‘modules’ is equipped with some knowledge of the world necessary for doing such tasks, just as the human kidney is designed to filter the blood.


Intelligence and Sex:

As Pinker and Bloom put it, ‘Interacting with an organism of approximately equal mental abilities whose motives are at times outright [sic] malevolent makes formidable and ever escalating demands on cognition.

Therefore intelligence must have a purpose; it cannot be an expensive luxury. Defining intelligence as the ability to ‘modify behaviour on the basis of valid inference from evidence’, Humphrey argued that the use of intelligence for practical invention was an easily demolished straw man. ‘Paradoxically, subsistence technology, rather than requiring intelligence, may actually become a substitute for it.’ The gorilla, Humphrey noted, is intelligent as animals go.

Yet it leads the most technically undemanding life imaginable. It eats the leaves that grow abundantly all around it. But the gorilla’s life is dominated by social problems. The vast majority of its intellectual effort is expended on dominating, submitting to, reading the mood of and affecting the lives of other gorillas.

As Horace Barlow of Cambridge University has pointed out, the things of which we are conscious are mostly the mental events that concern social actions: we remain unconscious of how we see, walk, hit a tennis ball or write a word. Like a military hierarchy, consciousness operates on a ‘need to know’ policy. ‘I can think of no exception to the rule that one is conscious of what it is possible to report to others and not conscious of what it is not possible to report. John Crook, a psychologist with a special interest in eastern philosophy, has made much the same point: ‘Attention therefore moves cognition into awareness, where it becomes subject to verbal formulation and reporting to others.


Communication and Advertising:

In 1978, Richard Dawkins and John Krebs pointed out that animals use communication principally to manipulate each other, rather than transfer information. A bird sings long and eloquently to persuade a female to mate with him, or a rival to keep clear of his territory. If he were merely passing on information, he need not make the song so elaborate. Animals’ communication, said Dawkins and Krebs, is more like human advertising than like airline timetables.


The mistrustful Machiavellian world:

Through a long series of experiments Cosmides and Gigerenzer proved that people are simply not treating the puzzles as pieces of logic at all. They are treating them as social contracts and looking for cheats. The human mind may not be much suited to logic at all, they conclude, but is well suited to judging the fairness of social bargains and the sincerity of social offers. It is a mistrustful Machiavellian world.


Cause, effect and circular reasoning:

The relationship between chickens and eggs is circular. Miller is actually rather proud of the theory’s circularity, because he believes that we have learnt from computer simulation that evolution is a process that pulls itself up by its bootstraps. There is no single cause and effect, because effects can reinforce causes. If a bird finds itself to be good at cracking seeds, then it specialises in cracking seeds, which puts further pressure on its seed-cracking ability to evolve. Evolution is circular.

One of the strangest of the consequences of sex: that the choosiness of human beings in picking their mates has driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expansion for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness and individuality turn other people on. It is a somewhat less uplifting perspective upon the purpose of humanity than the religious one, but it is also rather liberating. Be different.