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Posts Tagged ‘Matt Ridley’

People seem to easily forget that the word ‘is’ is different from the word ‘should’. If we choose to redress the sexual differences between the minds of men and women through policy, we are going against nature, but no more than when we outlaw murder. But we should be clear that we are redressing a difference, not discovering [that men and women are innately identical by nature]. Wishful thinking that they are the same will be mere propaganda and no favour to either sex.

We seem to be going through one of those periods in which the question of what it means to be a human is rather up for debate. Normally I’d be quite encouraged by any tendency for people to actually discuss big topics, but the current circumstances are, to say the least, dismaying: ever since the initial revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which as I write must have been nearly a month ago, there has been a ripple effect throughout every level of society – mostly taking in actors and politicians, so far, but I’m sure it has every possibility of spreading into other areas, too.

The composite picture of the masculine human created by the recent revelations is not one likely to make one feel proud of being in possession of XY chromosomes. Men are, it would seem, basically unpleasant pieces of work (when it comes to their relationships with women, anyway), and unaware of the fact of their own unpleasantness. What’s wrong with us? How did we get this way? Are we just stuck in the past, following the principles of a male-oriented chauvinistic society, something best consigned to the bin of history?

Hmmm. As it happened, I spent the last month or so reading Matt Ridley’s 1993 book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, and despite the fact that the book is two decades old, I was repeatedly struck by how pertinent it was to the current discussions – also by the fact that so few of the book’s ideas seem to have entered the popular consciousness, despite the fact they seem eminently logical and reasonable.

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But then I am perhaps biased: I have thought for many years that our behaviour as humans is influenced by elements of our evolutionary history that we are reluctant, to say the least, to acknowledge, and that there is little prospect of widespread social happiness until we achieve some kind of accomodation with our biology and instincts.

Ridley’s thesis runs more or less as follows – humans do not occupy a special or privileged position in the world; we are the products of evolutionary processes every bit as much as chimpanzees or elephant seals or peacocks are. This extends to our social behaviour, and particularly our sexual behaviour. As evolution is solely influenced by the transmission of genes via sexual reproduction, it follows that sex is likely to have been strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures. Ridley argues that it is impossible to make sense of human behaviour without accepting the crucial influence of sexual selection.

Coupled to all of this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what Ridley calls the Red Queen: the idea that evolution is an endless, unwinnable ‘arms race’ (the reference is to Lewis Carroll, whose Red Queen stayed in the same spot no matter how hard she ran). Mice evolve to come out at night, when it’s safer, so owls evolve to see in the dark; mice evolve better ears to hear the owls coming, so the owls evolve silent ‘stealth feathers’ for noiseless flight. You are never safe; the contest never ends.

Ridley starts from first principles, however, and begins by examining what sound like initially rather odd questions – why have sex at all? And why are most animals arranged in the manner that they are, with two sexes, a father and a mother?

It would, after all, be simpler and less stressful just to bud off a clone of yourself whenever you felt was a propitious time – you could save all that time looking for a partner and just concentrate on having children, thus maximising your genetic legacy. Or, if we absolutely have to have sex as a species, why not all be hermaphrodites? Again, this would double (on average) the number of offspring resulting from successful procreation (both participants could give birth), again improving the genetic legacy one left behind.

I must confess that this is the book I very vaguely alluded to a while back when discussing an episode of Star Trek which dealt with a triple-gendered race of aliens. I had been wondering how such an arrangement might evolve and how it would actually work in real life. Ridley’s treatment of the subject is bad news for all but the most heroic and dauntless of SF writers: while it turns out there are sound reasons for sexual reproduction to exist, the same cannot be said for species with more than two genders. (Not without a fundamentally different mechanism for recording and transmitting genetic information, anyway.)

In any case, what the book goes on to make clear is that human sexuality is not a cultural construct but something which has evolved, the focus always being on securing the maximum number of healthy children. So it is that men have evolved to be naturally opportunistic and polygamous, with very powerful men throughout the history of every culture expressing this by leaving behind vast numbers of descendants. Men are likewise particularly attracted to the appearance of youth, as this indicates the potential to produce a larger number of children.

Women, on the other hand, have much less to gain by polygamy – a man can have several women carrying his children at the same time, while a woman can only carry one man’s child at once – and are as a result more naturally monogamous. Similarly, a man’s value is less in his reproductive potential, and more his capacity to provide for his children. Hence the question of exactly what they see in each other turns out to be a matter of evolution.

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This is all discussed in quite exhaustive detail, but Ridley is at pains to keep it all as accessible as possible and generally succeeds. He also takes pains to point out that there is no moral subtext to the book – his attempts to identify the ‘natural’ behaviour of humans does not imply he approves of it or considers it in any way desirable. Men may have a natural tendency for infidelity, especially with much younger beautiful women, but then we also have many other antisocial tendencies which we succeed in resisting on a routine basis. And surely it’s the case that a better understanding and awareness of this kind of behaviour is only likely to assist in controlling it.

In the end, as Ridley suggests at one point, it comes down to the question of whether you believe in original sin (our flaws are inherent and inescapable) or the perfectibility of the human race (we are born as tabula rasa, with no inherent tendencies). Neither is particularly flattering or satisfactory, and indeed the author argues this is a false dichotomy anyway.

This is all very interesting stuff, and I did find myself wondering what a discussion between Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, would sound like – Harari does ponder the mystery of why most societies have been male-dominated at once point, and I’m sure Ridley might have some ideas on the topic.

All I can offer is the suggestion that virtually every major culture has developed in a male-dominated form, and as a result they embody certain intrinsically masculine values and attitudes. However, we are still in the middle of a cultural shift to another set of values, ones which may even be rationally- rather than evolutionarily-derived. Hence the current conflict between opportunistic and exploitative masculine instincts, with millions of years of evolutionary pressure behind them, and notions of equality, respect, and human rights, some of which are very recent adoptions, culturally speaking. What can be done about this? I’m not sure. But as Ridley suggests in the quote at the top of this review, recognising that men and women are some levels innately different creatures, rather than being essentially identical and even somehow interchangeable, might be a good start. The key thing to bear in mind about men, is that they are men. On the other hand, being men is something that men are quite good at. We just have to figure out what that really means, and how to make the knowledge work for everyone.

 

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