The Red Queen Passage of Lewis Caroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”

This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 1 March 2010, was last revised on 23 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 11:03(03).

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In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book “Through the Looking-Glass,” Alice imagines passing through a looking glass -– that is, what today we call a mirror -– into the mystery world on the other side.

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of Alice Passing Through The Looking Glass


This act, in itself, which involves using a reflection of life to delve into its mysteries, is pregnant with logical mystique. We shall, however, pass this tempting morsel by for the red meat of our present concern:

In chapter II Alice meets the Red Queen who–except for Alice–is the only being in the Garden of Live Flowers able to move about. Alice tells the queen of her desire to travel to the top of a hill in the distance. There they see, on the other side, a valley laid out like a chessboard. This prompts Alice to exclaim “It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played–all over the world–if this is the world at all, you know.”

Alice tells the Queen she wants to play the part of a chess piece on the chessboard. The Queen says she can be the White Queen’s Pawn, starting on the second square; on reaching the eighth square she will advance to the next to highest rank, of Queen, herself. Take note, at this juncture, that though the King holds the highest rank on the chessboard, the Queen is the most powerful. At this point the two begin running toward the chessboard, hand in hand, faster and faster:

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. “I wonder if all the things move along with us?” thought poor Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, “Faster! Don’t try to talk!”

Not that Alice had any idea of doing that. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried “Faster! Faster!” and dragged her along. “Are we nearly there?” Alice managed to pant out at last.

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of Alice and the Red Queen Running

“Nearly there!” the Queen repeated. “Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!” And they ran on for a time in silence, with the wind whistling in Alice’s ears, and almost blowing her hair off her head, she fancied.

“Now! Now!” cried the Queen. “Faster! Faster!” And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, “You may rest a little now.”

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 twice as fast as that”

This excerpt presents the primary passage, in context, on which evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen, in 1973, based what is now called “the Red Queen Principle.” In his article, published in the journal Evolutionary Theory, van Valen quoted only these words: “in this place, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Most who quote van Valen assume that he pulled this short passage at random–from the rich tapestry of English literature–to illustrate a thoroughly novel idea of his own invention. I doubt van Valen made that mistake. I wrote to Professor van Valen, asking for clarification on this point, but he–presently a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago–has yet to reply to my inquiry. Be that as it may, today others seem bent on neglecting what seems to be, on careful analysis, an important self-evident truth. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (b.1832-d.1898, whose pen name was Lewis Carroll), the author of Through the Looking Glass, had more than a passing understanding of the principle van Valen set forth in his 1973 article. And he had a grip on that understanding over 100 years before the latter proposed it as the basis of his New Evolutionary Law.

Return with me for a moment to the beginning of this passage, where Alice is standing in the Garden of Live Flowers and has her first conversation with the Red Queen.

Just how deeply Dodgson understood the issue he was coyly presenting in Through the Looking Glass is suggested by the interesting interchange that takes place between the Red Queen and Alice during their first conversation, and the events leading up to that interchange:

Sir John Tenniel's drawing "Alice in the Garden of Live Flowers"

Alice looked round eagerly, and found that it was the Red Queen. “She’s grown a good deal!” was her first remark. She had indeed: when Alice first found her in the ashes, she had been only three inches high–and here she was, half a head taller than Alice herself!

“It’s the fresh air that does it,” said the Rose: “wonderfully fine air it is, out here.”

“I think I’ll go and meet her,” said Alice, for, though the flowers were interesting enough, she felt it would be far grander to have a talk with a real Queen.

“You can’t possibly do that,” said the Rose: “I should advise you to walk the other way.” This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment, and found herself walking in at the front-door again. A little provoked, she drew back, and after looking everywhere for the queen (whom she spied out at last, a long way off), she thought she would try the plan, this time, of walking in the opposite direction. It succeeded beautifully. She had not been walking a minute before she found herself face to face with the Red Queen, and full in sight of the hill she had been so long aiming at.

Before having a conversation with the Red Queen, Alice and the Queen must first meet. She tells Rose she will go (directly toward her) and meet her, but Rose replies she cannot possibly do that, and advises her to walk the other way. Indeed, Alice’s attempt at a direct route to the Queen fails, but when, in desperation, she goes in the opposite direction, voila! the two come face to face.

Here Dodgson seems to be making an allusion to the fact that, in the satisfaction of certain kinds of intellectual curiosity, the direct path often leads nowhere while paradoxical paths produce results.

Was this a sly way for Dodgson to illuminate a tenet of the Red Queen Principle? Or was it a caricature of scientific inquiry in general? More likely it was both. The entire book argues against relying exclusively on Occam’s razor, in that it champions tediously unorthodox methods over simpler, orthodox ones, especially conventional shortcuts. The Red Queen Principle is counterintuitive, and anyone who slavishly applies Occam’s razor might pass it by.

Meeting the Red Queen wasn’t the first time, in TTLG, that Alice found herself following a curious, circuitous path that purports to lead toward a desired goal but instead brings her back to the beginning, confused, vexed, and none the wiser. Chapter II opens with Alice on her way to the garden. She tries to take a shortcut, to the top of the hill, from which vantage point she hopes to see the garden better. One gathers that since she is in a hurry to get back through the looking glass, a bird’s eye view from the hill will let her visit the garden without setting foot there.

A seemingly direct path leads to the summit, but no, after a few yards that path meanders like a corkscrew. No matter how she tries, she ends up back at the house, to face once more its implicit demand that she soon return to ordinary existence–passing back through the looking glass. This hill has a pivotal role in the story, and so does the apparent lack of a direct path to it. Ultimately, while still trying to negotiate the path to the hilltop, she instead stumbles upon a large flower-bed, with a border of daisies, and a willow tree growing in the middle.” This, it turns out, is the Garden of Live Flowers, presumably the one she had sought merely to view from the top of the hill.

We continue, now, where we had previously left off:

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of Alice's First Meeting with the Red Queen

“Where do you come from?” said the Red Queen. “And where are you going? Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.” Alice attended to all these directions, and explained, as well as she could, that she had lost her way.

“I don’t know what you mean by your way,” said the Queen: “all the ways about here belong to me–but why did you come out here at all?” she added in a kinder tone. “Curtsey while you’re thinking what to say, it saves time.”

Alice wondered a little at this, but she was too much in awe of the Queen to disbelieve it. “I’ll try it when I go home,” she thought to herself. “the next time I’m a little late for dinner.”

“It’s time for you to answer now, ” the Queen said, looking at her watch: “open your mouth a little wider when you speak, and always say ‘your Majesty.'”

The Red Queen was in charge. She made the rules, i.e., the “ways” were hers to establish and enforce. We see in her an authoritative yet capricious nature, i.e., the way Nature is both authoritative and capricious. The connection isn’t accidental if the Red Queen is Dodgson’s allegorical Mother Nature, herself (and, if she is, indeed, a caricature of Mother Nature, what exactly does the King represent?). She orders Alice to explain why she is out here, in the garden, at all. As if intellectuals and fools, alike imprisoned by orthodoxy, are not apt to be found in such places. Now she impatiently awaits Alice’s reply.

We resume, again, where we stopped earlier:

“I only wanted to see what the garden was like, your Majesty–”

“That’s right,” said the Queen, patting her on the head, which Alice didn’t like at all, “though when you say ‘garden,’–I’vE seen gardens, compared with which this would be a wilderness.”

Alice didn’t dare to argue the point, but went on: “–and I thought I’d try and find my way to the top of that hill–”

“When you say ‘hill,'” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.”

“No, I shouldn’t,” said Alice, surprised into contradicting her at last: “a hill can’t be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense–”

The Red Queen shook her head, “You may call it ‘it’s extremely kind of you to tell me all this’ if you like,” she said, “but I’vE heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!”

Alice’s object was to see what the garden “was like,” i.e., its basic structure, not the minutiae. To the Red Queen, one person’s minutiae is another’s macrocosm (which is, after all, one of the lessons taught by the metaphor of Alice passing through the looking glass), and she teaches Alice this truth by way of three allegories, first for the object one studies, next for instrument of observation, and third for comprehending what is observed:

“That’s right,” said the Queen, patting her on the head, which Alice didn’t like at all, “though when you say ‘garden,’–I’vE seen gardens, compared with which this would be a wilderness. Alice had already been awed by the Live Flowers, but the Queen asserts that was nothing. In a sense, all organisms communicate with the scientists who study them, and the intelligence communicated to those willing to delve deeply yields more than ordinary speech conveys. Did Dodgson foresee, 80 years before the fact, how molecular genetics would open our eyes?

“When you say ‘hill,'” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.” The hill is an allegory for peering into the unknown to grasp and learn. Alice wanted to use the hill as a vantage point, from which to observe the garden without walking through it. The Queen has seen more powerful instruments. Was Dodgson referring to the counterintuitive Red Queen Principle? Did he see forward, to something akin to the initially-tedious unraveling of DNA codes, and the discovery of linkages betrween one species and another?

The Red Queen shook her head, “You may call it ‘it’s extremely kind of you to tell me all this’ if you like,” she said, “but I’vE heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!” Nonsense as sensible as a dictionary: that describes the genetic code hidden in DNA’s double helix. Dodgson couldn’t know exactly what he was pointing to, any more than he could see the instruments that would unravel the DNA code. Yet an elementary grasp of the Red Queen Principle would tell him that most of humanity would regard it, and molecular genetics in general, as utter nonsense long after both would be accepted within the scientific community.

We resume:

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of The Chessground viewed by Alice and The Red Queen from the Hilltop

Alice curtseyed again, as she was afraid from the Queen’s tone that she was a little offended: and they walked on in silence till they got to the top of the little hill. For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country–and a most curious country it was. There were a number of tiny little brooks running straight across it from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of little green hedges, that reached from brook to brook.

“I declare it’s marked out just like a large chessboard!” Alice said at last. “There ought to be some men moving about somewhere–and so there are!” she added in a tone of delight, and her heart began to beat quick with excitement as she went on. “It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played–all over the world–if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join–though of course I should like to be a Queen, best.”

She glanced rather shyly at the real Queen as she said this, but her companion only smiled pleasantly, and said, “That’s easily managed. You can be the White Queen’s Pawn, if you like, as Lily’s too young to play; and you’re in the Second Square to begin with: when you get to the Eighth Square you’ll be a Queen–” Just at this moment, somehow or other, they began to run.

We note, first, that once Alice was availed of an enlightened guide (perhaps, in fact, Mother Nature herself), the path to the top of the little hill became straight and uneventful, vindicating Occam’s Razor but placing a caveat upon it, to the extent that attempts to apply the latter principle–absent assistance from an enlightened guide (e.g., specialized knowledge)–will send you in the wrong direction. Atop the hill, she notices the landscape laid out as a chessboard, men moving upon it, a huge game of chess being played “all over the world–if this is the world at all, you know.” Dodgen’s allegory for the interplay between the earth’s inhabitants is that of a game of chess. Addicted chessmen (and chessladies, as well, and we know for a fact that such there be) appreciate how neatly this game approximates life.

Every kind of piece on the board–Dodgen’s allegory for speciation–has a unique set of built-in capabilities and deficiencies, a quality the Red Queen Principle demands. And the Queen, who agrees that Alice may assume the role of the White Queen’s Pawn, moves the allegory forward by telling her that–while she starts with the lowest rank on the board–she has the opportunity to advance to the next to highest rank–the position, in fact, that holds the most power on the board, in a series of steps symbolic of evolutionary progress.

It was only at this point, when the stage had been set by all that came before, that Alice and the Queen began to run. It was a run that went nowhere, yet that enabled them to keep up with their surroundings, i.e., the race that defines the Red Queen Principle itself.

…o0o…

And here, at least for the moment, I end this crude exposition on things I only guess at. Whether you found this insightful, boorish, worthwhile or worthless, tell me. Your criticisms will be of great value, and for them I thank you, sincerely, in advance.

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— Questions? Corrections? Comments? BUG ME RIGHT NOW! Feel free to e-mail jerry.cates@entomobiotics.com. You may also leave a comment in the space provided below.

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