The Red Queen: But If It is, Let Us Pray It Does Not Become Widely Known

My last read of 2016 was Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen. It was already in our home and grabbed my eye and it turned out to be a real page-turner. The title is a reference to a scene in Through the Looking-Glass where the Red Queen herself explains to Alice that, there, it takes running as fast as you can just to stay in place. Similarly, explains Ridley, a vast array of evolutionary processes can be understood as involving parties who hurry to change as fast as they can to gain the advantage. The result is, of course, that no individual, gender, or species ever gets too much or lasting of an upper hand (until the anthropocene, I suppose). Change (via mutations and their implications) keeps happening, but largely ends up canceling itself out. Collective action problems of the Red Queen’s kind are baked right into evolution.

The Red Queen effect explains why humans reproduce sexually in the first place. The level and frequency of genetic change that sexual reproduction offers can often keep humans just half a step ahead of the parasites that tend to prey on them. The Red Queen effect explains how the males in some species come to bear costly (even survival-hampering) ornaments that make them seem attractive to females. Whether these ornaments honestly signal good genes or just happen to be aesthetically pleasing to females of that species (or both), mothers-to-be can’t afford to ignore the mate choices of their sisters (and, of course, males are affected by the choices of females).

The Red Queen effect explains various aspects of human nature and reproduction too, like the close cross-cultural connection between youth and beauty. Whether they think of it in these terms or not, men who mate with younger women stand to leave more viable offspring. Especially in humans who have a tendency (however imperfect) towards monogamy, beginning one’s reproductive career with a younger rather than older woman makes a big difference in the long run. The men in any given generation are increasingly more likely to be descended from men who themselves preferred younger women than not.

Yet, men do not simply get to take their pick of women, of course. Women themselves exert pressures on men, with preferences for wealth and power. Most women leave children, many men don’t. Even if every reproductive pairing was completely voluntary and satisfactory to its occupants, youth and power/wealth could emerge in time as influences over which people exist and why. Any snapshot of demographics fails to capture the Red Queen’s running. She runs only at the pace of lifetimes, but it’s still as fast as she can.

Last but not least, in a whirlwind final chapter, Ridley introduces the idea that the Red Queen effect could explain not just obviously sexual aspects of human nature but the existence of human intelligence generally. Other explanations for intelligence, like tool-making and language and the Machiavellian hypothesis, are insufficiently specific. Plenty of animals could have benefited from more flexible cognitive skills for tackling the challenges in their environments (and their social groups), so why do only humans have them?

According to Ridley, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has got it right. He claims that “the neocortex is largely a courtship device to attract and retain sexual mates: Its specific evolutionary function is to stimulate and entertain other people, and to assess the stimulation attempts of others.”

Like other examples of exaggerated organs, the exaggeratedly large human brain is (allegedly) the product of the Red Queen’s race, run between the genders. Men stuck raising children with one woman want her to be not boring (the “Scheherazade effect”). Women choose men who are good seducers and entertainers on top of being wealthy/powerful (the “Dionysus effect”). You might not be inclined to demand so much cognitive horsepower in a mate, but settling for any less than is available to you is a gamble that could harm your children’s reproductive prospects. None of this need be considered at a conscious level to work, it all just emerges. You are racing the Red Queen in your sleep, and you race her right to your grave.

I recommend Ridley’s The Red Queen for its nice balance of straightforward science reporting and conjecture, all vividly illustrated with delightful, mind-blowing examples from the natural world. But I found reading it unnerving in a very particular way, an unnervingness that was previously inaccessible to me.

It’s no secret that plenty of people find the concept of evolution disturbing, on top of (and apart from) whether they have any particularly weighty empirical or theoretical objections to its content. The residents of my hometown in Georgia went to great lengths to shield students from even reading about evolution in their science textbooks, for instance. I can report having heard that evolution seems to threaten man’s special place in the world, but I can’t really occupy that space emotionally. Boom de yada.

But this Red Queen stuff really bumps evolution up to 11. Don’t just take my word for it, read the book and learn why we have a sexual division of labor right down to our gametes, who have reached a mutually-agreeable Red Queen stalemate regarding which will contribute the bulk of the cell parts for the zygote. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. The Red Queen line of thought shifts our attention from natural selection and sooty moths and all that towards sexual selection. We don’t just compete with nature. We compete with each other.

“Survival of the fittest” at least has a certain aesthetic charm. The message of evolutionary theory, broadly, at first seemed to say: “You have qualities that other’s didn’t. You inherited them, and you face the world with them in hand. Go forth and thrive.”

But the Red Queen has just made salient: “you are the product of reproduction,” and it’s charmless. We all know horrible people who have children, after all. Sometimes reproduction and survival even conflict (e.g. testosterone in males seems to shorten their lifespans).

Before your mom and dad had a baby, their mom and dad did. And theirs. There were men who died marginalized and childless, women who died in labor, babies who died left and right. Whoever gets a seat at humanity’s table tomorrow is the child of someone today. Your particularity, you owe to the accident of one sperm and one egg from many. But the form of our shared species — traits, capacities, preferences — we all owe to the Red Queen.

It’s really no secret or surprise that we are the children of those who had children; it’s tautological even. And being the product of reproduction doesn’t consign you to do the same. Plenty of people in the developed world are deliberately opting out of parenthood entirely, perhaps showing that intelligence has maxed out as a tool to attract and retain sexual mates for the purpose of actual reproduction.

A human life can be a success in various ways: you can be healthy, wealthy, good. You don’t have to care about whether you are an evolutionary success; even among parents few seem to have an explicitly evolutionary goal literally in mind. But it is simply not the case that we are descended from the best and the brightest. We are descended from those who mated early, mated often. They had some positive traits and some bad ones. So, unsurprisingly, do we.

I was previously unable to relate to any discomfort others had with evolutionary theory and its implications for the meaningfulness of human life. But I guess that, for a long time, I had a cartoonish view of evolution, and the redpill devil can still lurk in the details.

If Ridley is even sort of correct in his ultimate conclusion, then one type of explanation for why I am even sitting here typing this blog post is that my foremothers, who were cognitively engaging to men, procured better genes and/or resources for my ancestors as compared to the other mothers in their cohorts. Especially having just had my first child, this perspective on human life is truly striking to me. I almost don’t even know what to do with this knowledge. Moreover, I am humbled by this novel experience of existential unease. It was wrong of me to discount the impact our origins could have on understanding human life today.

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