Short works

Books : reviews

Matt Ridley.
The Red Queen: sex and the evolution of human nature.
Perennial. 1993

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 3 December 2007

This is a riveting account of the biology of sex, from how and why it might have originally evolved in simple creatures, through the bizarre variants that occur throughout the natural world, to the evolutionary effect it may have on human behaviour and intelligence. Ridley has a marvellously lucid prose style, and isn't afraid to tackle technically difficult topics. All this is backed up by references to the technical literature, for those brave enough to delve deeper into the evidence behind the arguments.

One thing I particularly like is the way Ridley doesn't just give a definitive answer, but explores and evaluates a variety of different hypotheses. For starters, why does sex exist at all? In asexual organisms, the descendents have all the genes of the parent, whereas in sexual ones they have only half. So wouldn't the selfish gene prefer asexual reproduction? Maybe it's there to provide greater diversity, greater evolvability? But that's treading dangerously close to the idea of kin selection, evolution bettering the species rather than the individual, and that's not how it works. The most plausible hypothesis appears to be the advantage of resistance to fast-evolving parasites.

Once we're past the why, we get on the variations (including the effects that make the Y chromosome inhibit or damage X characteristics, and vice versa: there really is a war between the sexes!), the process of sexual selection and the handicap principle, and eventually to human culture, including why we are (mainly) monogamous. Ridley finishes by weaving a highly interesting, if non-standard, argument that human intelligence itself might be a result of sexual selection. Where peahens went for flashy tails, human females went for clever mates; the rest is history.

One of the things Ridley explains about the handicap principle is that it mustn't be possible to cheat. "Look how fit, healthy and strong I must be to be able to carry round this clumsy heavy expensive tail" doesn't work if you can fool the peahen with a fake cheap flashy tail. If intelligence is due to sexual selection in the same kind of way, then it should be equally expensive to achieve and difficult to fake: what then are the consequences for developing Artificial Intelligence?

This is a clear, fascinating, stimulating, provocative read. When I finished it, I went straight off and bought the rest of his books.

Matt Ridley.
The Origins of Virtue: human instincts and the evolution of cooperation.
Penguin. 1996

Matt Ridley.
Genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters.
Fourth Estate. 1999

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 23 December 2007

I enjoyed The Red Queen so much that I next sat down to read the other Matt Ridley book that I had on my "unread" shelves. I must admit that, to start with, I was disappointed. The structure of one chapter per chromosome, illustrating the effect of a particular gene on that chromosome, seemed rather patchy and disjointed. But as my reading progressed, I realised that this was an illusion: the specific illustrative genes are chosen carefully, and the book is woven from these individual detailed threads into something much more than the component parts. It's about how much we are governed by our genes, and how much were aren't governed by them (we bombarded with talk about things like "the gene for cystic fibrosis, or cancer, or obesity, or whatever, but as Ridley reiterates GENES ARE NOT THERE TO CAUSE DISEASES), and how stunningly complex it all is. This is achieved through the combination of loads of well-written fascinating little details.

So, another good and informative read, but it had the effect of increasing the size my "to read" pile, as I immediately went out and bough his other two books!

Matt Ridley.
The Agile Gene (== Nature via Nurture) .
Perennial. 2003