Red Queen's race

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A Red Queen's race is a conflict situation where the absolute advances are equal on all sides, so that the relative advantages stay constant, despite significant changes from the initial state. The name references Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, wherein the Red Queen comments to Alice that "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place" after she takes Alice on a long run in which they cover no actual distance.

The Red Queen's race is a universal phenomenon, found in many cultures and many periods of history, and also in many academic disciplines and other areas of society, such as economics, media, technology, politics, psychology, history, and evolutionary biology. Some examples of Red Queen's races are:

  • Economic development during the Industrial Revolution, which saw many countries racing to out-compete each other economically.
  • Market economics generally, since staying in business requires businesses to stay roughly as efficient as competitors.
  • Arms races, in particular the Cold War nuclear arms race, during which countries built up nuclear arsenals for no other reason than that the enemy was also building up theirs. Despite huge technological advances in the destructive power of weapons, the relative advantages between countries has not changed much since sticks and rocks were common instruments of war.
  • The massive uptick in spending in political campaigns, where half a billion dollars and a massive coordinated Internet campaign buys modern candidates the same vote advantages as a thousand dollars and a fast horse bought 150 years ago.
  • Increases in government spending (or promising more tax cuts) as part of a "bread and circuses"-style attempt to buy voters. Alexis de Tocqueville was misattributed as saying, "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money"; the public purse is known to have been used in that way to finance political machines in many American cities.
  • The increased incidence of bullshitting in politics; as bullshit can sound much more pleasant to many more voters' ears than a rational exposition of some political program, the first political groups to use bullshit met with success, and their opponents were forced to imitate it or be eliminated from the political sphere.[note 1]
  • The technological advances in memory and processing speed are usually exploited by software with greater memory and CPU requirements, so that to the average computer user, computers do not subjectively seem to run any faster today than 20 years ago.
  • In evolutionary biology, the Red Queen's race is an important concept when explaining why some traits appear to grow exponentially even to the point of being costly to the organism. Particularly when combined with sexual selection, certain traits that appear to be deleterious to an organism can readily evolve. One of the most famous examples is the peacock's tail.
  • Bitcoin mining has a fixed payout across the entire network, but the application of more computing power can increase the size of one's slice of the pie. This has led to the equivalent of the entire electrical capacity of Ireland being used to run a distributed computing system that could effectively fit on your phone unchanged. This is considered good for Bitcoin, somehow.

As can be seen in these examples, the "advancements" in a Red Queen's race can just as easily be something negative (increased resource consumption, decreased integrity, increased collateral damage potential, etc.) as something positive (enhanced standard of living, improved efficiency, stronger economy, etc.). Unfortunately, as no single player can scale back to a reasonable level without putting themselves at a severe disadvantage (if not dropping out of the race entirely), and it is highly unlikely for all the parties to come to an agreement to limit themselves without some stronger, external, neutral entity[note 2] forcing them all to behave themselves, odds are quite good that the situation will continue to escalate until further escalation somehow becomes physically impossible[note 3] and/or everyone involved drops dead from exhaustion.

See also[edit]


  1. See our page on logical fallacies for more information.
  2. Like, say, the government, the United Nations, or God, with the level of power and influence needed to keep a potential Red Queen's race under control varying depending on the scale of the players; a government could regulate a conflict between corporations within a single nation, but a conflict between nations would require something greater than a nation to mediate, like the United Nations or God. Unfortunately, in practice, it is very rare for an outside agency to be up to the task of stopping a negative Red Queen's race from becoming catastrophic; governments are prone to corruptionWikipedia and/or bungling, the United Nations is notoriously ineffective at enforcing its judgments, and God apparently either doesn't exist or isn't able or willing to intervene in the material world for reasons only He knows.
  3. Probably because the resources necessary for continued growth ran out and/or the costs of continued progression outweighed the benefits, at which point everyone has new problems to deal with.