And while, in our contemporary culture, Helena Bonham Carter inhabits the CGI universe on the other side of the looking glass, yelling: “Off with their heads!” as The Red Queen, there is much more here than a fun film adaptation of a beloved children’s book. We have no idea if Lewis Carroll knew how impactful his 1871 sequel of Alice’s adventures will be when he sent her through the looking glass, not only for the human affection towards stories and tales of a young girl exploring an askew land full of adventure and strange creatures, but that it would also ignite some very insightful evolutionary discussions.
The place where Alice lands is a depiction of a mirror image of our usual everyday world where the lines of possible and impossible are clearly marked. She ends up at a sub level, an underworld in a way and a dreamlike substructure of being where things don’t need to make sense and are not bound by the constraints of reality. Here, the Red Queen at one point speaks the sentence that rang so true to the biologists that out of it “The Red Queen Hypothesis” was born. The iconic words are: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
The Red Queen Hypothesis was formulated to explanation why the ability of species to survive does not improve over time, but stays more or less balanced through the interaction or sharing living space with species they hunt, are hunted by, are fighting for resources and territory with… If one of the species gets a slight advantage, the other one changes as fast as its biology allows as a response to that, leaving the first one at a disadvantage again, while the same process keeps happening constantly exchanging the upper hand – this is the antagonistic coevolution in which both have to run just to stay still and, as Allice in her weird game, are trapped on a constantly moving ground getting nowhere.
It’s an evolutionary arms race in which the extinction rates never really change. So life in a nutshell is not a romantic pastoral image of ideal scenarios but running as fast as you can to stand still while the overarching law of nature screams “Off with their heads” above you. Seems about right, and rightfully so. You have no idea what ingenious evolutionary perk you’ll get next to get your (temporary) upper hand. The equivalence of everything moving at the same time makes it all stay in balance – So move.