The Red Queen

I read the book yesterday.

It’s an easy book to read and most people who’ve read it seem to like it – it has a rating average of 4.04 on goodreads. I decided in the end to give it two stars. It’ll be the last popular science book of this type I’ll read in a while, and you should note that if I didn’t happen to feel sick and tired of popular science books at this point I might have given it a higher rating – I don’t really think it’s any worse than Miller’s The Mating Mind which I gave three stars, but the question remains if I ought to subtract a star from that one rather than give this one another star. The main problem with these books is that I at this point feel that I just don’t learn enough new stuff from them to justify reading them, and they often make me annoyed due to the authors’ relatively lax standards of evidence and imprecise language (compared to, say, the language of academic textbooks), both of which are more or less direct consequences of the format.

I think there’s generally in these types of books too much speculation and too little worry on part of the author about saying things which are not supported by the data. Funny enough, thinking back to the discussion I had with Miao when covering Miller I should note that Ridley also seemed to have trouble figuring out how large vocabularies people tend to have. But unlike Miller, Ridley didn’t even feel any need to source his hilariously wrong estimate (see below) and that’s not a point in his favour even though the estimate isn’t in any way critical to the coverage. There are interesting observations in the book, quite a few of them, but often it’s harder to trust the author than it ought to be because he also says things which are plain wrong in his book and occasionally it’s very hard to pinpoint the source of an interesting observation, or even figure out if a source exists, because whole paragraphs may be supported by one source which doesn’t necessarily cover all the material in the paragraph in question – there are no (authors X and Y, 20XX) references like in academic papers, only an occasional number and a source in the back of the book; and once you realize that he says unsourced things which are not true in the text, you start worrying about the existence of unsourced observations within the sourced paragraphs as well. Or at least I did. Of course the fact that a statement is sourced doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right, but it’s a better starting point than is the alternative. Another major problem is that there are a lot of sentences which would be improved greatly by probability indicators like ‘perhaps’, ‘it’s likely that’, and similar – this relates to the ‘imprecise language’ part above. There’s too little doubt, and he’s sometimes way too categorical in his statements and/or give a too simplified view of the problem at hand.

Stuff I’ve read which covers some of the same stuff as is covered in this book includes Miller, Bobbi Low, the first couple of chapters in Scarre, a few chapters from Majerus, and some of Dawkins’ work. I already knew about the sex-parasites thing because that idea has been covered elsewhere, though of course the book has more details on this stuff. Anyway I think it’s safe to say that if you’re reasonably well-informed there’ll be a lot of pages in this book covering stuff you already know.

I’ve focused mainly on the good stuff in the book below, but I didn’t think it was right to only include good stuff, so there are a few ‘bad quotes’ and related critical remarks here and there as well.

“Selection within the species is always going to be more important than selection between the species.[13]” [The source given to this claim is ‘Humphrey 1983’. This is a good example of the ‘he’s too categorical’ – Always??? I wonder what the hundreds of species which went extinct in Lake Victoria following the introduction of the Nile Perch have to say about that? Or what about the Dodo? Important in what way and for whom?]

“If a population is small […] or the number of genes in the creature is very large, [Muller’s] ratchet has a severe effect on an asexual lineage. […] being sexual was a prerequisite for being big (and therefore few), or, conversely, sex is unnecessary if you stay small.[38]”

“among mammals, the amount of recombinations bears no relation to the number of young, little relation to body size, and close relation to age at maturity. In other words long-lived, late-maturing animals do more genetic mixing regardless of their size or fecundity than short-lived, early-maturing animals.”

“the probability that a family of animals will become extinct does not depend on how long that family has already existed. In other words, species do not get better at surviving […] Their chances of extinction are random. […] The struggle for existence never gets easier. However well a species may adapt to its environment, it can never relax, because its competitors and its enemies are also adapting to their niches. Survival is a zero-sum game.”

“Sex, according to the Red Queen theory, has nothing to do with adapting to the inanimate world […] but is all about combating the enemy that fights back. Biologists have persistently overestimated the importance of physical causes of premature death rather than biological ones. […] The things that kill animals or prevent them from reproducing are only rarely physical factors. Far more often they are other creatures – parasites, predators and competitors. […] Parasites have a deadlier effect than predators for two reasons. One is that there are more of them. […] The second reason, which is the cause of the first, is that parasites are usually smaller than their hosts while predators are usually larger. This means that the parasites live shorter lives and pass through more generations in a given time than their hosts.” […] Parasites and their hosts are locked in a close evolutionary embrace. The more successful the parasite’s attack […] the more the host’s chances of survival will depend on whether it can invent a defence. The better the host defends, the more natural selection will promote the parasites that can overcome the defence. So the advantage will always be swinging from one to the other: the more dire the emergency for one, the better it will fight. […] the notion of a host-parasite arms race is one of the most basic and unavoidable consequences of evolution.”

“The advantage of sex [to fight parasites] can appear in a single generation. This is because whatever lock is common in one generation will produce among the parasites the key that fits it. So you can be sure that it is the very lock not to have a few generations later. For by then the key that fits it will be common. Rarity is at a premium. […] many of the most notoriously polymorphic genes, such as the blood groups, the histocompatibility antigens and the like, are the very genes that affect resistance to disease – the genes for locks. Moreover, some of these polymorphisms are astonishingly ancient. […] Some very powerful force is at work ensuring that most versions of each gene survive, and that no version changes very much. That force is almost certainly disease. […] most asexual plants are short-lived annuals. Long-lived trees face a particular problem, because their parasites have time to evolve to their genetic defences – to evolve. […] Disease might almost put a sort of limit on longevity: there is little point in living much longer than it takes your parasites to adapt to you.” […this last sentence sort of conveys an old idea which I’ve had before, but the framing is different and the framing is important. When thinking about this aspect in the past I’ve usually tended to think only about the selective pressures imposed by predators, rather than e.g. those of diseases, but of course the latter are likely to play a major role as well.]

“larger, more intelligent and more social animals are generally more flexible in their mating systems than smaller, stupid or more solitary ones.”

“A female human being does not have to share her sexual favours with many males to prevent infanticide, but she may have a good reason to share them with one well-chosen male apart from her husband. 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? His value is that he is monogamous and will therefore not divide his child-rearing efforts among several families. But why accept his genes? Why not have his parental care and some other male’s genes? […] the principle – marry a nice guy but have an affair with your boss, or marry a rich but ugly man and take a handsome lover – is not unknown among female human beings.” […] [According to findings by Robin Baker and Mark Bellis] the typical woman’s pattern of infidelity […] is exactly what you would expect to find if she were unconsciously trying to get pregnant by a lover, while not leaving a husband.” [I don’t really know to which extent one should trust these findings, however, as other findings by them described by Ridley simply can’t be true and to me indicate questionable methodology at best:] “In a block of flats in Liverpool, they found by genetic tests that less than four in every five people were the sons of their ostensible fathers. The rest were apparently fathered by somebody else. In case this was something to do with Liverpool, they did the same tests in southern England and got the same result.” [As I put it in the margin, ‘these numbers are way too high.’ See e.g. this post by Razib Khan.]

“Cuckoldry paranoia is deep-seated in men. […] Cuckoldry is an asymmetrical fate. A woman loses no genetic investment if her husband is unfaithful, but a man risks unwittingly raising a bastard. […] It is not that a woman need not mind about her husband’s infidelity: it might lead to him leaving her, or wasting his time and money on his mistress, or picking up a nasty disease. But it does imply that men are likely to mind even more about their wives’ infidelity than vice versa. History, and law, have long reflected just that.”

“There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gatherers, but deep in the mind of modern man is a simple hunter-gatherer rule: strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy affairs with other men’s wives who will bear bastards.” [“There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gatherers – did he actually just say that? You just can’t write stuff like that. Again, this is way too categorical – it’s just plain wrong. There are plenty of recent genetic changes to be found (see e.g. this), if you care to look for it. Also, on a different matter the ‘strive to acquire wealth’ part of human behaviour today may well somehow be related to things which took place in hunter-gatherer times, but a male decision rule to strive for wealth in order to have more babies sure as hell isn’t derived from hunter-gatherer times; as he himself points out in his book, “accumulation of wealth was not possible in hunter-gatherer societies” (this is a direct quote from the book). It’s as if he’s unable to connect the chunks of knowledge he has obtained, and although that may well occasionally be hard this is just borderline weird.]

“the evidence for the average male brain differing in certain ways from the average female brain is now all but undeniable. […] There is no a priori reason for assuming that men and women have identical minds and no amount of wishing it were so will make it so if it is not so. […] to assume the sexes are mentally identical in the face of evidence that they are not is just as unfair as to assume sexual difference in the face of evidence that they are the same. […] mankind may be the mammal with the greatest division of sexual labour, and the greatest of mental differences between the sexes.” [He starts out well in that chapter. But then the politically correct crap shows its ugly face anyway…] “I think it is easy and, given the evidence, rational to believe that the [mental] differences between the natures of men of different races are trivial, while the differences between the natures of men and women of the same race are considerable.” [Yeah, well… IQ data shows a similar pattern to the one in the link: Good luck finding gender differences as large as the racial differences. I remember a finding from a paper from a course I took last year on the economics of education; they found that the average SAT score of black college-educated in their (US) sample was about the same as the average SAT score of a white high school graduate. I can’t be bothered to find the link, but the link above tells a similar story; the differences are huge. Switch ‘sexes’ with ‘races’, ‘males’ an ‘females’/’men’ and ‘women’ with ‘blacks’ and whites’ in the sentences quoted above and see where you end up. We didn’t have as much data on that kind of stuff when Ridley wrote his book as we do now, but we did have data back then as well and given the observed differences Ridley cannot have had good reasons for holding the view that he does. I won’t go so far as to call him a hypocrite, but he should at the very least consider reading Clifford.]

“True, we learn a lot more than bats and cuckoos do. We learn mathematics and a vocabulary of ten thousand words, and what people’s characters are like.” [No source in the book. Of course there isn’t – this number is bullshit, it’s not even close. See also this discussion. On the one hand the fact that he didn’t even feel the need to source the estimate makes him look worse than Miller, but on the other hand this isn’t an estimate which is as critical to the book or the chapter as it was to Miller. In Ridley’s case it’s likely just a number he drew out of a hat, not caring enough about whether it was right or not to actually try to find out. Intellectual laziness is the problem, not the fact that the number is wrong.]

“As Horace Barlow of Cambridge University has pointed out, the things of which we are conscious are mostly the mental events that concern social actions: we remain unconscious of how we see, walk, hit a tennis ball or write a word. Like a military hierarchy, consciousness operates on a ‘need to know’ policy.”

December 1, 2013 - Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Ecology, Evolutionary biology, Genetics

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