Ever so often we have all been faced with a situation of having to run in order to stay in the same place. This delightful phrase has its origins in that deep and deceptively bizarre work "Alice through the looking glass".

"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, 1 see. it takes all the running you can do, to keep in ;he same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'

I have used this phrase so often and felt stupid when I learnt about a fundamental evolutionary principle assocaited with this idea.It is called the Red Queen Principle and it was proposed by the evolutionary biologist L.Van Valen. He argues that since all the species are coevolving, improvement in one species would result in a competitive advantage over the other species. In order to catch up with that and maintain the equilibrium, the other species have to adapt and improve too. Since this would effectively result in all them working harder in order to maintain the same balance among them, he named it the Red queen principle, of course referring to the above character.

One finds the same kind of race between the human body and viruses which is referred to as the "genetic arms race" where as the human body develops resistance for certain types of diseases, the viruses causing the diseases mutate and try to counter the resistance and the race goes on.You can read more here and here and I hope you will find it fascinating.

Perhaps all that we claim as human progress is also finally just a matter of necessity for staying in the race. There was no choice but to run and get better or we might have just perished. Definitely true of organisations and systems that if they do not respond to their external environment they perish. Survival of species is a definitely more competitive game than that.

So it seems that the final answer to Life, Universe and Everything may not be 42 but the Red Queen Principle!
24 Responses
  1. rads Says:

    That was interesting Usha. Thanks for the links. It does seem to make sense after all, just like in an educational class - when there is healthy competition, each has to work equally harder just to stay in the race...

  2. If "the final answer to Life, Universe and Everything may not be 42 but the Red Queen Principle!", then may the ultimate question be, "Is that your final answer?" :-\

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Yes! Daddy Darwin got it first time. It is interesting though, the gist of the Red Queen Principle. It just reads like a corollary of natural selection. If you do not 'keep up', you will not be naturally selected. So I'm thinking why a whole new principle around it?

    But interesting post. Thanks!

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Usha, lovely post.

    I have heard the Red Queen principle being applied to organisations, with a warning that when an organisation survives competition,a 'success bias' sets in, pre-disposing the organisation to make risk-prone changes and invite ruinous disruptions. Which is why very few organisations have record of sustained success. Out of the companies that figured in Fortune 500, fifty years back, only a handful still do.

    I guess same is true of species and individuals. Constant success leads to hubris ( Icarus paradox) adn eventual downfall.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    This reminds me, Michael Crichton in The Lost World, gives an amazing account of the behavior and adaptation of species and how they affect their survival.. the movie doesnt reflect any of that though...

    So.. what is the ultimate question?

  6. This is so true even in our daily lives. With inflation and costs, you have to keep earning more and more to maintain the same level of comfort. Or from a techie perspective - keeping up with technology is what makes me want to get away from it all.

    You do have to wonder though - at what point are you running so fast on the treadmill that you'll actually fall off?

    Totally off-topic: I'm a big big fan of your writing, though enjoyed it more as a lurker. On Metroblog the other day I noticed you wrote about Kamalini. Is it located at the Women's Hostel on 17th Cross? I used to live there many moons ago...

  7. Anonymous Says:

    The time-lag between the leader's advance (be it a human or an organisation or a system or any other entity) and the catch-up by the competitors (or even co-evolvers) is critical then for the survival and well-being of the latter. So, smartness in this context is clearly a function of time and timing. Reminds me of the economist's concept of path-dependency of profits...

  8. MJ Says:

    Read about the survival of the fittest form Darwin's theory n this was an lot more informative.Nice class.And u can checkout the similar post from my friends blog:

  9. MJ Says:

  10. fascinating. i always liked the red queen principle & used it very often. (i did not know however that it is called red queen principle though) thanks for telling us

  11. Mahadevan Says:

    A great post. This Sunday I was reading an article, which was a blasphemy on bloggers. One line in the article reads: " But the pace at which blogsphere is getting cramped with half-wits and religious maniacs, failed writers, sociopaths and cold blooded killers, is scary". The author would have hanged her head in shame, had she read this post.

    "Having to run, in order to stay', is certainly a great phrase, and is pregnant with pointers to life. In fact, keeping this in mind, projections are made in business to stay and then to progress further. It applies to all walks of life.

    You certainly have a premonition it seems. I am working on a Blog
    "Necessity and Freedom, Chance and Choice", and some of the ideas have been brought forth by you. You are running faster, perhaps.

  12. Usha Says:

    Rads:Isnt it amazing that so much is happening right inside of us and we dont even know but think we are completely "in control"?

    RF:As you can appreciate I cannot answer that question because the FINAL answer has already been given.

    S:The following might explain the context for the theory:
    "Originally proposed by Leigh Van Valen (1973), the metaphor of an evolutionary arms race has been found appropriate for the descriptions of biological processes with dynamics similar to arms races. He proposed the Red Queen's Hypothesis as an explanatory tangent to his proposed Law of Extinction (also 1973) which he derived from observation of constant probabilities of extinction within families of organisms across geologic time. Put differently, Van Valen found that the ability of a family of organisms to survive does not improve over time, and that the probability of extinction for any given family is random. The Red Queen's Hypothesis as formulated by Van Valen provides a conceptual underpinning to discussions of biological evolutionary arms races."

    Raj: Thanks for that input. So the lesson is "dont try to run too fast, run just as fast so that you can be in the same place. Anything more or less, you are doomed!"
    I get your point.

    Kishore: Will check that out. Ultimate question - Rational fool has a suggestion but I am not giving you any. My job is to give the answer - Now y fou go and find the question!

    Pram: valid point and raj's comment above touches upon the same issue.
    Thanks for the kind words - please feel free to comment.That widens my vision.
    Ah so you have links to bangalore too - yes,it is around that area!

    (Would you be the one who wrote about the black seeping through the ears? If yes, I loved the post and thanks for the mention)

    Anon: yes. Wish you had elaborated on that last point. Thank you. will google and read up.

    Sakhi: thanks. Will check your friend's post.

    ITW: yes i also found out when I read "shantaram" and then googled and shared.

    Mahadevan: I will look for that article too - although it is a little unfair on the part of the author to make such a sweeping statement , we must agree that there are that variety of blogs too. But there is always a choice not to read them why complain?
    Aha, so what is it they say about "great minds?" looking forward to your post.

  13. Yeah, 'twas me.

  14. Hip Grandma Says:

    The race is also called the rat race isn't it?i sometimes wonder if it is ever productive.To survive we have to adapt,to succeed we have to stay ahead but at the end of the day all we want to do is to relax.Is'nt it paradoxical??BTW pram was the one who introduced me to you.

  15. Usha Says:

    Pram, Hipgran: yes, I got the connection the moment I landed on her post.
    Thanks Pram for introducing me to Hiphopgrandmom's writings. She is amazing,isn't she?

    As for your comment hipgran, it seems that we do not have a choice but to be in the race or perish.It is bad enough as it is without having to add stress to it through wilful competitionand rat race.

  16. passerby55 Says:

    i think after the race is over each of us do realise there was no need to run.

    an every step taken to touch the earth .... to move ahead.
    is a race well run.

    USha, thanks for this post, thanks for the links too, they helped me to learn a little more.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Hey, thanks! That made sense, but it still sounds like a corollary to Darwin's evolutionary model.


  18. Artnavy Says:

    Very informative- had only heard of Darwin's theory so far

  19. Usha Says:

    Passerby: i found it so fascinating that I had to share it.

    S!: Oh yes, Darwin (so far) seems to be the big daddy of them all right?

    artnavy: yes, he is the superstar I guess.

  20. Mahadevan Says:

    On 3rd October, while presiding over the Economic Times Award function at Mumbai, our Prime Minister said " We have to run, to remain in the same place ". You used this phrase, in your Blog Red Queen Vs 42. on 3rd October, three days earlier to the PM's address. Did the PM read your Blog or you had premonition, as commented by me on this Blog, earlier ?

  21. Mahadevan Says:

    PM's address wason 6th October and your Blog was posted on 3rd October.

  22. Usha Says:

    Mahadevan:hahahah..oh yes, I shall wait for the day when mr.Singh comments on this blog..
    (can't get over this!)

  23. Wild Reeds Says:

    Change is a must for reinventing oneself.

  24. Usha Says:

    Just read something that sums it up nicely:
    "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or gazelle - when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."