Evolution: Evolutionary Arms Races

Evolutionary arms races are one of the most powerful forces driving evolution, giving rise to the creation and ever-increased perfection of multiple adaptations. The predator-prey relationship is one obvious example: as predators become faster generation after generation, prey become faster and more adept at escaping (at least those who survive and pass their genes on to the next generation). Of course, being a faster predator doesn't help much when your prey is getting faster, and running faster away from predators isn't much help when they are chasing you faster too. It's like running on a faster and faster treadmill: you may run faster, but you're not going anywhere :)

That's why this principle of evolutionary arms races is also known as the Red Queen effect (from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass). The Queen remarked that "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place" (relative to your competitors). And once you understand this runaway principle, you'll start to see it everywhere: in the preposterous height of trees, in male vs. female sex strategies, pathogens, sexual selection (think the peacock's tail), sexual body dimorphisms, mimicry, defense mechanisms, venomousness (is that even a word), etc.

In terms of human evolution, and ignoring diverging sexual strategies between men and women, one of our toughest competitors are infectious diseases, who seem to get better at overcoming the attacks of our immune systems, and who are constantly evolving resistance to our drugs. You may think evolution is a bitch in this respect, but as you'll see, it may also be the solution because arms races can also take the form of cooperation between different species :)


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