Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Red Queen: Sex, Gender, & Evolution

As you can tell from my reading list, I love reading books about evolution, science, and sex. I just finished reading "The Red Queen", and it's definitely one of my favorites. I've been sharing tidbits from it with everyone around me who will listen, because I've found them so interesting that I can't keep them to myself. I've put together quotes below to give you an idea of what the book covers and make you want to read the book too.

It starts with an important question: why does sex exist at all?

Sex gives variety, so sex makes a few of your offspring exceptional and a few abysmal, whereas asex makes them all average.
Yet it is stasis, not change, that is the hallmark of evolution. Sex and gene repair and the sophisticated screening mechanisms of higher animals to ensure that only defect-free eggs and sperm contribute to the next generation—all these are ways of preventing change.

Then it introduces the Red Queen theory, which we see throughout the book.

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.

Next it goes into more on how sex may exist because it is the best defense against parasites:

By the time the next generation comes around, the parasites will have surely evolved an answer to the defense that worked best in the last generation. It is a bit like sport. In chess or in football, the tactic that proves most effective is soon the one that people learn to block easily. Every innovation in attack is soon countered by another in defense.
In about ten years, the genes of the AIDS virus change as much as human genes change in 10 million years. For bacteria, thirty minutes can be a lifetime. Human beings, whose generations are an eternal thirty years long, are evolutionary tortoises.
The AIDS virus is craftiest of all. According to one theory, it seems to keep mutating so that each generation has different keys. Time after time the host has locks that fit the keys and the virus gets suppressed. But eventually, after perhaps ten years, the virus’s random mutation hits upon a key that the host does not have a lock for. At that point the virus has won. It has found the gap in the repertoire of the immune system’s locks and runs riot. In essence, according to this theory, the AIDS virus evolves until it finds a chink in the body’s immune armor.
And in an extraordinary discovery made by Wayne Potts of the University of Florida at Gainesville, house mice appear to choose as mates only those house mice that have different histocompatibility genes from their own. They do this by smell.
Sex is about disease. It is used to combat the threat from parasites. Organisms need sex to keep their genes one step ahead of their parasites. Men are not redundant after all; they are woman’s insurance policy against her children being wiped out by influenza and smallpox (if that is a consolation). Women add sperm to their eggs because if they did not, the resulting babies would be identically vulnerable to the first parasite that picked their genetic locks.

After establishing why we have sex, he goes into how animals decide who to have sex with (or as it turns out, how the females decide who to have sex with):

Where males gather on communal display arenas, a male’s success owes more to his ability to dance and strut than to his ability to fight other males.
In other words, the choosier the females, the brighter and more elaborate the male ornaments will be, which is exactly what you find in nature. Sage grouse are elaborately ornamented, and only a few males get chosen; terns are unornamented, and most males win mates.

Next is a chapter on the differences between the sexes, which I find quite interesting given all the "women in tech" discussions that pop up around me:

Men and women are human beings, and human beings are mammals with one highly unusual characteristic: a sexual division of labor...Men look for sources that are mobile, distant, and unpredictable (usually meat), while women, burdened with children, look for sources that are static, close, and predictable (usually plants).
Of the many mental features that are claimed to be different between the sexes, four stand out as repeatable, real, and persistent in all psychological tests. First, girls are better at verbal tasks. Second, boys are better at mathematical tasks. Third, boys are more aggressive. Fourth, boys are better at some visuo-spatial tasks and girls at others. Put crudely, men are better at reading a map and women are better judges of character and mood—on average.
The mind is immune to testosterone unless it was exposed to a sufficient concentration (relative to female hormones) in the womb. It would be easy to engineer a society with no sex difference in attitude between men and women. Inject all pregnant women with the right dose of hormones, and the result would be men and women with normal bodies but identical feminine brains. War, rape, boxing, car racing, pornography, and hamburgers and beer would soon be distant memories. A feminist paradise would have arrived.
Baby girls are more interested in smiling, communicating, and in people, boys in action and things. Shown cluttered pictures, boys select objects, girls people. Boys are instantly obsessed with dismantling, assembling, destroying, possessing, and coveting things. Girls are fascinated by people and treat their toys as surrogate people. Hence, to suit their mentalities, we have invented toys that suit each sex. We give boys tractors and girls dolls. We are reinforcing the stereotypical obsessions that they already have, but we are not creating them.
Studies of male conversation find it to be public (that is, men clam up at home), domineering, competitive, status-obsessed, attention-seeking, factual, and designed to reveal knowledge and skill. Female conversation tends to be private (that is, women clam up in big groups), cooperative, rapport-establishing, reassuring, empathetic, egalitarian, and meandering (that is, to include talk for talk’s sake).

He goes on to discuss homosexuality, fashion (which he can't quite figure out), incest, and beauty.

Darwin said, "If all our women were to become as beautiful as the Venus de' Medici, we should for a time be charmed; but we should soon wish for variety; and as soon as we had obtained variety, we should wish to see certain characters a little exaggerated beyond the then existing common standard." This, incidentally, is as concise a statement as could be made for why eugenics would never work.

In his final and most speculatory chapter, he discusses theories behind the big brain size of humans, and puts forth the idea that its due to sexual selection.

Yet the argument still has considerable force because big brains do not come free. In human beings, 18 percent of the energy that we consume every day is spent in running the brain. That is a mighty costly ornament to stick on top of the body just in case it helps you invent agriculture, just as sex was a mighty costly habit to indulge in merely in case it led to innovation

He finishes by reminding us that many of the theories he espouses are likely to be proved wrong later, because we are so early on in researching the area:

The study of human nature is at about the same stage as the study of the human genome, which is at about the same stage as the mapping of the world in the time of Herodotus. We know a few fragments in detail and some large parts in outline, but huge surprises still await us and errors abound.

You can't learn anything from just these quotes alone, of course — you have to read the whole book. So, any suggestions for what book I should read next?

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