Sex, seduction and genes: Running hard to stay put

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Sex, seduction and genes: Running hard to stay put

“Matt Ridley leads his readers on an exhilarating, dizzying romp through evolutionary and environmental biology, anthropology and old-fashioned sex.”
I doubt that I’ll ever be able to get a job writing cover blurbs, but the clashing concepts in that paragraph actually are a fair summary of this thought-provoking and stimulating book. Not sexually stimulating, I hasten to add; Ridley even apologizes to his readers before a lone passage where he delves briefly into the mechanics of human lovemaking to make a point, and that happens more than halfway into his book.
Ridley’s central thesis is that humans reproduce sexually because that strategy is the most efficient for outwitting the parasites that afflict humans. Those parasites are also constantly evolving, he says, and seeking better ways to outwit their hosts. The gene-swapping that occurs in sex and the parasitical attacks that stimulate it are akin to the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland,” who has to run as fast as she can to stay in the same place.
The book is more than an exposition of a single theory of sexual reproduction, however. It is a broad survey of thinking about natural selection and sexual selection, and Ridley believes the latter is the more powerful force in making us what we are. Readers will probably have to suspend their disbelief at times; a central thesis of the book is that humans and other living things on Earth are driven by their genes to court and keep mates ― or abandon them ― the way they do. That applies to peacocks, grouse, marine life ― and most emphatically to humans, Ridley contends.
The book and its implicit attack on fundamentalist religious views of the world tie in with the exposition of Guy Consolmagno in his book “Brother Astronomer,” that God intended for man to study nature as a way of understanding him in some tiny way. Ridley does not make that specific point, but he does caution at several points that theories about why human nature is the way it is do not necessarily mean that man should not strive to overcome his base instincts and set up moral codes. This book is in no way an attack on religious ideas of morality. As he puts it:
“None of our instincts is inevitable; none is insuperable. Morality is never based upon nature. It never assumes that people are angels or that the things it asks human beings to do come naturally. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is not a gentle reminder but a fierce injunction to men to overcome any instincts they may have or face punishment.”
Ridley is a superb writer. A former science editor of the Economist magazine, he weaves a compelling and lucid story of the evolution of theories about evolution. He has a gift for simplifying complex subjects, although at times the broad sweep of his narrative makes it difficult to keep all that has gone before in mind. The index is an essential part of this book.
It is also noteworthy for its even-handed presentation of conflicting theories. Ridley notes in an epilogue that very little is really known about the subject. He has his preferred theories, but he cheerfully admits that those preferences could have little to do with the real nature of things.

by John Hoog
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