Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Red Queen is dead

When I was in my first year of grad school, I read both Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and Matt Ridley's The Red Queen. They changed the way I saw the world. Back in high school, I had read Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, and it had had a similar effect on my thinking.

As I've grown older, and learned more, I've come to think of these books as perfect examples of the damage a beautiful model can cause to a young, impressionable mind.

The Red Queen applies crystalline logic to the War of the Sexes: pregnancy and child-rearing are expensive and risky for females, but sex is cheap for males. One man can make every woman in the world pregnant, but a woman can have no more than a dozen or so children in her lifetime. The canonical example is Genghis Khan: by some accounts, practically everyone alive today is descended from him. Given these facts, it makes evolutionary sense for men to be promiscuous, but women should be chaste.

The logic is flawless, but how about the premises?

Genghis Khan lived late in our species history. Go back a few thousand years, and practically all of us were hunter-gatherers living in small bands. Any man in these bands who tried to monopolize the women would in short order find a scorpion waiting in his sleeping bag. He would need the help of other men to get anything at all done. A very "successful" man would probably still have many more children than even the most fecund woman, but it is unlikely that men and women differed greatly in the number of children they had. Women could always band together to put any man in his place.

Greg Downey at the PLoS blog Neuroanthropology has published the first of three blog posts about what he calls the "long, slow, sexual revolution". I was very glad to read this, and not only because of the very NSFW video included with the post, nor simply because it introduced me to the delectable Julia Zimero.

Human reality is complicated, and our picture of it needs to be a little messy, a little contingent, too. I no longer think that any aspect of the real world can be understood without data: Nature is far too subtle for our unaided imagination. Einstein would never have thought of Special Relativity without Michelson and Morley. I don't know enough about this topic, but I am looking forward to breaking the ice which has locked my thinking in place for far too long.

No comments: