The Red Queen: Book Summary & Review

the red queen

In The Red Queen (1993) author Matt Ridley zigzags with ease between psychology, history, sexual strategies, and mounds of research to much light on why we are the way we are.

Bullet Summary

  • Sexual evolution shaped us the way we are more than anything else
  • There is an inherent war of the sexes between genders, but the war within sexes is equally strong (both mitigated by a mutual gain in cooperation)
  • By our nature, women are coyer and men more sexually aggressive. To deny it, or to deny that men and women are different, is an utter failure of understanding humans

Full Summary

About the Author: Matt Ridley studied zoology and focused on the mating systems of different birds. He earned his Ph.D. researching the sexual habits of pheasants.
He later moved on to become a science journalist, moving between business engagement and scientific writing.
He is also the author of “The Origins of Virtue“.

Reproduction Is Everything

Everything evolved to make reproduction more efficient.

People who developed traits and behavior that made them more likely to reproduce passed on their genes. Therefore, anything that increases the chances of reproduction was passed on at the expense of everything else.

It’s about REPRODUCTION of the fittest, not SURVIVAL of the fittest

Conflict Trumps Cooperation

The balance between cooperation and conflict is a great theme of the human species.
Ridley says that the appearance of selflessness is misleading: animals are serving the interest of their own gene.

Selection Within Most Important

The selection within the species, says Ridley, is more important than among different species.
Why so?
Simple: you don’t need to run faster than a cheetah, you only need to run faster than another member of your tribe. And you are already smarter than all other animals, but what matters is how much smarter you are compared to other humans.

The author says that humans haven’t yet had a society where competition is good for the whole.
And it’s the same for genes in a pool of genes. Every gene only “wants” to get into the next generation (note that as Dawkins explains that “willingness” is of course figurative).

Sex & Diversity

The author says that sex is burdensome.
However, it evolved because it provides a genetic advantage thanks to the variability it bestows.
Since each child will be different than each parent and also different by the simple average of the two, he will make sure that evolution keeps happening.

Sons Are Higher Risk

Sons can provide more benefits to their parents because if they do very well they can reproduce more than daughters.
But if he is not a competitive son then it’s more likely he won’t have any offspring at all.
Women instead are “safer” as they tend to reproduce even when they are not at the top of the pack.

Indeed high-status couples have more male children.

The author also says that more dominant women and more emotionally independent women gave birth to boys more often.

Why Men Want to Sleep Around (And Women Not As Much)

The sex that carries a baby for nine months has less to gain with extra mating.
The sex that can have as much sex as he can and always gain instead naturally likes to sleep around.

On average, says Matt Ridley, it’s true that men are after quantity and women are after quality.

How many men are after quantity depends on how much they invest in their children (male parental investment, check The Moral Animal). The less they invest, the more they want to mate with… Pretty much any female.

What’s “Quality”?

Quality is not such a straightforward issue.
In species that do not help the female rearing children, quality is purely on personal traits. But in species that contribute to raising children, then quality also means having lots of resources.
Thus, it’s difficult to be a high-quality man for human females without having any resources.

Also, read:

Lover VS Provider: How to Pick Your Best Strategy

Fighter or Lover? Depends on Whether Women Choose

The author says that when women have a say in their choice of mate fighting becomes less relevant for men.

Such as: fights matter when women don’t have a choice and the female always goes to the winner.
But in species where women choose, fights among men matter less.

So pick your seduction style carefully:

10 Types of Male Seducers: Pick Your Niche!

Selection Can Be Random!

I really loved this part of The Red Queen.

The author first wonders why so many animals have crazy ornaments and colors, and wonders why.

He introduces two different theories:

  1. Fisher says that women choose mates that look handsome independently of indicators of genes
  2. The good-gene theorists say that women only pick those handsome men because it’s a display of good genes

Overall, it seems that women do pick random beauty traits that have little or no connection to health.
The first shift towards a certain trait happens randomly maybe, but then as more women start liking that trait, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What’s the Human Mating System?

The author wonders: are we monogamous, polygamous, or what?

He says there are 5 ways to answer this question:

  1. Study modern people directly (monogamous is the answer)
  2. Look at human history (powerful men enslaved concubines)
  3. Look at modern simple societies (they’re less polygamous than early civilization and less monogamous than our current society)
  4. Study apes (men’s testes are not large enough to be as promiscuous as chimps but larger than fully monogamous gorillas)
  5. Compare humans with other high social structures (as it teaches us that we’re designed for a system of monogamy plagued by adultery)

Why We Tend Towards Monogamy

The author discusses the size of testicles, previous societies, and data to infer that females tend to be monogamous with instances of cheating.
Men push for polygamous societies but most of the time they also go (or settle) for monogamy.

Even in polygamous societies, the author notes, humans form bonds, and even kings with hundreds of concubines usually elect one woman as the N.1.
The author mentions some theories saying men prefer younger women also because they tend to form longer bonds, while chimpanzees don’t care about the age of their sexual partner.

However, it might be foolish to talk about humans having a mating system at all. Humans seem to very much to adapt to the prevailing opportunity.

So contrary to what the church might say, or what some liberal books such as Sex at Dawn might suggest, the truth is that we adapt and be a bit of everything.

What’s pretty much stable instead is that the male is the seducer and the woman is the seduced.
And we share this pattern with most of the animal kingdom.

What Mating System is Best?

A polygamous society represents a victory for a few men and a loss for many.

Anti-polygamy laws might do more to protect men than women (women would gain by taking a super resourceful-rich man even as a fourth wife).

The author says that we became monogamous because having one single father to help with the children helped to rear the child. But if the wealth discrepancies grow, then we move toward a polygamous society.

Is It True That Matriarchal Societies Are Peaceful?
The author says that yes, it seems to be the case that if most women have it their way, then societies are more peaceful.

Sex Arms’ Race

The author also delves quite some time into the popular and interesting topic of the sexual arms race.

For example:

  • Men ejaculate more when they have been away from their wives
  • Women keeping a provider and sleeping with a hunk
  • Women are more likely to be unfaithful if the marriage is going badly
  • Unfaithful women have less high fertile types of orgasms (albeit my quick research found no evidence for “type of orgasms” that facilitate reproduction)
  • Women have sex with their lovers when they were more fertile

Also, read:

Sexual Conflict: How Men & Women Fight The Sex War

Sexual Differences

This means that unfaithful women are more likely to father a child from their lover.
Which makes sense to me, otherwise why would they have a lover in the first place?

In their sexual fantasies, 50% of women say they never switch partners, while men say the same only 12% of the time. But women much more fantasize about sex with a familiar partner than with a stranger as compared to men.

If you are interested in infidelity (and in finding a faithful partner) here are a few good links all based on scientific research:

Why You Don’t See When Women Are Fertile

There are a few major theories to explain why human females, contrary to most animal species, hide their most reproductive days:

  • Hide fertility from him so he sticks around to make love to her
  • She hides it so that it’s easier for her to sleep around
  • He cannot be sure he was the father which helps her protect the children from infanticide

This makes the woman the chooser because if she wants competition she should advertise her fertility and let the competition ensue. By hiding it instead, she can play around better.

Men Seek Beauty, Women Status

Matt Ridley says that experiments repeated all over the world show that women place more value on status and resources while men give more importance to beauty.

The interesting thing is that higher-earning women value the earning capacity of their husbands more, not less than low-earning women. Seems to be a case that high-quality women want even higher quality-man (also see: a practical guide on female hypergamy).

Women also look for and love qualities that are indicators or likely to lead to status and resources.
They universally love, for example, dominance and appreciate status symbols such as expensive cars and clothes.

Also, read:

The Sexual Marketplace: Overview of Intersexual Dynamics

Men Are Different Than Women

Matt Ridley takes aim at the modern tendency of some to deny the differences among genders, or to ascribe all differences to nurture.
He says that it’s not all nurture, but also nature, that women are more nurturing (at least towards infants) and men aggressive.

He says that four differences stand out in all repeatable tests:

  1. Girls are better at verbal tasks
  2. Boys are better are mathematical tasks
  3. Boys are more aggressive
  4. Girls are better at some visual tasks (reading characters and moods) and boys at others (reading maps)

And gays are more like women than heterosexual men in some of these respects.

Differences Between Races are Negligible

The author says that the differences among races are much smaller than the differences between genders.
Something that I also always believed, he says that what makes people similar is much stronger and runs much deeper than what makes us different.

He says that the differences are so small that it just makes more sense to study what makes us similar instead (and what makes men and women different).
Also, read my article in a similar vein:

It’s human universals, not differences that are truly intriguing

The Red Queen Quotes

On reproduction being all it matters:

Reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed. Everything else is a means to that end.

On the reproduction of the fittest

Evolution is more about reproduction of the fittest than survival of the fittest

On status, sexual success, and female hypergamy:

Which woman would not rather be John Kennedy’s third wife than bozo the clown first

On men wanting to be polygamous:

In most societies men strive to be polygamous but few succeed

On some hard-hitting sexual truths:

Men are more violent and women are more nurturing. I’m sorry if this is a cliche’, that can’t make it any less factual.

On genes’ importance:

I find it hard to believe that the fact that 83% of murderers and 93% of drunk drivers are males is all due to social conditioning alone

On human constants being more important than smaller differences:

To a martian, an anthropologist studying the differences between races seem like a farmer studying the differences of weed in his field. A martian is far more interesting in the typical weed plant. It is the human universals, not the differences that are truly intriguing.

Real-Life Applications

Women Are Not Highly Promiscuous… But Watch Out
Albeit women are not highly promiscuous, they might still gain by keeping a provider and cheating with another man.


  • Some Wrong Generalization

The author says that even in apparent acts of selflessness animals are serving their own genes. And yet I bet we could think of thousands of cases where that’s not the case.

He also says that power in current society does not predict mating success -just look at childless Hitler, so consumed by ambition to be childless, he says-. That’s not based on any data and I for one believe it’s the opposite.
Also, what has Hitler to do with it? One example says nothing.

  • Wrong Information on Kamikaze Sperm (and possibly more)

The Red Queen takes for good the theory in Sperm Wars that humans use “kamikaze sperm” to attack other men’s sperm in the vagina.
As we have already seen in Sperm Wars’ review, there is no evidence for killer sperm.
Also, the author mentions a study of men and women watching sex scenes and says that women were not aroused by gay scenes. I remember the opposite and that women got lubricated at any sex scene.

  • Some Unfounded Assertions

The author says “evidence suggests that women are slightly better than men at running countries”. What evidence suggests that? Albeit I believe that might even be true, I’d be really curious as to how that evidence has been collected -and I suspect hasn’t-.

  • Competition Not Good For The Whole?

The author repeats a few times that selfish drives trump altruistic ones.

And that might be true. However, I feel he often pushes the envelope too much. For example when he says that a society with free competition is not good for the whole.

And yet look around yourself.
Your computer, your cellphones, your clothes… Everything you see around you was motivated at least in part by competition and a healthy selfish drive.

  • Sometimes I wished For More Depth

In discussing research on how dominant women give birth to more boys and submissive women give birth to more daughters, the author comments on the “dominant/submissive” label: “whatever that may mean”.
I know it’s difficult to define, but some readers might have liked to know how it was measured exactly.

Also, the author quotes a rather popular study saying that one inch in height equates to 6.000 in yearly income.
But that makes no sense if you think about it: sure an inch for someone who’s 2.2 meters tall won’t add much value -and quite possibly subtract value-, right (law of diminishing returns).

  • Some Wrong Conclusions

The author says that the mating system (monogamous or polygamous) depends on how much a woman stands to gain by marrying a man with another woman or by picking a less well-off single man. And that depends a lot on how wealth is distributed and if other women can prevent the sharing of their men.
The author then says that in spite of men being active seducers, they are spectators on whether a society is monogamous or polygamous.
But that makes no sense, because legal framework and wealth distribution is also, of course, heavily influenced by men in society.

  • Sometimes Repetitive

A few concepts, like men who stand to gain by mating with many females, repeat several times across The Red Queen. Since it’s such a simple concept, I think it could have been briefer by explaining deeply but once and for all.

  • Mixing Animals & Men

The Red Queen goes back and forth between humans and animals.
Fair enough, we are animals and this is not even a con. However, it’s a warning for people who are mostly looking at what sexual evolution means for humans: they will have to wade through quite some examples from the animal kingdom.


Matt Ridley provides a very valuable and rare service these days: the overview of a well-learned, critical, and smart man.
He reviews evolutionary psychology of course, but he also touches on psychology and ethnology. His critics of Margaret Mead and his harangue against Freud and Skinner all provide the reader with high-quality learning.

  • The Scientist’s Humility

The author says:

Half of the ideas in this book are probably wrong. The history of human science is not encouraging. Galton’s eugenics, Freud’s unconscious, Durkheim sociology, Mead’s culture-driven anthropology, Skinner behaviorism, Piaget’s early learning and Wilson’s socio-biology. All appear in retrospect to be riddled with erros and false perspective.

However, I very much disagree with that. Just because something was wrong in the past, it doesn’t mean we’ll keep committing errors (also read Fooled by Randomness). And eventually, little by little, we get closer to the truth.

  • True Scientist’s Disdain for PC

Ridley approaches science as a scientist should.
He says for example:

Not that racial and cultural differences can’t exist. As much as a black man has a different skin color than a white man, so it’s also quite possible that he also has a different mind

And more than once he goes against the grain of society saying that men and women are much different by their very genders.


The Red Queen is a great book.

I have written a lot of cons, but I always hold great books to a higher standard.

Some parts I felt like I could have written myself.

And if you haven’t yet read much about evolutionary psychology, The Red Queen will be an eye-opener.
And I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Matt Ridley (and there are many):

I sometimes feel we are fated never to fully understand ourselves. Because part of our nature is to turn every inquiry into an expression of our nature. Ambitious, illogical, manipulative and religious.

Check the:

Best Evolutionary Psychology Books

or get the book on Amazon

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