The Red Queen by Matt Ridley Book Summary – The Evolutionary Science of Attraction

Have you ever wondered why we are attracted to what we are and why do we behave in the way we do to attract others? Why are boobs, for example, so attractive if they are just blobs of fat on the chest? Today, I am going to address those issues.  

The Red Queen is an iconic book on human and animal mating and competition based on evolutionary biology. Even though it was written over two decades ago, it remains a cornerstone book in the field with millions of copies sold. Many of the theories in the book have held through the test of time.

When it was written, it clashed with what most scientists believed. Yet nowadays, many of these beliefs are commonly held.

This is a great book to understand human science, sex, attraction, reproduction, and evolutionary biology. Here are the useful insights I learned from the book:

What is the Red Queen?

The central concept of the book is what the book was named after: The Red Queen.

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” -Alice in Wonderland

The Red Queen is a fictional character from Alice in Wonderland, who must run just to stay in place. This concept is used as an analogy for how natural selection and evolution work. All the advantages one group in a species has, which allows it to survive and reproduce, are not helpful in the next few generations because it’s passed down to everyone else. Their descendants are once again competing on an even playing field. Therefore, it’s a constant race to stay ahead.

The Red Queen concept does not only apply to competition within a species. It also applies:

  • Between species, especially hosts versus parasites or viruses. The AIDS virus, for instance, is great at coming up with new “keys” to “locks” (mutations to avoid the human immune system).
  • Male vs. female courtship (women try to evolve ways to better detect how worthy men actually are while men continue to exaggerate their attractive traits and vice versa).

Here are the lessons I learned (note: most of the points in this book are theories rather than conclusions):

  • A study asked people which imaginary person playing tennis they would find more attractive: one who was strong, competitive, dominant, and determined; another who was easily intimidated by a stronger opponent, uncompetitive, and playing for fun rather than to win. Women found the first more attractive. Men did not when the genders were switched.
    • The same scientists showed did a similar experiment. They showed two videos: one of a man with his head bowed, nodding meekly at an interviewer and another who is relaxed, leaning back, and gesturing confidently. Women found the latter more desirable and sexually attractive. Men did not when female versions were shown. It seems relaxed and confident body language matters more for male attraction. 
    • These preferences may be there because our female ancestors had to assess which men had the potential to be successful, wealthy, and/or high status one day to properly choose them and have a better chance at surviving.
the science of physical attraction
Women find men who are more competitive, dominant, confident, relaxed, and determined more attractive.
  • When surveyed on sexual fantasies, men imagined multiple partners in one sexual session and cared more about the visual and their own physical pleasure. Women imagined one partner for the whole session and focused more on their own responses their partner’s touch, feelings, and emotions. This matches the high market demand for porn from men and high demand for erotica for women. Women care less about the visual so they would rather enjoy reading text.
  • Women care much more about the demonstration and traits of status than men because it mattered a lot to her ancestors in survival and reproduction. Men care more about youth and beauty because female status did not matter much to their ancestors.
    • Interestingly, women can identify modern proofs of status that did not exist in the past. An example would be someone with a Bugatti or Armani suit. These brands and goods did not exist for her hunter-gatherer ancestors yet she can still recognize the status behind them.
  • A study by Dr. David Buss found that men care more about physical beauty while women care more about status, wealth, and power. Men are not that attracted to women who have low beauty but high status and money. When they studied high earning women in first world countries, they found that these women emphasized wealth and status more, not less, when looking for mates.
    • A similar study was done that surveyed what genders looked for but broke it down on a spectrum of long-term relationships to short-term hook-ups. For females, physical attractiveness is more important for short-term flings and how good of a husband and father you are is more important for long-term relationships.
  • Why do people care so much about how attractive the face even if the body is good? Your face tells a lot about your genetic health. Generally speaking, the more the face is a composite or “average” of all the faces in your community, the more attractive it is. Avoid extremes with parts of the face or asymmetry.
  • Men overestimate how much muscle they should have to be the most attractive. Women overestimate how skinny they should be most attractive.
  • Fashion evolved to show status, wealth, youth and beauty, to stand out, and/or to improve how physically attractive you look.  
  • Male humans are more interested in traits that signify female youth and fertility, while females are more interested in traits that show who will be a good father and husband.
    • Males for most species generally want to mate with as many mates as possible while females look for quality of partner instead. This is because females must invest more because they have to carry their children inside of them for at least 9 months and males have little-needed investment.
  • Most people are average and cannot get the limited supply of attractive people. Average men learn to settle with average women.
  • Women are better judges of character and care more about character than men because their ancestors needed to in order to find a loyal father.
    • Women care more about having a long, recognizable man of character. This is illustrated in films because famous actors are often cast to return while new actresses always appear (example: James Bond films).
scientific ways to attract women
Women are better judges of character because their ancestors had to be in order to choose a father that would stay and keep their child alive. That doesn’t mean they are perfect at it, though.
  • Females had to choose their mate long before he matured and become a tribe leader. Therefore, they had to develop accurate ways of identifying traits that indicate future success. These traits might be poise, self-assurance, optimism, perseverance, decisiveness, intelligence, ambition, and efficiency. (Note: I had to jump in here and say do not get discouraged if you are not perfect. Girls are not perfect at identifying successes even to this day despite their thousands of years of genetic programming. We all know a girl who chooses a guy that end up not being so successful.)
  • Females find men who are taller more attractive. (Again, that does not mean you are doomed if you are short. You can make up for it in other ways.)
  • It’s not about being good. It’s about how much better you are relative to everyone else. Evolution is a constant arms race.
    • It’s not how smart you are, it’s how much smarter you are to everyone else.
    • It’s not how fit you are, it’s how fitter you are to everyone else.
  • Many species are more attracted to symmetrical mates because it’s very tough to grow symmetrically and it shows you had a healthy growth period.
  • Contrary to popular belief, evolution is not about constantly evolving to be better versions of ourselves. It’s about keeping in a state of stasis free of disease and negative mutation. Evolution does not lead to utopia or perfection. It leads to what is best for one group, may be worst for another.
  • Every advantage one species has does not become an advantage anymore after a few generations. It is a constant battle.
    • Example: brown seals give birth to a few white seals, who camouflage better in the snow. But in a few generations, every other seal has the advantage as well. Plus, the browns bears hunting the seals develop white fur to camouflage as well.
  •  The creation of DNA is incredibly efficient. There are only a couple errors every million. I wonder if businesses have ever studied how DNA is created and used it to improve factory and business efficiency.
  • While fashion trends and tastes change, the waist-to-hip ratio has been a long-enduring attractive feature among all cultures. The smaller the waist, the better. Scientists theorize this is because it is hard to fake having a small waist and it is thus a good indicator of female health and fertility.  
  • We have two genders (no more and no less) and have sex because it creates variety (which increases chances of success), removes mutation, and switches up our genetic traits.
  • If species must choose between survival and reproduction, they will choose reproduction. Males in some species often die after passing on their genetics.
  • In the past, few human males mated with most of the females. This competitive process allowed for bad genetics to be rooted out of a species quickly.
  • Humans evolved large brains to outwit each other in sexual competition and to succeed in passing on their genes.
  • Honesty wins out in the long term for courtship because women eventually see through the lies.
  • A comparison of humans to their closest relatives, including chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, while controlling for cultural, religious, and societal bias, was done to see biologically if they are naturally monogamists or polygamists.
    • They found that humans are biologically an intermediate species. We do not mate as excessively or have as intense sperm wars as some primate species but more so than others.
    • After doing cross-examinations of cultures that were polygamists and looking at history, results are inconclusive. It does seem that humans are a flexible species, with many possible mating patterns available to best suit their environment and survival.
  • Historically, many human civilizations had a caste system where the rulers had access to harems of thousands of children and other high-status officials had access to dozens to hundreds (depending on their status). The vast majority of males did not have access to any females and were killed or severely punished if caught messing with any females.
    • This system allowed only those at the top to be successful with women.
    • The impregnation process was very structured and factory-like, with princes required to save up sperm and meet a quota of women every day.  
    • In every one of these systems (across different cultures and locations), the rulers always had a single female mate that he considered better than all the rest. This queen was the only one who could birth children who would be considered heirs.
  •  An examination of human history reveals that power, wealth, and status were traded for sex.
    • This began when humans moved from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming society. In a hunter-gatherer society, it was beneficial to be helpful to each other. If one person had hunted extra meat, he could share it. The next day, if he did not hunt meat, another tribesman would return the favor.
    • When farming began, you could finally store food and develop systems to make much more money than other men. This evolved into less altruistic behavior and the leveraging of the resources for power, politics, and sex.
    • History also reveals that up to a third of men were killed in every generation in the distant past out of competition for sex.
      • One case study of a stranded group of a dozen men and women was shocking. When rescued, they found that only one man had survived. One died from suicide and the others died from murder due to mate competition.  
    • In certain eras, mating was dominated and controlled by religion. The average man was prevented from gaining power or having sex by strict religious rules.
      • Most of the year, you could not have sex because of days of the weeks, holidays, seasons, and tradition.
      • You could not marry anyone who was less distant than a seventh cousin, which ruled out any potential higher status female within 300 miles.
  • Biologically, women seem to prefer men with a better physique and health when ovulating, but prefer a loyal partner outside of this period. But why not both all the time? Perhaps, it is because women must compromise so they trade off in order to get the best of both worlds. Most physically fit men are usually not as loyal. They cheat to get the healthier offspring but stick with the man who is more likely to stay and raise the child. This could explain why women cheat.
    • Many others species do just this. They have females who will choose the best father for their child but secretly mate with another male with healthier genetic quality to get the offspring. Essentially, she wants to get her cake and eat it too.
  •  There is a constant “arms race” of deception going on between genders.
    • Every generation, both genders try to trick the other into thinking that they are more attractive (when they are not) and try to see through the lies of others playing the same game. It’s a classic “Red Queen” never-ending chase because they keep developing new tricks when new ways of telling the truth come out.
      • Modern examples include dying your hair blonde, fake breasts, steroids, and pretending to orgasm. 
  • Studies show that men unconsciously produce more sperm when they spend a lot less time with their mate (possibly to prevent her from getting impregnated by another) and have sex more often (as part of sperm wars).
      • When men think women are ovulating, they unconsciously try to mate with them more, get them to orgasm more, and protect them from competitors more.
      • Women sometimes cheat to mate with a man with higher health and fertility and can counter with their own deception: a fake orgasm.
  • Men like blonde women more possibly because it signifies greater youth and fertility as blonde hair started as something that only children had and moved upwards.
  • Humans probably are affected by “runaway selection”, which is when a trait does not actually help with survival or reproduction but everyone selects for it anyways, which creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy” since those who do not have it are less likely to have offspring that are successful in the mating game.  
    • Here is an example: Let’s say everyone in society prefers orange hair. Orange hair may not actually improve survival and reproduction but since everyone else prefers it, those who have offspring with people who are not orange-haired are more likely to have sons who are not orange-haired. These children will be less likely to do well with the ladies because all the ladies believe this false myth. Therefore, it actually creates an actual advantage for orange hair.  
    • Species select not just for what will help in their survival and reproduction, but what will help their children succeed more in survival and reproduction.  
  • Humans can generally identify their own mate value by gauging feedback from other people. This was shown in two ways:
    • First, a study had a group of people each have a card on their head and a number on the card (numbered from 1 to 10). No one knew what number they had themselves but they could see everyone else’s numbers. By asking them all to pair with the highest number they could, they naturally figured out their own number from the number of rejections and market demand they got.
    • Second, people tend to naturally identify mate value differences when they see a male or female with someone who seems to be on a higher level. They will ask questions like, “What does he see in her?” or they may assume the person is rich, high-status, or has great personality.
    • Note: I had to chime in here. I believe your mate value and demand can fluctuate depending on which country or region you travel to. Also, some people can still have a bad gauge and therefore be overconfident or unconfident of their mate value despite actual value (think Ugly Duckling Syndrome).
      • Someone also could get their mate value wrong if they base their value entirely off feedback from others and run into a bunch of people who express a lot more or a lot less demand than they should for a variety of possible random reasons or if a conclusive is formed based on very few data points.
      • Human mate value could be more subjective than a definitive number on your head that everyone else can agree with. Someone with lots of tattoos, for instance, could be a 9 for one person and a 4 for another. Maybe your mate value could be a lot higher than it is because of a failure to display your traits properly (for example, you could be wealthy and handsome, but you dress homeless and get negative feedback because of that).
      • Despite all these skeptical remarks, I still think that most people have a generally good natural measure of their value.
  • As the average beauty of a girl increases due to sexual selection, our subjective standard for what is beautiful increases as well. Beauty is relative and our opinion, therefore, keeps changing. The Red Queen’s endless cycle strikes again.
  • Nature and nurture are both incredibly important and influential factors for humans. One is most likely not overly dominant over the other.

Matt Ridley’s Own Advice to You

The author of the book, Matt Ridley, gave his own advice to young men in a podcast interview. You can read the show notes by clicking here or listen below:

Long story short, he says:

  • Have confidence in your future potential. Young men tend to underestimate how much they can accomplish over time.
  • Try and improve your ability to be linguistically fluent and never at a loss for words.   Women are attracted to someone who is never at a loss for words. He points to the actor George Clooney as an example because he is always linguistically fluent and well-spoken in all his films. He always has something to say.
  • Women seem to care less about physique than men (that’s not to say that it does not matter).
  • Men tend to believe that women are rarely interested in or biologically designed for short-term relationships, but studies show that is not always true. At certain points of their life, women can be just as interested as men in short-term mating.  

The Only Important Takeaways

Since the author admits that most of these points are still theory, you should probably not factor most of them into improving attractiveness too confidently unless they are the most obvious, clear points.  Here are a list of the takeaways that passed my standards. Most of these have studies that back them up, which I went into detail in above and you can learn even more about in the book. 

  • Develop proofs of high status.
  • Have relaxed, confident body language (leaning back, gesturing confidently, etc.).
  • Be more competitive, strong, dominant, determined, unintimidated by others, and ambitious (but not excessively). And show it.
  • Improve your ability to never be at a loss for words and verbal fluency.  
  • Focus less on the visual and more on improving her feelings, emotions, and responses to you and your touch (think erotica rather than porn).
  • Improve your physique (exercise and lift weights). But do not overestimate how much muscle you need to be attractive.
  • If you are looking for a mid to long-term partner, develop and demonstrate your character, trust, and skills as a father and husband (here are some ideas: babysit, volunteer, read parenting or relationship books).
  • Improve your confidence.
  • Improve your fashion and grooming.
  • Improve symmetry and height if possible (minor priority).

Conclusion and Book Review

The book brought up a lot of great ideas and taught me a lot about how natural selection works for humans and other species. The only thing that could have made it better is if it had a more practical angle and focused more on takeaways we could use to improve or mating lives.

Having said that, I can understand and respect why the author did not do it this way. He was humble enough to admit that most, if not all, of the theories and points in this book may be proved false one day, as have many once-well-accepted scientific concepts. It is important to realize that many of the points in this book are just theory so make sure you do not take them as fact.

Check out the book The Red Queen (affiliate link) if you want more details.

Now, I have a question and challenge for you:

What is the #1 thing you learned that you will use to improve your life immediately? Let me know in the comments.

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By Will Chou

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    1. It’s crazy because I have always known about it, but I guess this book (and others) made me focus on it and see its importance. Thanks for reading Nixon (and for your compliment).

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