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The Red Queen

Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

By Matt Ridley
15-minute read
Audio available
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley

The Red Queen (1993) takes a close look at evolutionary trajectories and how they have been guided more by reproduction than by survival. These blinks describe how the search for suitable mates has produced such remarkable phenomena as the spectacular tails of peacocks and the powerful intelligence of humans.

  • Students of biology and anthropology
  • Fans of popular science
  • Unfaithful partners looking for a scientific justification for cheating

Matt Ridley is a British journalist, businessman and author who has worked for the Economist, the Times and the Daily Telegraph. Now an editor of the Best American Science Writing, Ridley is known for his science-focused books such as The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010) and The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (2015).

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The Red Queen

Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

By Matt Ridley
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
Synopsis

The Red Queen (1993) takes a close look at evolutionary trajectories and how they have been guided more by reproduction than by survival. These blinks describe how the search for suitable mates has produced such remarkable phenomena as the spectacular tails of peacocks and the powerful intelligence of humans.

Key idea 1 of 9

People may love sex, but it’s not very efficient.

In modern society, sex is part of just about everything people consume, from car commercials to movies. For the most part, people love it – but how did humans come to enjoy sex so much?

Humans’ love for sex actually has tremendous evolutionary benefits. For one, sex creates genetic diversity, as parental genes combine in novel ways. This process, in turn, drives evolution, as greater variety helps well-adapted species evolve.

Beyond that, sex also helps repair genes. For instance, a good strand of DNA from one parent can compensate for a bad strand from the other.

Without sex as a way to repair genes, the number of birth defects would grow greater with every subsequent generation; this process would be similar to endlessly photocopying a copy of a copy of a copy. Sex, on the other hand, uses two distinct originals to construct a new document based on both sets of information.

While sex does serve some key functions, other forms of reproduction are actually more efficient. Just take asexual species, which reproduce faster since individuals don’t need to secure mates and can reproduce at a moment’s notice.

In fact, while people might enjoy the chase of dating and the joy of relationships, having to find a suitable mate is an utterly inefficient process. Just imagine how much easier it would be to simply split in two like most microscopic creatures do, create seeds that are mirror clones of yourself like a dandelion or grow from a cutting like a willow tree.

Also, while sex speeds up evolution, evolution is not necessarily a universal goal, as some species do well with barely any change at all. Consider the coelacanth as an example; this Madagascan fish looks exactly as it did 300 million years ago.

And finally, you don’t even need to have sex to repair genes; instead, you could just store a backup copy of them. Most plants and all animals already have at least two copies of every gene and some, like female yams, have eight copies of each!

It begs the question, why do humans still need sex? That’s what you’ll learn next.

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