BOOK REVIEW / Bastards and mistresses: a peacock explains all: 'The Red Queen' - Matt Ridley: Viking, 17.99 pounds

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ANIMALS and plants evolved sex to fend off parasitic infections. Now look where it has got us. Men want BMWs, power and money in order to pair-bond with women who are blonde, youthful and narrow-waisted . . . and all because the sexes have genes which endow them with such lusts. The main reason why humanity evolved the grossly inflated brains that distinguish us from other animals was not to talk, or use tools, but because women were genetically disposed to fancy smarter men.

In summary, this book would seem to belong in that category of sensationalist pseudo-science writing, which includes The Territorial Imperative and Chariots of the Gods. But The Red Queen is a much sounder creation from a postgraduate biology researcher who became a senior political journalist with the Economist, then dived back into science. His book is a brilliant examination of scientific debates on the hows and whys of sex and evolution; and the unending evolutionary struggle between male and female. The sexes must co-operate, at least to the extent of combining eggs with sperm, but they are also driven to be choosy and to seek to exploit one another.

His arguments depend on the now orthodox 'selfish gene' perspective of evolution. Humanity has genes which equip us to be flexible, sociable and extremely intelligent hunter gatherers. But the genes which make us most human, the ones that persisted and spread over the past few million years, are those which made us better at attracting mates.

Far-fetched? Absurd? Come the epilogue, I found the notion depressingly convincing. It explains much of our beastly competitiveness, our cleverness, our tragic moral imperfectibility.

Ridley argues that the ascent of man began with an essentially monogamous ape in which male and female paired off for years, the better to raise children. Now, as then, we have males and females who are genetically disposed to be fussy about their mates. Men seek long-term sexual partners good at bearing and raising plenty of children, and so they are inclined to lust for younger women. It has, however, paid them - in the coinage of propagating genes - to retain a wide promiscuous streak and take the opportunity to father bastards. Above all, they are obsessed with competing with their fellow men for status and power in order to be as attractive to women as possible. Demonstrations of creativity and wit provide that status.

Women are not promiscuous by nature but, if paired with a low status male, are inclined to adultery with a genetically superior male provided it does not break their existing arrangement. That gives them children with better genes which the inferior mate can be duped into providing for.

We can choose not to act or think like this, but these inclinations can be found in all civilisations and tribes through history. Could not this be due to nurture and culture instead of all this grimly deterministic nature? Ridley's answer is a clever 'but of course'. Nature and nurture, far from being poles apart, must grow together. Indeed, humanity actually has many more instincts than any other animal as well as more learning ability and culture. Toddlers do not just learn language; they have a huge instinctive ability to acquire it.

Ridley offers us only breezy cynicism. 'The best (our male ancestors) could hope for in the Pleistocene was one or two faithful wives and a few affairs if their hunting or political skills were especially great. The best they can hope for now is a good-looking younger mistress and a devoted wife who is traded-in every decade or so.'

So turn to Shakespeare, Alexander Pope or the Bible for comfort. As for The Red Queen: it is a dazzling display of creativity and wit by a high-status male. A literary peacock's tail.

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