Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Red Queen (Book Review)

After almost a year of intermittent reading, I finally finished Matt Ridley's The Red Queen.

I put it down every time something else came along, often abandoning it for weeks at a time. And then, when I'd pick it back up, I'd reread it in part to help jog my memory.

It's never taken me so long to complete any book — and certainly never so long for a book that's only 350 pages. And while I wouldn't say my laziness was a result of disinterest, the book isn't always a "real pageturner," either. I was, by this design, literally living the Red Queen life even as I tried to read the text.

If you're familiar with the Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland, you already have some insight as to how Ridley goes about describing the evolution of human nature: the Red Queen is always in hurry, but she never really gets anywhere (rather, as she moves forward, the scenery also moves, essentially keeping her in the same place she was at the beginning). If that doesn't make any sense, imagine instead the futility and frustration involved in running on a treadmill. Your feet keep moving, but you never actually go anywhere.

I hate to reduce this to a highfalutin version of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (which I've never read), but the connection warrants a reference: Ridley essentially sets about to explain why men and women interact as they do, exploring the evolution of homo sapiens from its hominid predecessors. I summarized the text in this haiku, and don't really know that I could add anything more to it, except to say that I did find the actual discussion of human evolution to be quite compelling. And I don't even mind all those passages where Ridley makes it clear that man is just a highly evolved ape with animal instincts.

What did bother me — and what made it so difficult for me to get beyond the first half — were repeated allusions to the mating habits of everything from fruit flies to peacocks. While I enjoyed each of these individual accounts simply because of my interest in natural biology, there were so many descriptions, that the end result was a bit of a mess. Not only were there several gaps between theories, but when there were connections, they often seemed forced. So rather than get a clear picture of where Ridley was going, I was trying to sort through a cacophony of divergent images, theories and explanations of habits pertaining to a hundred different species of bugs, fungi and mammals.

If the purpose of all that had been to later demonstrate how man is just another animal... well... there had to have been a better way to say it. And the second half of the book — where humans and apes are the primary focus — is what really got my interest.

Which isn't to say I liked what I read from page 200 onward. It was well-written and made sense, but I didn't like what I was hearing: a clear description and explanation of a variety of stereotypes that are probably true, though we wish they weren't. Why men are interested in youth and beauty; why women want men who make money. Why men are more likely to cheat on their wives. Etc.

It's enough to make a person want to not be in a relationship. Enough to make you despise mankind for scapegoating animal nature, all the while understanding — with a reasonable degree of empathy — the unyielding human conundrum.


michele said...

Sounds very interesting - thanks to you, I've just added it to my ever growing wishlist!

michele said...

Sounds very interesting - thanks to you, I've just added it to my already long wish list!