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

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  347 ratings  ·  74 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, our languages, and science? The book tackles these issues by drawing on ...more
Kindle Edition, 372 pages
Published September 13th 2018 by Cambridge University Press
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Aug 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
David Wineberg
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Rekha Shane
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 07, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Bastard Travel
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
-> 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
Lecy Beth
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jurij Fedorov
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
Alex Kahn
Nov 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
May 20, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have to admit I was pulled in by the title. I expected more of an anthropological treatise, something on the order of Sapiens. This is not a knock on the book, but for me while the subject matter was of interest the author was a little too intense on the presentation. Sometimes I really don't want or need to know the full analysis of why I made a certain choice. There are choices we make wherein the thrill is in the mystery.

The author did his research, but in the end it was a bit too didactic
James Hansen
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Outstanding book! The clearest and most engaging overview of evolutionary psychology I have read - highly recommended!
The Cats’ Mother
My last read/review of the year, and only the 5th non-fiction book, out of 175, but a highly interesting one, although I am finding it harder to gather my thoughts than for a typical thriller. This is a highly readable analysis of human behaviour through the lens of evolutionary psychology, and introducing the less well known concepts of cultural evolution and memetics.

The author, a professor of evolutionary psychology, is an academic who fortunately writes in an engaging and humorous style, si
Francis Tapon
Sep 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book starts with a simple question: what would an alien think of humans?

We feel like we're pretty normal and rational, but Steve Stewart-Williams proves otherwise.
We're a strange primate.

The author delves into many topics, including human sexuality.
As Bill Maher said, "There are no such things as mutual fantasies! Yours bore us; ours offend you."

The author is a big fan of Darwin, evolution, and memes.

Feminist Andrea Dworkin said that a man wants what a woman has: sex. "He can steal it (ra
NOTE: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my honest opinion of the book.

In this book, Steve Stewart-Williams gives us a story of the human animal by taking a look at the human species from a new perspective: through the eyes of a hypothetical, hyperintelligent alien.
" If an alien did drop in on us, how would it view our species?"
This is a fun way of discussing human behaviour and culture, without devolving into baby talk.

The author draws ideas from
Jun 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I received an eARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you.

I loved reading this book.

The title makes you want to find out more and I wasn't disappointed. If you ever wanted to find out exactly why humans behave the way we do, this one's for you. It deals a lot with evolution and evolutionary psychology. The gene's eye view of evolution was something I've never heard of before, but it really stays with you after reading. Many of the hypotheses proposed leave you thinking about
David Chong Wui Howe
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Wouldn't recommend. Much of what the author says makes sense and much of it is interesting, but ignoring important social aspects is a constant - enough in my view to render the book frustrating and a little needless. I don't presume to know the author, and so I can only go on this book as evidence, but it seems clear to me that the author has a very clear bias in relation to gender which begins to undermine the book as reliable, or scientific. It came as a bit of a surprise, and perhaps even wi ...more
Oct 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Fun read about nature vs nurture and memes

Ultimately this book is about nature vs nurture and author Steve Stewart-William comes down clearly on the side of nature. He explains the science (evolutionary psychology) clearly but there is not a lot of hard science in the book. I found that he supports his arguments well, by using examples from multiple cultures or from other members of the animal world. Importantly, he does not excuse bad behavior or make excuses for it because “it’s in the genes”.
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