“Between Red Queens"
…in this place it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
-Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass
And so it was that a new theory of the world was borne from great literature. Such was the case in many other circumstances, most notably H.G. Wells inspiring the atom bomb1 and Arthur C. Clarke precipitating the invention of communication satellites.2 In this particular case it was Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (more popularly known as Alice in Wonderland) that caused a stir. The above quote about keeping the same place through ceaseless running led evolutionary biologist L. van Valen to have an epiphany in 1973 and posit what is now known as The Red Queen Hypothesis.
The Red Queen Hypothesis suggests that species must constantly adapt and evolve not merely to gain reproductive advantage but because they are constantly pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms3. Put more plainly, species evolve rapidly because, if they don’t, they will be out-evolved by their peers and competitors.
Nature has a curious way of giving humans beautiful analogies such as these to help contextualize their everyday trials and tribulations. These analogies seem so apt on occasion perhaps because (although we are prone to forgetting) we are part of nature, not just lords and custodians of it. We are subject to most (if not all) of the same natural laws and limitations that every other species is. Although we’ve found countless ways to alter our environment and delay certain inevitabilities about things like resource availability and genetics, this is the fate we are inextricably tied to. Between Red Queens ponders our curious place in this natural world in terms of our ideas about ourselves, our species, our planet and our future. It artistically ponders where we’re going and how that journey might be shaped by the world around us.
It’s a modern concept really, the idea of running in place. High pressure from the cradle to the grave has become a hallmark of 21st century living thus far, no doubt a heavy handed hang-over from seeds sewn during the 20th. From competition in schools to the job market to finding a romantic partner, earning money, finding a suitable place to live, we are in many ways drowning in our own jenga tower conceptualization of success and misfortune. Unfortunately there’s more competition than ever for these resources and not everyone can be a winner. But, according to the Red Queen Hypothesis this competition should be pushing us into rapid evolution. The threat of being outdone should be pushing us to our furthest limits in terms of what we are capable of achieving. Is this really the case?
It’s hard to know exactly how this theory has played out in our lives. The rising tide lifts all ships in most situations but is this one? Let’s look at YouTube for a possible, wildly speculative example. Founded in 2005 it has outgrown every expectation and prediction of it over the years. According to its own website over 300 hours are uploaded to the site each minute4. That’s 432,000 hours of video a day and 157 million hours a year. Suffice it to say there’s a ton on there and there will be a practically unfathomable amount to come.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, imagine you are the coolest kid in your high school. There’s very little competition so you have your pick of friends, romantic interests etc. You’re a ‘trend setter’ and an ‘influencer’ among your group and very little work is required to maintain this position. All of a sudden every high school in the world is grouped together in one giant new school. Everyone can see what everyone else is doing at all times. Suddenly you, the coolest kid in your old school aren’t even in the top 10% of the coolest kids. Even the very concept of what is cool or uncool changes so fast that not many people are able to stay abreast of the trends. To regain your status (which may now be impossible) you have to do something you didn’t have to before, you have to try. And very hard. When you look at YouTube from this perspective it has had an immeasurable influence over things like dancing, music, comedy, extreme sports and the list goes on. Although the rising tide of talent sunk many ships it ultimately raised the best (or hardest working) and we all benefit from that.
This is one speculative example of the Red Queen Theory in action. It is not heavily researched. It is long on speculation and opinion. It is probably biased. I wonder what effects this theory may have had (or is having) on things like the porn industry, culinary arts, literature, exercise or art in general. It’s hard to know. It’s also hard to know how exponentially the rates of progression in these fields will increase. You are more than welcomed to ponder these effects for yourself. As the rest of the Red Queens quote says: “…If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"5