I read the celebrated "Moral Animal" some 10 years ago, re-read it and underlined it at least twice. Finally I had found a theory of human nature and psychology I could wholeheartedly believe in. Ten years later, I have now found "Red Queen" - more of the same, but specialized particularly in the huge role sexual selection played during our evolutionary history.
Experienced scientist and science journalist Matt Ridley compiled these findings of evolutionary psychology (EP) for the lay reader in 1993 - and "Red Queen" is still a timely treatise. Disclaimer: For those who are offended by the very suggestion that our behavior evolved from a pre-ape ancestor - and that our behavior is an elaborate, sophisticated manifestation of language and socialization which evolved by natural selection along with a huge brain - you won't like this book.
I realize the following assessments of mine are anecdotal, but here goes: I have seen how men and women preen, peacock-like, showing off their best (?) sides during courtships, and how they pair off in society according to commonly accepted determinants of status, differing depending on sex. I have seen how the competitive, power-seeking behavior of men is drastically tempered by marriage. I have seen how married men who are careful in all other endeavors will take uncharacteristic risks for a sexual fling. I have observed how women tend to choose (in a mate) financial success and stability over looks (if they have to choose), whereas men tend to choose beauty over all else. I have seen how men and women differ in their outlooks: Men (generally) want to be practical, shrewd, assertive, dominating, competitive, critical, and self-controlled. Women (usually) want to be loving, affectionate, impulsive, sympathetic, and generous. One in three men said they had fantasized about having sex with more than a thousand women in their lives. Women overwhelmingly fantasize about having sex with a familiar partner. I have read about and subsequently observed how people (unconsciously?) score each other during their social interactions, rating relationship values for the future. Finally, game theory concepts are widely known to be utilized by humans in sexual and social interactions. All these concepts are predicted by EP. I could go on with other examples, but in short, I'm a sucker for EP.
Recently, I have read about resistance in university humanities departments to EP - humans being so special and all. We are - in the sense that our intelligence has given us free reign over our world - but humans are still very imperfect. We are poorly designed in many ways (backs, knees, tendency to war, self-delusion) - exactly what one would expect from evolution. Cockroaches or certain scorpions, which can live without food and water for almost a year, are also impressive. There is every reason to believe that our (at times) unethical sexual behavior as well as our superior intelligence evolved in just as Rube-Goldberg a fashion as did our (very complicated and redundant) blood clotting mechanism.
Anyway, this book is superb. I will close, since I could end up nattering on for more pages than most would want to read. Consider moving "Red Queen" closer to the top of your TBR list. A Best Buy.
on September 30, 2000
"Men and women have different minds - says Matt Ridley in one of the central chapters of his book-. The differences are the direct result of evolution. Women's minds (and bodies, as he states in a previous pharagraph) evolved to suit the demands of beraring and rearing children and of gathering plant and food. Men's minds (and bodies) evolved to suit the demands of rising in a male hierarchy, fighting over women and providing meat to a family".
To arrive to this and other conclusions, Ridley goes a long and difficult way through biology, genetics and continents, starting with a basic question: why is there sex at all? After all, many species reproduce without it. The first three or four chapters of "The Red Queen" may be a little onerous, but apparently they are necessary to support the last ones.
This is a book about evolution with a focus on human sexuality and the human mind. Everything on humans - our bodies, our behavior towards the opposite sex, even our minds and social rules - is a direct result of a process called sexual selection that allows the reproduction of the fittest, therefore transmiting their genes to the next generations.
When answering why there is sex at all and how men and women's bodies and minds evolved in the last million years, we come to many uncomfortable truths about adultery, rape, incest and life. Why do more rich men marry beautiful women and not the other way around? Why have the attempts to sell pornogrphy to women and romantic novels to men failed? And above all this: why did evolution produce different minds in men a women?
Take all of the above and pack it with a red cover, and you have one of the most amazing readings of the year.
on November 21, 2003
To summarize anything I might say below - this is an incredible book. Mind-blowing. If you're reading reviews (as I do) trying to find the few people who didn't love the book so you can have an "unbiased" view, very good for you. (that's how I choose books, usually) My unbiased view is this - I *very rarely* give out fives. This is one of the few books that deserves it.
Matt Ridley explains in the epilogue of The Red Queen that half of his ideas are probably wrong, just like those of Freud, Jung, and many others. But this common-sense attitude, projected onto the evolution of reproduction, is EXACTLY what about this book makes it so incredible.
Ridley is grounded in a reality unfettered by religion, social science, social mores, or really any sort of external "moral" influence. (Not that he's the antichrist or anything - he's just not letting standard social concepts influence his ideas.) A few people who don't usually want to accept reality (ultra-conservatives) will hate this book. Fine. If you believe in creationism, go elsewhere. Otherwise, read this book! This is not a political or an ideological work - this is a scientific text on human evolution, and how it has been influenced by sex.
I have been able to RIVET people with discussions of facts and theories from this book. It's the best money I've spent on a single book in quite a long while. And in case I sound like way too much of a suck-up - I haven't read any of Ridley's other works, not because I haven't bought them, but because I looked through them in bookstores, and every one I looked at seems either uninteresting, wrong, or awful. But this one is GREAT!
on February 18, 2004
Sex sells. And so it should. Zoologists recognise sex as a major driving force in evolution. In this enthralling book, Matt Ridley turns his attention to the implications for humans. Polygamy, monogamy, infidelity, beauty, sexual jealousy; all can be understood anew in the light of evolution.
There are surprising conclusions to be drawn. For example, polygamy may not serve the interests of men, since it excludes many from sex entirely. Monogamy may be the result of the male majority competing for a slice of the sexual pie (mmm... sexual pie).
Ridley is an excellent guide in this exploration of human nature. His style is seductively easy to read, sometimes lulling you into accepting his arguments uncritically. But keep your wits about you and you will enjoy an engaging and clear - if somewhat whistle stop - tour of how sex has shaped humanity. This book can be read by anyone interested in what makes us human, from school pupils to professional scientists.
One final tip: the first section of the book concentrates on animals other than humans. This is necessary to set the scene, but for the really juicy stuff, skip to the later chapters.
on January 25, 2001
Matt Ridley's Red Queen is both a terrific introduction into the burgeoning field of evolutionary psycholgy and a scientific explanation for why the sexes differ. Ridley's book is based entirely off other scientists ideas, but his great contribution is to put them all together in a cohent and readable form. Ridley is a gifted writer with a knack for making the difficult accesible. But what makes this book so wonderful is its central thesis: That human gender differences are biological, stemming from divergent interests in the way males and females in the animal world seek to reproduce. While this has been well-established in other places, what is even more interesting is Ridley's examination of human reproductive strategies. Men seek beauty and youth in women, while women seek wealth and stablity in men. Every single assertion Ridley makes is backed up by a wealth of scientific date, ranging from experiments to human history and deductive logic. The scientific rigor of this book is impressive, and mostly irrefutalble. There are other implications of this book as well. The most obvious is that it destroys environmental explantions for male-female differences, and culturally constructed views of beauty. But the implications range far beyond that, to our very perception of gender roles in society, and how we should deal with them. Finally, this book is a great introduction into evolutionary pyschology, a new field that is improving by leaps and bounds every year. Evolutionary Pschologists continue to probe into human behavior, helping us understand the biological, and immutable, sources of the human condition. We can expect even more breakthroughs in the years to come, and I certainly hope Matt Ridley chooses to write another book explaining the newest thinking.
on September 5, 2000
This book is absolutely filled with interesting theories on the evolution of sexual behavior and of the effects of selection preferences on the evolution of various species. I found particularly interesting the notion that gender is not a necessity for reproduction nor even necessarily a good plan for projecting one generation's genes into the future. It hardly occurs to a member of a species that places so much emphasis on sex and gender that their occurence and persistance actually need some explanaton. Ridley does this with flare, illustrating with examples from other species what is possible and mathematically what is likely to occur genetically with various approaches to reproduction. He also provides an overview of most of the theories of why gender occurs and reasons why most theories don't quite hold up when examined against what actually occurs in nature. His own theory of parasite and infectious disease resistance and an "arms race" of sorts between host and parasite seems quite plausible as an explanation for the rise of gender. He also gives a thorough account of how selection of certain noncounterfitable traits exhibiting the health of prospective mates has caused a similar Red Queen stalemate between the sexes and has led to the types of behavior seen as characteristic of male and female humans. An interesting book.
This is the book that first demonstrated to me the power of evolutionary psychology to help us understand ourselves. Published a year before Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, which covers much of the same territory, this is to my mind a more sophisticated and more direct exposition. Both books are characterized by a sly wit and an incisive expression, but Ridley meanders less among the relics of Freud and Darwin and is less concerned about whether we're moral or not and more concerned with what's sexy and why. He had a lot of fun with this book and it shows.
The "red queen" is a metaphor for an arms race. In an arms race both sides run as fast and as hard as they can to stay in the same place relatively speaking. In evolution the arms race is between parasite and host or between predator and prey. Both are running as fast as they can just to keep up, because when one gets an advantage, the other finds a counter. The red queen comes from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) since that monarch ran as fast as she could but never got anywhere at all. The red queen is also a metaphor for the theory that there is no "progress" in evolution, that "...species do not get better at surviving... Their chances of extinction are random" (p. 64).
Ridley covers a lot of territory here, ranging from sex to the handicap principle to gossip to why our brains are big (to figure out what the other person is up to!). The Red Queen answers the question, "Why is there sex?" Apparently we have sexuality rather than asexuality because of the arms race between microbes and our immune systems. Sex is a way of storing defenses against parasites in the gene pool of the species and then mixing them anew each generation to fool the microbes. Without the gene pool and the DNA mixing, the microbes would quickly evolve a way around the organism's defenses; but with sexuality the organism juggles its "locks" every generation and so is able to keep up with the fast-mutating microbes. When again the microbes evolve the keys to these locks, the gene pool is mixed again and the organism comes up with an old lock that the microbes again have to evolve a key to. With the same logic, and in a larger sense, sex has evolved as a means to randomly pit many phenotypes against the environment.
Some of the fun is the incisive way Ridley presents the ideas, and the ideas he chooses to present. For example, note how effectively he demolishes Freud's naive incest taboo theory on pages 282-286. Also interesting is his presentation of the idea that it is not thinness in women per se that attracts men, but a low ratio of waistline to hip line that fetches them. There are chapters entitled "Polygamy and the Nature of Men," and "Monogamy and the Nature of Women." In Chapter 9, "The Uses of Beauty," Ridley goes into some detail on why men prefer thin and blond women. And on pages 217-218 he explains why women cuckold their mates: "This is because her husband is, almost by definition, usually not the best male there is--else how would he have ended up married to her?" She wants the parental care of her husband and some other man's superior--she thinks--genes.
Ridley is rather modest and says that most of the ideas in the book are not his and at any rate many of them will undoubtedly be proven wrong. This is refreshing to read when I think about all the delusive ideas so proudly trumpeted by popular books on evolution and human behavior in the past. Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape (1967) and Elaine Morgan's The Aquatic Ape: A Theory of Human Evolution (1982) come to mind, both fine books, but now seen to be substantially mistaken.
Written in an engaging and lucid style, The Red Queen really is the best of a number of books on evolutionary psychology to appear in recent years and one that is a delight to read.
on November 9, 2006
Science writer Matt Ridley's book "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" is outstanding. I have read at least 20 other books by various authors on this subject, and yet Ridley's book contains a vast amount of original work and brilliant viewpoints.
His language is accessible, witty, and moving. His explanations and arguments are well researched, and elegantly written.
Ridley takes you on a journey, for those willing, into nature's infinite world of sexual evolution using existing species as examples. You'll end up realizing how constricted our society is in relation to our nature. The book opened my mind to how diverse our society can be, and how we limit and restrict ourselves. I find this book to be one of his best works.
Experts in every field of living systems should read this book, the implications are staggering. Although written entirely from a biological / genetic / nature point of view, anyone could use the material to develop an improved system. For example, improved political systems, draft laws that make sense, market products more successfully, understand the criminal mind-set, raise children better, better discern the cause of war and violence, etc.
In a nut-shell, if you want to understand the infinite possibility of human potential, this book gives you the "theory of operation" and should be considered the bible on how central sexuality is to the nature of humankind and our modern civilization.
on January 29, 2007
Some of the ideas expressed in The Red Queen are brilliant, and their applicability to the nature of human sexuality are quite interesting. However, Ridley's very methodical approach to categorizing and cataloging the varieties during the first 120-150 pages can be painfully slow.
Once Part II kicked in, I was glad I persevered. After the first part apparently sets the stage for some descriptions related to human beings, I found myself unable to put the book down during second half. No need to add on to what has been written by others, but if I had to do it again, I definitely would have skimmed Part 1.
Still worth the effort and quite a conversation piece. In the month since I finished, I find I bring it up in casual conversation regularly, and even during the course of book club conversations about male and female perspectives to similar actions, perceptions, or mating rituals. Definitely recommended!
on May 10, 2000
This is on my list of Books Everyone Should Read, up there with _The_Gift_of_Fear_. Where deBecker explains violence, Ridley explains sex. You might not like what you read, but Ridley has really done his research. I disagree that he is unbiased; Ridley also says he is not unbiased, but he does say he tried hard not to be. In fact, it's the best job of research analysis and synthesis I've seen in a long time. One should never be afraid to face facts, and really, it doesn't say anything that you don't already know - it just makes it more understandable.
If you want to see how scientific and rational thought should be done, this is the book for you. Arguments and counterarguments are presented clearly and given equal time. If the behavior of the opposite sex ever confused you or angered you, this is the book for you. There's nothing like understanding to help us get along with each other.
He's a bit idolizing of some of his sources but it doesn't get in the way of what he's saying. It's information dense, but the writing is not at all dry. It was hard for me to put down.