Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Red Queen

Written by Joe the Revelator

 Before reading The Red Queen I must admit that my knowledge of sexual genetics was fairly limited. I knew the basics of X's and Y's. I knew that creatures who spawn sexually do so for purposes of trading defenses against parasites. And I thought I knew a few things about the "Driving-Y" and the potential degeneration of the male chromosome, which has been hyped on science sites lately. But after reading Matt Ridley's book, my thoughts on sex have become vastly more complicated.

In the book Through the Looking Glass, Alice is in a race with the Red Queen, running alongside chess pieces. The environment around them rushes past, constantly changing, and Alice must run as fast as she can just to keep pace with it, and faster still if she wants to get anywhere. This is, as Matt Ridley proposes, the essence of evolution. That nothing evolves to win the race. Evolutionary progress is made merely to keep up with changing bacteria, parasites, and the environment around us. And in the case of sexual competition, to keep up with each other.

Sex. AKA; the birds and the birds

Ever wanted to know why peacocks strut to attract peahens during a "lek" even though they contribute nothing to the pairing aside from genetic material? No? Well you're going to find out. In agonizing detail. How about the mating rituals of the swallow? Or the polygamy of voles? The manogamy of gibbons? The mating dance of the grouse?

On the back of The Red Queen there is a brief and tantalizing description of the interesting facts Ridley unlocks in this book; touting the secrets of why women are likely to cheat on their husbands, and why men propose marriage. It fails to mention that every ray of enlightenment is accompanied by several chapters of bizarre animal behavior and digression. It seems that Ridley's global conclusions are drawn from other people's research, so much so that the last twenty pages are crammed with notes crediting the author's sources. Much of the book feels like he's stringing together a necklace of pearls from the important articles and papers he's read.

Another caveat about Ridley's writing is its potential to be insensitive to the reader. He states very early on that his book is strictly about evolutionary science, and the chapters therein will be like kryptonite to fundamental creationists. He later makes backhanded apologies to the gay community, to gender-feminists, and to Freudian psychologists, while simultaneously tearing them down with pointed research and logical argument. All but creationists need not fear these chapters, as they are brief and somewhat painless.

Author Matt Ridley

My parasite brings all the boys to the yard

Those seeking a glimpse into human nature vs. learned behavior, stick with it. The final third of the book delivers on its promises, and Ridley swiftly drags old arguments about the laws of attraction onto the chopping block; why incest exists, why tyrants build harems, why the church practically outlawed sex, why men seek youthful mates and women seek mates with status- these he dispenses with the sharp cleaver of reason.

But the last third of the book can be hard to get to. If it weren't for the fascinating biological examples Ridley picks to illustrate his points, I would have put the book down after the first few chapters. I urge future readers not to delve into Red Queen thinking they're about to unlock the mysteries of attraction, but instead are in for a broad look at the mating practices of all sexual creatures. And although the subject of sex is the primary topic of discussion, the act of sex itself is hardly brought up. There is nothing vulgar about this book, just as there's nothing vulgar about watching lions on the Discovery channel.

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