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The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  701 ratings  ·  111 reviews
The Ape that Understood the Universe is the story of the strangest animal in the world: the human animal. It opens with a question: How would an alien scientist view our species? What would it make of our sex differences, our sexual behavior, our child-rearing patterns, our moral codes, our religions, languages, and science? The book tackles these issues by drawing on idea ...more
Hardcover, 378 pages
Published September 13th 2018 by Cambridge University Press (first published 2018)
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Aug 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Behavior is an interesting field to explore – be it human or animal. I read Sapiens and Homo Deus sometime back and liked them for how the books traced the history of how we Sapiens got to where we are. I very recently read the brilliant ‘Behave’ by Robert Sapolsky, which is far more detailed science writing. “The Ape that understood the universe” was a good book to read shortly after. While Behave explores the genesis of individual motivation and behavior, this book in contrast looks at aggrega ...more
Lou (nonfiction fiend)
Dec 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Ape That Understood the Universe, the second book written by associate professor of psychology Steve Stewart-Williams, takes a look at evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory in an effort to explain how and why humans evolved. Paying particular attention to the way the mind and culture evolve, the author writes a witty and fascinating account of these topics. Written in a casual, conversational style, this allows it to be accessible to those who have no scientific knowledge ...more
Danielle Tremblay
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.

***Note: I received a copy curtesy of Netgalley and Cambridge University Press in exchange for an honest review.
This book is about the strangest animal in the world – the animal that’s reading these words and the animal that wrote them: the human animal.
This is how the book starts, strong and to the point – totally loved it!
As evolutionary biology shaped humans physically, this published study emphasises how evolutionary psychology shaped our behaviour.

Even though I really liked
Aug 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
The Ape That Understood The Universe starts off with a fascinating and unique notion:

Because we’re so used to being human, and to living with humans, we sometimes don’t notice what a peculiar creature we are. As a corrective, I want to begin by looking at our species from a new perspective. We’ll be looking at our species through the eyes of a hypothetical, hyperintelligent alien…

It is truly a delight and a lot of fun to read what an alien would say about us in regards to our mind, behavior and
Danny Tyran

Excellent combination of old and recent discoveries on the evolution of the human species, not from the anthropological point of view, but based on sociobiology (gene's eye perspective) and evolutionary psychology (meme's eye perspective). We learn how and why we have come to dominate our planet and how the inside (genetic) and outside (social and cultural) history of our evolution explains why we do what we do in everyday life.

The author makes interesting, instructive and amusing comparisons wi
David Wineberg
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Psychology to the rescue

Evolutionary psychology is Steve Stewart-Williams' profession. He teaches it. It is an evolving discipline, which he expands on and defends in The Ape That Understood The Universe. It is a different way of looking at who we are and where we came from.

The book is a bucket-filler. Stewart-Williams tries to rationalize everything we are by assigning every aspect to a bucket, like evolutionary adaptation or side-effect. He does a fine job of it, though there is plenty of room
Sep 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
I first found Steve Stewart-Williams on twitter. He posted this thread of examples of animals previously thought to be unable to pass the mirror test or the ability to display capability for the theory of mind, doing just that. His tweet game is on point, and I wanted more, so I got his book.

Its as advertised, really. A conversational yet fairly in-depth exploration of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. Often takes the perspective of an alien scientist's view of our speci
Ketan Ramteke
Mar 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Human behaviour and it's relationship with our genes is amusing. Never thought about evolution this way, before reading this book I believed evolution is nothing but the survival of the fittest, but after reading this book, it opened up whole new spectrum of interesting theories which are worth exploring.
Loved it, now I want to read works of Richard Dawkins 😄
Dawn Wells
Apr 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting look at human behavior. Full details on the how’s and the whys things may be the way they are. A new look at evolution and the concepts of life. A true who came first...what, when, how. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
"How would an alien scientist view our species? What would it make of our sex differences, our sexual behavior, our child-rearing patterns, our moral codes, our religions, our languages, and science?"

I really enjoyed The Ape That Understood the Universe. It was an excellent guide to evolutionary biology.

Author Steve Stewart-Williams is an associate professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, and author of the books Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life (2010) an
Jurij Fedorov
Aug 19, 2020 rated it liked it
This is probably a good intro book to psychology overall. But as someone who has read the basics already I didn't quite find enough new info here. It's hard to rate it for me. I see this as being a 5 star book for many people.


It's a simple book. As someone who is extremely critical of any social science claim I didn't really see anything factually wrong in this book. Which for these kind of pop audiobooks basically doesn't happen so this is a big deal.

The style is very hesitant and meticulous
Jan 07, 2020 rated it did not like it
The information presented is fine, lots of interesting discussion. Somewhere in the end there was an interesting chapter on the intersection of nature and culture - how the objective state of things in nature is not automatically "good", but just how things are.

The one star, though, is for the tone, which is horrid. I can't give more if I get annoyed every 15 minutes or so.

As I said, I seem to find most of the discussion very reasonable. But somehow, this book about evolutionary biology is act
Yzabel Ginsberg
[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

That was interesting. I always find myself on the fence when it comes to “nature vs. nurture”, to be honest, because it can be presented in very deterministic ways in which I don’t find my place anyway (a.k.a my instinct to pass on my genes is close to nil, and I’m definitely not a poster child for “maternal behaviours”). So, I was a little worried at first. But I needn’t be, because while the author is definitely on the side of nature rather than
Dalan Mendonca
Jan 23, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Good for biology noobs, great for psychology nerds (like me) who've read a lot of Dan Areily, Kahneman and the like only to sadly discover that lots of psychology "facts" replicate very poorly. Instead, the books melds together two fields - biology (and specifically evolution) with psychology to examine the causes of human behaviour. Given the way we live isolated from animals and knowing very little the about nature's multiple kingdoms; it's easy to try to imagine ourselves separate from nature ...more
Rekha Shane
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Who are you? Why do you do the things you do? Why do the people around you behave as they do? If you're interested in the answers to these questions (and quite honestly, who isn't?!) then The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams is a great place to start mulling over a few ideas.

This book, like the last one I reviewed was one that I requested from the book reviewer site Netgalley, and was approved to get an ARC (advanced reader copy) from the publisher Cambridge University
Robyn Williams
Feb 19, 2022 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like this book. I really did. I ordered it after reading about his theory about jealousy in humans, and was very intrigued. I'm a psychologist and am very interested in how / why we developed the emotions that frustrate us.

When my book got delivered, the blurb was a red flag already, with someone recommending you read his book instead of Dawkin's. Who allows that on their books? I already had a funny feeling, but was still optimistic.

What was really disappointing for me, thoug
Sam Law
Read More Book Reviews on my blog It's Good To Read


This is all about that most strange of species, the human animal, and begins by asking: How would an alien anthropological scientist view our species?

The answer is approached using evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. We pass on our genes as a function of our evolution, but also over millennia we have evolved cultural norms & biases, which has in turn affected the growth and impact of our species. There are lots
Brianna Silva
This is one of those books I loved so much, I want to give it more than 5 stars. It's a clearly-written, entertaining exploration of human nature from the perspective of evolutionary psychology (one of my all-time favorite subjects). The book also responds to many criticisms of evolutionary psychology and, to be blunt, utterly eviscerates blank-slatism and similar ideas.

I also enjoyed the bits of humor here and there, and the audio book narrator was fantastic. Highly recommend.
Bastard Travel
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
A standard evolutionary psychology primer/refresher, drawing heavily on animal behavior 101 and presented apologetically in an effort to avoid the perception of political incorrectness. Williams is so leery of being deemed un-PC that it sort of comes off as a guilty conscience thing.

"There are physical and behavioral differences between males and females in most of our closest primate relatives. These traits were selected for by natural and sexual selection. It might... that is, there are some p
Samvid Mistry
Jun 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
-> Great introduction to evolutionary psychology and evolutionary thinking in general
-> Modestly written with the purpose of explaining evolutionary thinking rather than just laying out a bunch of facts.

Where are we from and how did we get here? Starting from the most basic Darwinian claims to the most recent developments in evolutionary psychology, i.e., from genes to memes, the book explains every topic carefully and unambiguously. Moreover, it also addresses the common critiques from evo
Elizabeth Stolar
Jan 05, 2022 rated it really liked it
5/7, translating to a low 4. I liked this book, but not as much as I expected. I kind of feel like I took an intro course to Evolutionary Psychology, and that's a good way to feel after finishing a book. There were a lot of interesting points in this book, but I felt like I had read many of them before, and even within the book, Stewart-Williams is very repetitive. I sometimes felt the narrative got a little bogged down, but I suppose that's in keeping with the professorial tone of the book -- I ...more
Lecy Beth
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
Thought-provoking and unique, this look into human behavior takes the perspective of seeing our species as if we were a hyperintelligent alien. Stuart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology and has spent years researching evolutionary biology, so he provides an interesting look at how the human mind has evolved over time. This is a wonderful read for anyone who is into psychology, evolution, or just has an interested in the sciences. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange ...more
Jake Chisausky
Jun 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
By far the best evolutionary psychology book I have yet encountered! The chapter on memetics is especially thought-provoking.
Yaiza Gómez Mejías
Apr 18, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Very entertaining narrative, a fair amount of humour and lots of interesting points nicely explained. I particularly liked the chapters about memes and culture & biology co-evolution, which I had not read much about until now.
Bill Leach
Nov 11, 2022 rated it really liked it
Evolutionary psychology sees evolution as explaining many human traits that have traditionally ascribed solely to learning, socialization and culture. The biologist Richard Alexander once went as far as to describe the application of evolutionary principles to social behaviour as “the greatest intellectual revolution of the century". The claim is that cultural evolution is a result of natural selection operating on what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins called memes: ideas, beliefs and ...more
Alex Kahn
Nov 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: human-mind
Outstanding survey of evolutionary psychology topics, with comparisons to animal behavior as well as informed discussion about the role of evolved traits in a modern world. Last third of the book contains a profound and thought-provoking analysis of the processes behind cultural evolution.
Jim Razinha
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: review-copies
I got a review copy of this back in July from the publisher through NetGalley and unfortunately had a couple of others in front of it with ticking expiration dates, as well as assigned reading for a class and a few other obstacles. I needed to devote some dedicated time to reading this because there is so much here. One other unfortunate complication came up when my ereader glitched and couldn't verify the license...losing all of my notes from the first half of the book. Redownload, back in busi ...more
Kathryn Patterson
Aug 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

"The Ape That Understood the Universe" by Steve Stewart-Williams is an amazing book that discusses how evolutionary forces shaped human beings, and continue to shape human beings, in terms of culture and psychology. The book begins with a fictitious report by an alien species on the strange life on the planet, asking all sorts of questions that seem obvious once someone points them out. Stewart-Williams then goes
Jan 07, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: could-not-finish
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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