Archive for the ‘Matt Ridley’ Category

The Red Queen: Sex And The Evolution Of Human Nature

December 17, 2008

queen

Okay, who can resist a book with that title?  Who doesn’t want to know about sex and the evolution of human nature?  Want to know why men propose marriage and not women, and why women are more likely to conceive a child by an adulterous lover rather than her husband?  According to the book’s back cover, The Red Queen will reveal these answers and more! 

The problem is, I am just about done with the book and I cannot really answer these questions.  There are tons of facts and information in this book and yet I feel like I didn’t really learn anything new.  And that’s a real let down, because that’s why I read these types of science books. 

I think that evolution, at its very core, is a very simple process.  I’m certainly not an evolutionary biologist or whatever, but I am a scientist, and I think I understand the basic concept.  Certain random genetic mutations make some individuals more successful at surviving and breeding than other mutations.  Therefore, these successful genes get passed on to the next generation.  I feel like the author, Matt Ridley, packs so much stuff into his writing (history, numerous animal studies, examples throughout literature and pop culture, etc etc) that he just complicates his main point, which is two-fold: 1) that human beings and many other animals reproduce sexually instead of asexually to ‘outsmart’ their parasites and diseases (i.e. – sexual reproduction is present when organisms are exposed to parasites and disease and asexual reproduction is present in the absence of parasites) and 2) that certain physical features and characters among humans are selected for sexually rather through environmental factors or survival.  Sexual selection is something that was not really covered in my high school bio class and I realized I overlooked its significance.  So although I didn’t really learn anything new, I did learn of another way to look at a question.

Take, for example, the fact that women have wider hips than men.  Why?  Survival of the fittest is the most common explanation of evolution.  According to survival of the fittest, women have wider hips because it helped them to gather more food back when humans were hunters and gatherers.  And that women with wider hips were able to give birth to more children (or give birth with less complications) than narrow hipped women, therefore spreading the gene of wide hips to their offspring.  But there is another factor that is often overlooked and is the basis of this book, which is sexual selection: that in order for wide hip gene to spread among the the female population, men must also want to breed with wide-hipped women instead of narrow-hipped women.  So men are genetically programmed to find wide hips more attractive than narrow hips; or rather, men who found wide-hipped women attractive were more successful breeders than men who mated with narrow hipped women.  Therefore, this male preference for wide hips becomes more widespread among men than the gene for narrow hip preference. 

So back to the original question of why women have wide hips?  Its a combination of natural selection and sexual selection.  Its because women with wide hips were more successful in having babies and the men who found these wide hips attractive were more successful in fathering babies.  The same can be argued for many other male and female characteristics. Why does Ridley take the entire second half of this very long book to explain this fairly simple concept?  Want to know why men produce so much sperm while women only have a finite number of eggs?  Don’t read the 50+ pages of this book that attempt to answer this question, just listen to this first section of Radiolab instead.

Normally, science writing that is backed up with facts and examples is a good thing.  But in this book, it just too much.  Reading this book was an arduous, un-enjoyable ask that felt more like a chore because Ridley takes up hundredsof pages to describe what I think is a very simple concept.  Also, he writes like a know-it-all.  Reading this book is like listening to a really condescending lecture.  I like science books where I feel like I am learning something with the author.  I get inspired by the author’s natural curiosity and inquiry.  There was none of that in this book so that  made it really boring, even though the subject matter is really interesting.  Also, Ridley flatly dismisses a lot of sociological studies and social science research and I think he underestimates how culture plays a role in sexual selection.  That sort of bothers me.

In conclusion, I’m not entirely sure why men propose marriage and not the other way around.  According to Ridley, society and culture have little to do with it.  In species that form monogamous pairs (like humans and many birds) there is also adultery.  Monogamy + adultery = the best chance for offspring to achieve superior genes and have a better upbringing.  Having many sexual partners is genetically more beneficial to men than women.  Being married and having a lover on the side is genetically more beneficial to women than men.  So if marriage is in a women’s best interest, why don’t they ask men to marry them?  Ridley certainly writes at length about the history of marriage, but doesn’t really offer an answer.