The Red Queen Effect...


By Alex Hutchinson (Outsideonline.com)

A few years ago, I spent a week cycling through the Italian and French Alps with a deluxe tour group whose selling point was a pre- and post-ride dose of electric brain stimulation. Protocols were based on what the Bahrain Merida cycling team was trying at the time, zapping neurons to enhance performance and recovery. I wanted to know whether the technology worked, but I was also wrestling with a more nebulous question: Would reaching each day’s summit a few minutes sooner actually make my trip better?

If I was one of the Bahrain Merida riders in that summer’s Tour de France, the answer would be obvious. Winning races is a lot more fun than the alternative. But any competitive edge is short-lived. “Once an effective technology gets...

adopted in a sport, it becomes tyrannical,” Thomas Murray, a philosopher who studies the ethics of sport, told me after the trip. “You have to use it.” What, then, would be the point of electric brain stimulation if everyone else had it, too? You’d be right back where you started—until the next hot performance booster emerged and the cycle began again.

This, in a nutshell, is the Red Queen effect. The idea originated in evolutionary biology, in a 1973 paper by Leigh Van Valen about competition among species, and its name comes from a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” the Red Queen tells Alice. If rabbits get faster, foxes follow suit; if some redwoods grow to 300 feet tall, they all have to. And according to a paper by anthropologist Thomas Hyland Eriksen, published last year in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, this is the logic that increasingly colors our relationship with performance.  READ MORE