Alice, evolution, and why it can feel like you aren’t getting anywhere

Shout out to Shane at Farnam Street once again for a great post on a phenomenon known as the Red Queen effect, inspired by a passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

In the novel, Alice finds herself running faster and faster but staying in the same place.

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she could not go faster, thought she had not breath left to say so.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’

Eventually the Queen stops running and props Alice up against a tree, telling her to rest.

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

The notion suggests that in many scenarios, even when it seems we are advancing very quickly, in fact, we aren’t moving anywhere at all. Suppose you and a neighbor are engaged in a rivalry. As a result, you try to build the highest possible fence to block out your neighbor’s view. You buy lots of materials, put in tens of hours, and build a 15-foot fence. Only, you realize your neighbor has done the same. So, you buy some more materials, and spend even more hours, just to build higher – only your neighbor keeps up. No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to gain any advantage over your rival neighbor – this is the Red Queen effect.

Examples come up in evolutionary biology, as preyed species which adapt to survive are met with predators who are adapting just as quickly; in medicine, as viruses evolve to counteract the impacts of previously effective treatment; and, in business where a firm can spend millions to develop some new cost-reducing or otherwise advantageous technology, only to be neutralized by a competing firm who has developed the same technology.

This phenomenon can help explain a lot of our personal or professional frustration with our efforts to advance. The next time you find yourself asking “Why does it feel like I can never get ahead?!”, think of Alice.

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