Every night my nine-year-old and I light a candle, turn off the lights before bed and have another lesson. They are not the lessons she learns at Catholic school, important as those are, but rather the kind of principles I wish I, and every child, were taught -- the anthropic principle, R and K species, positive feedback loops, game theory, and exponential growth. Tonight’s lesson was the Red Queen.
We began the night by singing “Scarborough Fair” together, as I helped her clean her room.
Tell her to buy me an acre of land –If you know the song, you remember the verses run through a series of impossible commands, as part of the most sarcastic love spell ever:
parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Between the salt water and the sea strand –
then she’ll be a true love of mine.
Tell her to plough it with the horn of a lamb…You remember why all the jobs are impossible? I asked – she had asked me about this before, and remembers my answer. “Because you can’t make somebody love you?” she said.
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather ….
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt, without any seams or needlework…
Fetch me some water from yonder dry well…
then she’ll be a true love of mine.
Right, I said, and that goes for a lot of other things we want. Fantasies rarely work out the way you plan.
Once we cleaned the room, we lit the candle, and I read to her from Through the Looking Glass.
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 … till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.
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!'
Whenever things like that happen in life, I told her – when you have to work harder and harder to stay in the same place –that’s called a Red Queen. Can you think of any examples? I asked.
“Sure -- an escalator,” she said. “If you tried to walk up an escalator the wrong way, you wouldn’t get anywhere. And a small animal – like a hedgehog – if a hedgehog were at the grocer’s and – this would probably never happen, but let’s say – he climbed on that moving cloth they put the groceries on …” The treadmill? I asked. “Yes, that.”
You’re right, I said, but those are very literal examples – I’m looking for something a bit broader. What about an animal like a gazelle?
She looked hesitant. “The gazelle has to run faster and faster to …” To outrun the cheetah, I said. They keep evolving to be faster to stay one step ahead of the cheetah, but the cheetah is evolving too, so a thousand generations later the gazelle is still just barely ahead.
Her face brightened. “I get it!” she said. “And the cheetah – the same thing is true for him?” Yes, I said.
Her expression sobered, and she was silent for a moment. “They’ll never get out of it,” she said.
Not unless one of them goes extinct, I said. That happened with the pronghorn –the dire wolves and running bears were killed off when humans arrived, so it’s now the fastest animal in the Americas, because there’s nothing left for it to outrun. She nodded slowly, as though sad that the pronghorn’s purpose was gone.
Another example is driving, I said. Remember how everyone used to drive horses everywhere in Dublin? People thought cars would change everything, and that they would just speed through the city like lightning.
She smiled in recognition. “Nobody can drive in Dublin now -- there are too many cars!” Right, I said, and they don’t move any faster than horses did.
“I wonder if we could bring back some horses,” she said. “Of course, we’d have to have somewhere to put the poo again, like have those people you see in old movies.”
The street sweepers, I said? Yes, and the poo was a major problem back then, and they needed stables three stories high in cities. It’s called infrastructure – we’ve invested in one kind of infrastructure, and can’t go back easily. But that’s a different lesson.
“What else is a Red Queen?” she said. Well, I said, do you think computers count?
She thought about it. “Video games look more real, but people aren’t having more fun.” She said.
Good, I told her. Another example is in offices – people used to write everything out on pieces of paper, or type with typewriters. Now people use computers, but we work just as hard, and use just as much paper as before.
“There are more things you can do with computers,” she countered.
There are, I said, but you also have to buy them, and buy programmes, and update virus protection to protect the programmes – viruses are a really good example of a Red Queen, in animals or computers. And if everyone else is using computers, you can’t be left behind, so you have to get them too. But you’re not working any less, is my point.
So, I asked, how do you think things will change in the future? In your lifetime?
"Maybe it’ll be just like the olden days,” she said. “And we’ll have to learn how to things for ourselves again. Or maybe it’ll be like in the cartoons, and we’ll all have robots who will do everything for us.”
People have been predicting robot servants for a century and a half, I told her, and they never seem to happen. But if we do get them, do you think they will be worth it?
She thought about it for a few moments. “No,” she said. “We’ll have to do more work to get robots to clean our room than we would have spent cleaning the room.”
I’m proud of you, I said. I agree – even if we all had robots to do our jobs, we might end up back where we started.
“It’s like in Scarborough Fair,” she said. Exactly, I said, and kissed her goodnight, and walked out into the garden to lock up the chickens for the night. There are more chores to do every night, I thought, and I never quite catch up.