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

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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 ideas from two major schools of thought: evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. The guiding assumption is that humans are animals, and that like all animals, we evolved to pass on our genes. At some point, however, we also evolved the capacity for culture - and from that moment, culture began evolving in its own right. This transformed us from a mere ape into an ape capable of reshaping the planet, travelling to other worlds, and understanding the vast universe of which we're but a tiny, fleeting fragment.

372 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 2018

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Steve Stewart-Williams

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 114 reviews
Profile Image for Bharath.
545 reviews423 followers
August 12, 2018
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 aggregate behavior based on evolutionary psychology and it does a great job at that.

The book starts off on an interesting note with an essay on how an alien species would look at us. There are a number of things which would come across as strange and difficult to explain. For instance, while many humans fear the dark, we are comfortable with fatty and junk food which is where the real danger to us lies! Steve makes some excellent points – if we studied animal behaviors, we would much better understand our own. Most psychologists however assume humans start as a blank slate and that all explanations for behavior are to be found in the learning from environments. The case for evolutionary psychology which the book builds is extremely strong and convincing. Nurture cannot explain a lot of the examples the author cites. While the simple rule of natural selection is propagation of genes, there is a lot more to this when studied in detail.

The book explores the subject in a lot of depth. The sex differences section is especially interesting as well as well written. Be it the animal kingdom or humans, there is a pattern to behavior between the sexes (in most species the relative sizes provide clues). There is a danger here – especially since this could be taken as a stepping stone to prejudice against women among humans. The book explores natural selection with examples of how traits got selected and passed on. At times, it is a struggle for our genes to catch up with the rapid changes in the environment. There are various examples of group selection, altruistic behavior and culture which are discussed at length. As it turns out, a lot of what humans are can be explained with evolutionary psychology. Humans are unique in many ways certainly, and yet the story of what we are is common with much of the animal kingdom.

The concept of memes (similar to the concept of stories in Sapiens) follows towards the end of the book. Humans behave so as to propagate memes to others in the species and to their descendants (eg: religious beliefs). Memes collide with other memes, and there are winners and losers.

There are parts where matter tends to repeat and slows down the pace of the book, Nevertheless, this is an excellent book on evolutionary psychology and definitely recommended reading.

My rating: 4.25 / 5.

I received a free electronic copy of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.
Profile Image for Lou (nonfiction fiend).
2,771 reviews1,623 followers
January 6, 2019
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 whatsoever. Make no mistake this is a challenging read; I learned a great deal and found myself totally engrossed from the first page.

However, some parts of the book ramble a bit, and the author hammers home his points over and over again, so it did get a little repetitive at times. That said, I particularly enjoyed the ruminations on the nature vs nurture debate, which were thought-provoking, and Stewart-Williams objectively assesses the current theories. He backs up most of his claims with relevant surveys and research, and arguments that are made are cogent, but there were quite a few assumptions made by the author which was a little disappointing. He does, however, manage to make a complex topic understandable and entertaining which puts this amongst the best non-fiction I have read in quite a while. There is a strong sense that Mr Stewart-Williams knows his onions, and due to my enjoyment, I read this much quicker than most non-fiction I pick up. Well worth your time if it's a subject that interests you.

Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for an ARC.
Profile Image for Danielle Tremblay.
Author 56 books118 followers
March 9, 2019
I read long ago "The Naked Ape" by William Norris. Didn’t everyone interested in the sciences of evolution read it? And I have since read a lot of scientific papers on anthropology, evolution of species, neurology and human brain, etc. I'm very interested by all these topics. So I loved reading this one.

One could say that this book is divided into two large parts: the nature (innate), first, and the nurture (culture or “memes”), second. Forget the law of the strongest. No, don’t forget it, but add the law of the kindness to it. Because both are necessary for our survival in the human’s world.

Here is its Table of Contents:
Acknowledgments xi
1 The Alien’s Challenge 1
2 Darwin Comes to Mind 15
3 The SeXX/XY Animal 62
4 The Dating, Mating, Baby- Making Animal 119
5 The Altruistic Animal 174
6 The Cultural Animal 219
Appendix A: How to Win an Argument with a Blank Slater 283
Appendix B: How to Win an Argument with an Anti- Memeticist 293
Permissions 305
Notes 307
References 325
Index 355

This is the kind of books that makes you think on every page, "Of course! That's true. Why haven't I figured this out before?!" And then you remember some events of your life that fit perfectly with what you just read. This is where the author shows his genius: he brought together and clearly demonstrated with supporting evidence new and older points of view, original and credible ideas on the evolution of the human species and its culture.

Mr. Stewart-Williams is obviously a smart and daring man (what he says about differences between men and women could spark negative criticisms) and he must be a good teacher in his field. The fact that he teaches, however, shows. Sometimes, it's like being in his classroom. On occasions, it's a good thing, like when he asks us to imagine the alien’s point of view or certain situations of everyday life, as he would certainly ask his students to do; but overall his book is a bit didactic and a little repetitive. Maybe it's a teacher's mnemonic trick to make us remember and believe what he said before. ;)

“Conscience is the inner voice that tells us someone might be looking.”

“We should question the automatic assumption that differences between the sexes necessarily imply discrimination against women. And we should ask what right we have to override people’s preferences regarding their own lives and careers in order to enact our preference for a gender-neutral world.”

On the Alien's report:
“And many [humans] spend hour after hour and day after day sitting in a peculiar trance-like state, staring at flickering images on flat screens – images, for example, of simulated events they know full well never happened, of other human beings mating, or of baby mammals behaving incompetently.”

That's why I give 4 stars to this book.

Thanks to Netgalley for getting me an eArc of this book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Alina.
744 reviews238 followers
November 26, 2018

***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 it as a whole, because it opened my eyes to lots of interesting things and made me curious to find more about evolution in general and evolutionary psychology in particular, there were several dislikes also (interesting fact: note how the cons are much easier to state than the pros; don't know if it's just in my case, or others have this 'issue', but I find it fascinating):

- There are ideas that tend to repeat multiple times throughout the book; I understand that it’s for sedimentation of information, but it was still annoying

- There are things that aren’t known, so the author assumes something, and also assumes that his opinion is better than others; much of the book is in this note: “Without an evolutionary perspective, this pattern is hard to explain. With it, it’s a piece of cake.”

- “In many species – the vast majority, in fact – the ceiling number of offspring for males is higher than that for females. The most important reason for this is parental investment.” – well, I’d have said that the 9+ months necessary for birth and after-birth, plus not being able to have more pregnancies at once (as man can theoretically have 2-3-n women pregnant at the same time) seems more reason than parental investment lol..

- It seemed to me that the cultural implications are somewhat minimized. Also, I'm sceptical about the idea of meme evolution in the way it was presented or I understood it from this book, as implying that businesses and science and even boats just evolve (a boat that floats propagates itself) all by themselves; imh, they 'evolve' through people, meaning that people judge them worthy or not and decide to propagate them further, or not. Anyway, maybe it was just the language/formulary used, but it bothered me..

- The ending is very abrupt

I cannot possibly express in my own words most of the ideas, so I'll best leave here some (many) quotes that I liked or thought important:
To say that human beings are interesting is an understatement. We’re freaks of nature! We’re blobs of matter that fall in love with each other. […] We’re mortal beings that, alone among the animals, know that we’re going to die one day and flee in terror from this knowledge. We’re bald apes that can think each other’s thoughts simply by making noises at each other. […] We’re carnivores that sympathize with our food. We’re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes, but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves. We’re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality. And we’re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds. How can we explain how such a bizarre creature came to exist?
Natural selection has all the time in the world. Just as a mere trickle of water, given sufficient time, can carve the Grand Canyon out of solid rock, so too natural selection, given sufficient time, can fashion new biological structures out of old. […] And not only does natural selection create adaptations, in the fullness of time, it carves out new species from the gene pools of existing ones.
In his later years, Darwin often described natural selection as “the survival of the fittest” – a phrase he borrowed from the philosopher Herbert Spencer. […] Some organisms happen to have traits which boost their chances of surviving and reproducing.
Samuel Butler’s famous aphorism, that the chicken is only an egg’s way of making another egg, has been modernized: the organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.
Herbert Prochnow once described courtship as “the period of dating during which a girl decides whether she can do any better.”
As Mignon McLaughlin observed, “A nymphomaniac is a woman as obsessed with sex as the average man.” […] Even today, there’s a sexual double standard in the West: Men who sleep around are viewed as heroes or lovable rogues, whereas women are viewed as sluts and “not marriage material.” As Joan Rivers put it, “A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes she’s a tramp.” Again, this is surely going to have an impact on women’s sexual behavior. It’s not evolution; it’s just basic human rationality. People weigh up the costs and benefits of casual sex, and act accordingly.
Love has many adverse side effects, from poor concentration to obsessive thinking. It’s a common cause of divorce , as when a husband or wife falls in love with someone else. And it can provoke a wide range of pathological behaviors, from stalking to suicide to murder. The clinical psychologist Frank Tallis once suggested that being in love is the closest most people come to mental illness. […] Love also has many positive effects. It can turn ordinary people into heroes, inspire self- sacrifice worthy of a non- reproductive worker insect , and fuel creative achievements spanning from embarrassing teenage poetry to the majestic Taj Mahal. Love is a double- edged sword, and it’s not at all obvious whether, on balance, the sword has brought more joy or more misery to the world.
As the economist Tim Harford summed it up, if you want to maximize your personal happiness, the optimal number of children to have is zero… and if you absolutely must dabble in procreation, the least depressing number is two. Don’t take these numbers too seriously; the exact estimates vary from study to study, and there’s always plenty of variation from person to person. The stable finding, though, is that having kids doesn’t reliably make people happy, and that for a fair number of people, it leads to a slump in happiness. Parents swear blind that they love having kids and that they love spending time with them. But careful research suggests that many parents enjoy their time with their children only slightly more than they enjoy taking out the trash or commuting, and that they generally prefer watching TV.
Monogamy is the Western custom of one wife and hardly any mistresses . — H. H. Monro
Memetics is based on the concept of the “meme,” which Dawkins introduced in his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene . Roughly speaking, a meme is an idea. Less roughly, it’s a unit of culture. When people give examples of memes, they tend to fixate on quirky pieces of contagious culture: jokes, recipes, writing “clean me” in the dust on a dirty car, catchphrases, catchy tunes, ways of tying a knot, ways of tying the knot, viral Internet images, and so on. But the meme concept is much broader than that. It embraces anything and everything that can be passed on via social learning, from the trivial (facial expressions, mannerisms) to the historically momentous (agricultural techniques , political and religious ideologies).
It’s important to stress, however, that in many ways, cultural evolution is very different from its biological cousin. For multicellular organisms like ourselves, genes are transmitted almost exclusively from parent to offspring. Unless you’re a bacterium, you can’t pick up genes from your friends. But you can pick up memes from your friends, or from your children, or from anybody else. Indeed, in a world of books, TV, and the Internet , you can even pick up memes from the dead. Another difference between biological evolution and cultural is that, although there’s not much sharing of genes between different multicellular species, there’s often a lot of sharing of memes across different “species” of culture. English, for instance, is classed as a Germanic language, but much of its vocabulary comes from Romance languages such as French and Latin. In a sense, modern English is a linguistic mongrel: a hybrid of Germanic and Romance languages. In the same sense, rock music is a hybrid of a variety of musical genres, including blues and country, gospel and jazz. And neither rock music nor English is exceptional. The sharing of code across species, though rare in multicellular organisms, is the norm in the cultural sphere.
But while the differences between biological and cultural evolution are significant, the similarities are often quite startling. Arguably, the most startling is the fact that, like plants and animals, cultural products can often be arrayed on a family tree. Languages are the best example. Like biological species, languages descend from other languages, and – at least within the major language groupings – any two languages share a common ancestor if you trace it back far enough. Also like biological species, any two languages may be more or less closely related. […] The fact that it’s possible to place these cultural entities on family trees is important, because family trees are a telltale sign that the entities in question arose through a process of descent with modification… in other words, that they evolved.
Although we’re clearly smarter than chimps , we’re nowhere near as much smarter as an alien scientist might surmise from comparing our cultural achievements (e.g., putting people on the moon) with theirs (e.g., using rocks to crack open nuts or sticks to fish for termites ). As individuals, we’re probably closer to the nut- cracking, termite- fishing end of the spectrum. If you doubt this, imagine being marooned in the jungle with no relevant knowledge. At a push, you might figure out how to obtain a little food. But you’d never figure out how to build a rocket ship and get to the moon. […] The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello dubbed this progression the cultural ratchet. Extended across time, the cumulative effects of the ratcheting process are astonishing. I remember once watching a David Attenborough documentary in which an orangutan rowed a boat down a river. At first, it struck me as anomalous: Here was this animal skillfully piloting a vehicle it could never have invented itself. But then it occurred to me that human beings are in exactly the same boat, metaphorically speaking. In even the simplest human societies, people use tools they could never have invented themselves. And in our modern age, we routinely use technologies so complex that most people don’t have the slightest clue how they work. It’s as if we’ve appropriated the technology of an advanced race of aliens after they mysteriously vanished – except that the aliens were never really here. All of it came from us. […] Cumulative culture is the ultimate time- saver. Because of cumulative culture, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel each generation – quite literally. We don’t each need to invent calculus because Newton and Leibniz did it for us. We don’t each need to have our own Eureka moments to understand fluid dynamics; we don’t each need to have an apple fall on our head to understand gravity ; and we don’t each need to dream of a snake eating its tail to understand the structure of the benzene molecule. All we need is a library card, a good teacher, or access to the Internet . We can then download into our brains some of the achieved knowledge of the species. This subsequently becomes the starting point for the next round of innovation.
One of my favorite animal anecdotes is about orangutans at a sanctuary in Borneo. One day, a group of orangs slipped into the kitchen and stole a pot. They made a big pile of rocks, placed the pot on the rocks, and then sat in a circle around it, waiting for the pot to give them soup. They were attempting to replicate what they’d seen humans do a hundred times before. This shows just how smart orangutans are – and also just how dumb! But how much smarter are we? Whenever we copy the style rather than the substance of a high-status person – whenever we wear the same shoes as a sporting hero, for instance, or try to emulate a rock star’s debauched lifestyle – we’re really not so different from the orangs around the pot. Advertisers exploit this chink in our armor when they pay celebrities to endorse their products. There’s no good reason to think that skill on the football pitch goes hand-in-hand with skill in choosing the best brand of underwear or the best spray deodorant. But otherwise rational people act as if it does.
Various scholars, including David Sloan Wilson and Ara Norenzayan, have argued that religions are shaped in large measure by cultural group selection. Just as the function of sharp teeth is to tear apart prey, the function of religions is to knit together collections of individuals into socially cohesive groups. This might help explain some central features of the world’s religions. Among the most important, in Norenzayan’s view, is the widespread belief in Big Gods. Big Gods are powerful supernatural beings which keep track of what we do and punish us if we step out of line. The belief in such beings is not a human universal; it’s found only in large-scale societies. And that’s because it’s only in large-scale societies that we need them. As the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has argued, for groups of one-to-two-hundred people, our social instincts are sufficient to keep society running smoothly. We know everyone in the group, we can keep tabs on what everyone’s up to, and we can generally keep people in line with everyday social tools such as approval and opprobrium. But the moment groups get much bigger than this, people start to encounter strangers and near-strangers at an unnaturally high frequency, and the usual social tools no longer do the job. Social cohesion starts to erode and groups start to break down… unless, that is, new institutions step into the breach and foster group cohesion where our social instincts fall short. […] Big Gods aren’t the only way to keep people on the straight-and-narrow. Some traditional societies opt instead for the doctrine of karma and reincarnation , and modern secular societies opt for police, law courts, and CCTV cameras.
And here’s something I’ve also read in another study about breast cancer:
For most of our history, women spent the bulk of their reproductive years either pregnant or breastfeeding. Women don’t menstruate when they’re pregnant, and they tend not to menstruate when they’re breastfeeding either, at least not in hunter- gatherer conditions. The net result is that, until recently, most women had only a hundred or so menstrual cycles in their lifetimes. Things are very different today. Women hit puberty earlier, have fewer pregnancies, and spend a smaller fraction of their lives nursing their young. They therefore have many more menstrual cycles than their ancestors: as many as four hundred. This is more than their reproductive systems are designed for, and it exposes them to unnaturally high levels of ovarian hormones and unnaturally frequent hormonal fluctuations. This in turn increases women’s risk of breast cancer – as well as conditions such as anemia and endometriosis. These maladies were almost unheard of until recently. Like obesity, they’re essentially diseases of modernity, or what are sometimes referred to as mismatch diseases.
Profile Image for Holly.
193 reviews64 followers
August 7, 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 culture.

…humans spend many hours of every day making noises at each other through the holes in their faces. Indeed, except when they’re hibernating, humans just don’t shut up!

Once a suitable mate is located, humans engage in various peculiar mating rituals. The male, for example, may give the female a bundle of plant genitals (or “flowers”), or the pair may take turns making noises at each other while imbibing fermented plant juice.

In order to answer the alien’s questions (“How did this hapless creature come to possess such an impressive body of knowledge? How did a mere ape come to understand the vast universe of which it is but a tiny, fleeting fragment?”) Steve Stewart-Williams, an associate professor of psychology, relies on evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. His starting point is that we, and other organisms, are designed to pass on our genes. The ways to do this are staying alive and having lots of children as well as helping relatives stay alive and have lots of children.

Stewart-Williams discusses the gene’s-eye view which rather than the traditional approach which says that people replicate themselves and use genes to do it, this new view states that genes replicate themselves and uses the organism to do it. Natural selection will favor the “selfish gene.” It’s all about survival of the fittest gene.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is the discussion of sex differences and whether they are learned/cultural or innate. Stewart-Williams looks to other animals and explores ten of the most common sex differences in detail, many of which also apply to humans. Most of these differences relate to the maximum number of offspring that a male can have versus a female. It is not surprising therefore that selection will favor different traits in men versus women. The male/female differences examined in terms of nature versus nurture include sexual behavior, mate preferences, porn, aggression, and parental investment.

Stewart-Williams admits he is wading into dangerous waters with the sex differences discussion because of the strong counter view among social scientists and others that stereotypes of men and women are entirely due to social forces. This opposing side sees a sinister motivation among the nature or natural selection approach — they are perceived as trying to stall or reverse women’s progress in society. A lot of evidence is presented comparing non-human mammals and different human cultures.

Stewart-Williams takes on the evolution of our culture, which he says involves the natural selection of our memes (defined as ideas, beliefs or anything passed on through social interaction) just like our genes. It is a fascinating idea, and one I have never considered before, that culture evolves just like biology does. One of my favorite sections is the cultural evolution of the teddy bear. Other domains that undergo cultural evolution include language, business and science.

There can be no doubt that the content of this book has been heavily researched and citations are included. The Ape that Understood the Universe is a dense read that provides a lot of ideas and theories to ponder. Stewart-Williams presents a cogent argument about gene-culture coevolutionary theory (a hybrid of memetic and evolutionary psychology). Many will find a lot of new information contained in this book.

Thank you to Cambridge University Press and NetGalley for an advanced readers copy in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Danny Tyran.
Author 21 books182 followers
July 10, 2018

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 with the plant and animal world in general and with mammals in particular. He sometimes presents things from an outside point of view, the one that could have a visitor from another planet. This helps us to understand what a strange beast is the human being.

1 The Alien's Challenge
2 Darwin Comes to Mind
3 The SeXX / XY Animal
4 The Dating, Mating, Baby-Making Animal
5 The Altruistic Animal
6 The Cultural Animal
Appendix A: How to Win an Argument with a Blank Slater
Appendix B: How to Win an Argument with an Anti-Memeticist

This is a very informative and accessible book that everybody should read. It's better than "The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal" and a lot less depressing than "The Selfish Gene", books that the author quotes extensively.

Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books659 followers
August 8, 2018
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 for disagreement. For example, women supposedly select mates for their intelligence and humor. “The general rule is, whatever the females want, the males evolve to provide,” he says. If that were the case, the world would be filled with brilliant, witty people by now, as the dopes and the dullards would be unable to pass on their woefully inadequate genes.

Evolutionary psychology, being the new kid on the block, is a little tentative, and the book is filled with conditionals like “may” and “might”. Stewart-Williams is quite defensive about it all, inserting question answer sections where he can demolish the criticisms. And he does. It helps keep things lively.

The central conceit of the book is that an alien comes to Earth and tries to understand Man from a totally neutral starting position. Every so often, Stewart-Williams comes back to the alien for a moment, but never makes real use of it. The book gains nothing from it, beyond the amusing intro with its “report”.

Really, it is a book about how to think. Stewart-Williams’ angle is very different, analyzing every trait we have in terms of its contribution to (or from) evolution. Looking at life his way is a very different experience: highly analytical, usually very Darwinian, and ever-purposeful. Little is left to mere chance in his world. This makes sense from a Darwinian standpoint, because every being is perfectly adapted to its environment. The difficulty is of course, Man, which has taken itself out of the evolutionary and ecological network, to do his own thing without regard to anything else. Still, his evolutionary roots keep showing.

The chapter on human mate choice describes every conceivable rationale, comparing male and female approaches and attitudes in all kinds of species. But things don’t fit easily into their assigned buckets, and Stewart-Williams almost reluctantly concludes there are sex differences between men and women after all, and it’s not just the context (“Nurture”). This adds some heat to the forever argument about equality and our prejudices in raising children, but doesn’t quite close the door on anything.

It does get a little tiresome, as in the section on violence. Men are more violent than women, not apparently because of testosterone or societal pressure to accumulate wealth (never even considered), but because men need to spread their genes to more offspring. As they age, they become less violent because they need fewer new offspring – though he argues the opposite earlier. Men can and do produce offspring far later than women – basically all their lives (The record is 888 offspring from one Ismail The Bloodthirsty in the 1600s). He says it is the degree of parental investment that drives all other sex differences, from size to shape to behavior.

The most interesting facet is culture, which he saves for last, being the culminating achievement of the species. Man is the lone animal with a culture that accumulates over generations. It allows knowledge to be passed on so we don’t constantly have to reinvent the wheel. It’s one of our many huge differentiators, and Stewart-Williams thinks it is the most important one. But he claims culture is a by-product, not an evolutionary adaptation. It fits in the same bucket as thumb-sucking, he says. This is not settled science.

Among the ponderables:
-Intelligent design is a product of natural selection, not the cause. Evolution refines design until it seems intelligent.
-As genes are to life, as atoms are to matter, so memes are to culture. Memes are the smallest units of culture, from a hand signal to a Mars explorer to a Cameron blockbuster. They allow Man to pool ideas and resources, and build outsized accomplishments – for themselves and for generations forward.
-Memes are not adaptive or the result of natural selection. They are external to evolution. They constantly evolve and mutate with their hosts’ understanding of them.

There is a lot of inductive reasoning in evolutionary psychology. It is not possible to prove definitively what the discipline currently claims. “It’s all too easy to go crazy with pan-adaptationist reasoning,” he admits.. It doesn’t help that Stewart-Williams can be fast and loose with facts.

But the book dives deep to make its case in a seemingly endless variety of aspects. Chapters focus on genes, dating, sex, marriage, and altruism, as well as Culture. This is Stewart-Williams’ course, and he gives it his quite substantial all. His passion is clearly on display.

So it’s not so much the ape that understood the universe. It’s the ape learning to understand the ape.

David Wineberg
83 reviews78 followers
September 4, 2019
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 species. Great stuff! Like a wetter Richard Dawkins. Also contains a healthy dash of Pinker style date dumping and analysis with a moderate deal of Williams' own wit and personality.

4 stars because it didn't have that x-factor quality that makes me desperately thirsty for more- took me a while to get through the book. (to be fair I've been reading a lot of evolutionary psychology lately so it might just be that) Was 100% worth it though!
Profile Image for Ketan Ramteke.
32 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2020
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 😄
Profile Image for Dawn Wells.
757 reviews12 followers
April 30, 2018
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. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Profile Image for Cav.
624 reviews77 followers
April 21, 2022
"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) and this one (2018). He was born in Wellington, New Zealand.

Steve Stewart-Williams:

Stewart-Williams writes with a decent stlye, for the most part, that should have no trouble holding the reader's attention. However, although the book was super-interesting, I found that parts of it tended to drag on. For example, there are two very long-winded appendices that were a bit too verbose and lengthy.

As the quote above implies, Stewart-Williams opens the book by framing his writing as though viewing the species through the lens of an alien visitor to Earth. Although this was a neat idea, it felt a bit kitschy at times...

As the author proceeds, he brings the reader through many topics central to evolutionary biology. He takes a deep dive into sexual and kin selection. "Selfish" genes and evolutionary fitness are also covered, as are adaptive and maladaptive traits.
The long-standing battle in academia over tabula rasa vs human nature is also a central theme throughout.

Stewart-Williams introduces the reader to the concept of evolutionary mismatch:
"Evolutionary mismatch provides a fairly straightforward explanation for some of the crazy behavior that so puzzled the alien scientist. This includes the fact that so much of the food we pour down our gullets is so bad for us. Our diet is obesogenic: It makes us fat. It’s also carcinogenic, diabetogenic, and cardiovascular-disease-ogenic. Why are we so deeply attracted to foods that, in a very real way, are unfit for human consumption?
The answer is that our appetites evolved in a food landscape quite unlike the one we inhabit today. As Michael Power and Jay Schulkin put it, “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa. We now live in Candyland....”
"...Mismatch explains another tendency that puzzled our alien friend: Why aren’t our fears properly apportioned to the risks in our environment? Why, when we decorate our houses for Halloween, do we opt for plastic snakes and spiders, rather than plastic cigarettes or condoms – things that are now much bigger threats to life, limb, and reproductive success? And why, when we try to teach our children to fear roads and electrical outlets, do they stubbornly insist on fearing snakes and monsters instead?"

The scope of the book is quite broad, and the analysis by Stewart-Williams was very insightful. Some more of what he covers here includes:
• Sex differences and sexual dimorphism. Stewart-Williams takes many shots at social scientists who push the "blank slate" narrative:
“Everyone knows that men and women are different… except social scientists.”
• Pair-bonded vs tournament mating behaviour.
• Preferences for casual sex; male vs female; gay vs straight.
• Mate preferences in the sexes; their differences.
• Sexual reproduction; incest aversion.
• Pair bonding vs promiscuity.
• Altruism and social cooperation.
• Selection beyond Biology.
• Culture; memes and cumulative cultural technological advancements.
• The concept of memes; religion.
• How to Win an Argument with a Blank Slater.
• How to Win an Argument with an Anti-Memeticist.


As mentioned at the start of this review, The Ape That Understood the Universe was a great read. I really enjoyed this one, despite finding chunks of it a little long-winded.
I would recommend it to anyone interested in evolutionary biology.
4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Jurij Fedorov.
361 reviews60 followers
December 11, 2020
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 so he never gets into big arguments or presents some of the known studies that may not replicate. He basically keeps to the basic theoretical premises of modern psychology so you'll understand the outline of modern psychology here but still need to look up specific studies yourself afterwards. For me this is a minus for sure as I'm seeking new info about evolutionary psychology not just a very basic intro. But it also means that the book will age extremely well and be read even in 30 years time as basically nothing here will be found to be wrong.


Personally it's not a book for me. It's basically a combination of a short evolutionary psychology textbook, The Blank Slate and The Selfish Gene. I've already read those 3 books so I know this stuff already. And books like The Selfish Gene are amazing and fun to read with a more clear writing style. I was blown away when I read it and it changed how I see the world. Anyone trying to explain the same things will feel like a copy to me. And this book is also not as fun or creative in the writing as The Selfish Gene. Before I picked up the book I was thinking that I maybe had forgotten some of the basics and a refresher would be nice, but it wasn't needed at all.

So for me the reading and learning experience was not high. But I think it's a good intro to newcomers to psychology. At least it seems like a lot of people are raving about the book and constantly recommending it.

For me it just doesn't reach the super high level of similar books. The Moral Animal for example is also a similar layman friendly intro to evolutionary psychology but is for me easier to understand and more fun to read with various great anecdotes in it and historically relevant examples.

Another thing is that this book feels older than even evolutionary psychology books from the 90's because of the argument style. EP was already known as a fact of life 30 years ago. And we never really needed to argue this hesitantly for the point that evolution also influenced the human brain. Steve Stewart-Williams chooses to write directly to people who doubt EP overall and feel that everything is just explained by culture. Which means that 15% of this book are just outdated critical counter-arguments with no serious research behind them. He keeps presenting alternative theories and then slowly argue for every single point in EP. I get that this may be the ideal way to write an EP book for people who don't know anything about the subject. But for someone like me, who knows how to read academic papers, this just felt slow and pointless at times. I'm not sure how a field that's now accepted by most well read psychologists needs to be introduced in a way where the alternative theories get 15% of the page space.


It's a very carefully crafted book that never strays from factual claims. At the same time the EP theories are presented in such a careful and hesitant way that it often makes them a bit too hazy and theoretical instead of in your face and clear like theories in Richard Dawkins' books or EP theories in many other EP books.

Maybe there are still people out there who either don't understand evolutionary psychology or disagree with it who need such an intro. But if you are a critical thinker who doesn't mind reading slightly controversial science this may be too weak sauce for you. At least it felt a bit slower than I wanted it to be.
Profile Image for Agne.
466 reviews14 followers
January 7, 2020
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 actually about some sort of personal agenda the author has against sociology. It was really fucking strange. I mean, I get that there are people who call evolutionary biologists' findings into question (and some of them might be extreme or annoying), but he literally claims somewhere in the first few chapters that all social scientists are 100% nurture only and deny any genetic component to why people are what they are. The rest is also littered with witty comebacks at these ignorant nurture-lovers (whose arguments are never made specific, by the way). And then at the very end (I laughed out loud), the author disparages other people for making hasty generalisations about his own field.

Some of the concerns that the author just brushed off as mindless fear have very real consequences in society, like biological sex differences becoming a prescriptive norm rather than an average difference - this is not some sort of conspiracy theory, but a painful part of the education system, for example. So I kind of understand when some objectively good science comes under fire if the results are easy to misinterpret by other institutions. Nothing to get so riled up about, though. I would expect more of a cooperative and understanding spirit.

Lastly, some of the issues are later explained well enough, and the author acknowledges the concerns that people might have on the "other" side, but the book still leaves a one-sided impression. So much so that I started doubting whether the findings in evolutionary biology aren't being misrepresented in some ways to prove a point. I hope this is not the case.
Profile Image for Maher Razouk.
632 reviews174 followers
October 14, 2020
لماذا نشعر بالغيرة .. !؟

يطرح عالم النفس التطوري (ستيف ستيوارت ويليام) تساؤلا مهما في كتابه (The ape that understood the universe) و هو :

من أين أتى الشعور بالغيرة !؟
هل هو ناتج عن طبيعتنا البشرية ، مثل القدرة على الخوف أو الجوع ؟ أم أنه من اختراع الثقافة ، مثل المال أو أيام الأسبوع !!؟

يقول (ويليام) : لابد لنا من الأخذ بعين الاعتبار أن فرضية الأصل الثقافي للغيرة ، تقوم على أساس قوي ، و تطرح أمثلة مهمة مثل : أهل الأسكيمو الذين يقدمون زوجاتهم (لليلة واحدة) للضيف كنوع من كرم الضيافة !!
و كذلك ما قالته الممثلة الشهيرة (Shirley MacLaine) بأنها لم تشعر بالغيرة الجنسية في حياتها أبدا ...
لكن هل هم على حق فعلا ؟؟

لا شك أن الغيرة تتشكل جزئياً من خلال التعلم والثقافة . لكن هل خلقت الثقافة_ حقا _ الغيرة من لا شيء ؟ هل يمكننا حقا أن نتعلم بسهولة أن نكون متساهلين مع خيانة الشريك لنا ؟؟

وفقا لعلماء النفس التطوري ، فإن الجواب على هذا السؤال هو : لا ...
الغيرة هي جزء من طبيعتنا ، وهي موجودة لدى الناس في جميع أنحاء العالم .
يجادل علماء النفس التطوري بأن مزاعم فرضية الثقافة تميل إلى الانهيار عند التفتيش الدقيق ...

لماذا إذا نشعر بالغيرة بحسب علم النفس التطوري !؟

الجواب هو : إن المرأة التي تلد طفلا ، يخرج من رحمها ، تعرف أن هذا الطفل لها ، لكن الرجل لم يكن بإمكانه التأكد من أبوته ، لذلك كان شعور الغيرة مفضلا عند الاخت��ار الطبيعي كصفة تساعد الرجل على حماية شريكته من الاختلاط بأي رجال آخرين ، و بالتالي ضمان أن الطفل الذي ستلده ، و الذي سيعمل على إطعامه و حمايته ، سيكون بالتأكيد طفله هو أيضا !!

لكن لماذا توجد غيرة عند المرأة إذا ...!!؟

لنفس السبب تقريبا ... فالمرأة تريد أن تضمن أن ذلك الرجل الذي تسبب في حملها بالطفل ، لن يخونها و يذهب مع امرأة أخرى و يعتني بأطفال آخرين ، و إنما سيبقى ليربي أطفالها و يحميهم حتى يكبرون !!

أما بالنسبة لعدم الشعور بالغيرة ، لدى أهل الأسكيمو و الممثلة (ماكلين) ، يجيب علم النفس التطوري : أن الثقافة ممكن أن تؤثر على بعض الصفات التطورية و تغير فيها ، لكن الغيرة من الصفات الأكثر انتشارا بين جميع الثقافات لأنها أثبتت فعاليتها في حماية المرأة و الرجل من التعرض للخداع ، و لذلك فإنها غالبا لن تزول بهذه السهولة !!

Profile Image for Yzabel Ginsberg.
Author 3 books101 followers
July 24, 2018
[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 nurture when it comes to quite a few behaviours, the explanations make sense, and are actually more along the lines of the “selfish gene”, which is quite different from “survival of the fittest”.

Basically, it’s not about passing on the traits that are useful to our survival. It’s passing on -genes- , which means that if we survive long enough to do that, those genes go on as part of global “package” more suited for survival than not. Subtle difference. Like the peacock’s tail. In itself, the tail’s an impediment, and definitely isn’t what we’d deem an attribute that promotes survival in the face of predators, but having it sends a message that “look, I’m so fit that I’ve managed to survive so far -in spite of my tail-, now let me make you babies”.

Definitely interesting, and something I haven’t read much about recently, so it was a nice change. The beginning of the book, where he imagines an alien scientist observing human beings, was also a welcome shift in point of view, if only because it was amusing, and provided food for thought as well.

Some points could spark controversy, which is expected, especially when it comes to differences between men and women. That’s the kind of thing I’m usually on the fence about—in fact, whoever’s non-binary will probably find them controversial as well, since from the beginning we don’t fit the men vs. women mould. It’s clearly best to approach this scientifically, and not with any socio-psychological approach in mind, because a clash is bound to happen. Still, as mentioned previously, it does make sense, and I can’t (and won’t) say that nothing of that is true. And in the end, there -are- differences anyway. We just have to remember that sex =/= gender, and that whatever occurred in nature doesn’t mean that it’s the ultimate law either (which is a position that the author doesn’t defend anyway, so we’re all good here). If it was, all men would be serial rapists and would keep murdering their male neighbours for looking a little too pretty for the women around.

Other parts of the book deal with altruistic behaviours, culture, and memes, in other words what is passed socially and not genetically, but following similar principles: the “memes” that survive, like language, survive because one of their side-effects is to be “useful” to the group, while “destructive” memes such as becoming a martyr aren’t too widespread, due to people “practicing” them not leaving that many descendants to follow. (I had a bit more trouble to follow the latter parts, though, because I had the feeling there was some redundancy here.)

Conclusion: Overall, it was an instructive read, while being also funny and easy to follow.
Profile Image for Dalan Mendonca.
123 reviews47 followers
January 24, 2022
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 and try to figure out how the mind works by looking at humans alone. This, in short, is the big shortcoming in the modern approach to psychology that the author enlightens us about; and which is addressed by the emerging field of evolutionary psychology.

The arguments are logical, enjoyable and I scarcely found myself disagreeing wholesale with any of them; the book does suffer from some amount of repetition but the author does litter it with party-trivia worthy factoids and anecdotes.

BONUS: It settles a lot of the questions around classical "nature vs nurture" question; alongwith some amount of the post-2010s gender fluidity debate. So, this is a strong recommendation for anyone wanting to examine the truth behind the "Gender is a social construct" aphorism.
Profile Image for Rekha Shane.
112 reviews11 followers
January 30, 2022
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 Press in return for an honest review of the book.

So let me start by saying that The Ape that Understood the Universe is utterly fascinating. It provides answers for a whole host of questions that we have relating to human behaviour. Why are men more sexually motivated? Why is youthfulness in women seen as more desirable than in men? What is the interplay between the tendencies that evolution has instilled in us and those that are socially learned? And, crucially, how does culture tie into our evolution?

Stewart-Williams is a proponent of evolutionary psychology. This is a field that he admits is highly contentious. Scientists have not been keen to put down human behaviours to our genetics, instead favouring socio-political arguments for their sources. This book also proposes the hypothesis of cultural evolution. Whereby the way we live affects how we develop. Take milk drinking for example. We didn't have the enzyme to digest milk, but years of dairy farming have encouraged this enzyme to develop in our bodies.

For a lot of this book it felt as though Stewart-Williams was trying very hard to argue his point, but herein lies the problem; it felt like he was doing too much arguing. He was constantly trying to provide the rationale for his theories. It all even made a certain amount of sense, but this made me wonder that if everything is as straightforward as he is suggesting then why is his field so contentious? It made the book feel too one sided and I was curious as to what the opponents of his theory would say. There was also a lot of repetition, within and across chapters. Partly this was because some of the same issues keep cropping up no matter what facet of human nature you dissect.

But don't let any of my grumbling put you off this firecracker of a book! The Ape that Understood the Universe contained some of the most interesting insights I have read in a long time. At its heart this book has the aim to understand ourselves better as a species and why we have developed the way we have. There are some crucial questions about human psychology and development here.

On one level this book made quite depressing reading. It reinforced the gender stereotypes that we live with, citing evolution as the cause behind them. It reduces us down to the level of brainy animals. So we can philosophise and create flying aeroplanes and the like, but we're still animals with certain inbuilt reflexes that we can't get rid of, even if we want to. Where's the hope?!

However The Ape that Understood the Universe was also extremely empowering. Stewart-Williams points out the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us. All of the knowledge that humankind has amassed painstakingly over our existence is now available to us so that we can built rockets and computers. It makes me wonder where humans will be 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years from now. Irritatingly, none of us will be around to see it, but our species will go on; gathering together more and more information, morphing further and further from where we started. It is awe-inspiring to think about where we have come from, where we have got to and where we might be going. If you want to join in with that thought, then this is the book for you.
February 19, 2022
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, though, were his opinions on gender roles, and the condescending / sarcastic why he addressed such sensitive issues. In no way am I saying he's wrong about how women and men may have developed certain instincts, I just think he could've handled his wording differently, because it came off as sexist. An example of a "huh?" moment was when he described the female orgasm as "cultural invention, building on a fortunate quirk of women's reproductive physiology". Or trying to explain (or mansplain ;) ) the "reverse double standards" between men and women. These are just two painful examples. Which made it harder for me to be open to a lot of other things he says. And although he mentions at the end that just because we evolved a certain way, doesn't make it good, with regard to the gender roles, I think he missed that bus for himself (e.g. the beauty myth or quotas for women - which he largely dismisses and patronises).

The next thing that was odd was his insistence that "social scientists" are intent on being blank slaters. This is just not true. Through all my 6 - 7 years of studying in the social sciences, not even one lecturer I've had taught us anything to this effect. Sometimes his belief of this turns into blatant insults, such as "...many psychologists... have an empty space in their brains where their knowledge of evolution should be." Is this arrogant, or is it just me? I know many psychologists... Not one of them disregards evolution.

The last part of the book was tedious. And a tad defensive (especially his arguments against blank slaters). He repeats a lot of what Dawkins has written about. And he assumes in his arguments that there's an overwhelming majority of blank slaters out there for him to argue with. I've never encountered these people, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. So maybe he and other evolutionary psychologists encounter them often, which is why he may have included these arguments at the end. But it just felt like he was preaching to the converted. (I guess we all do that these days, though ;) ).

All in all, a very interesting book, and I did learn a lot from his researched theories, especially emotions and our instincts in romantic / sexual relationships, he presented. He lost me a little on the memetics, but that's neither here nor there. The reason I gave the book a 2/5 is just because I couldn't really get past the condescending, self-righteous manner of his interpretations. It meant I had to do a lot of weeding out for myself, without getting distracted by his manner, to figure out what was research and what was opinions.
253 reviews7 followers
July 16, 2018
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 of references to sex, both from evolutionary and cultural viewpoints, but all in scientific good taste!


There are 6 main sections in the book, roughly broken into the two over-riding approaches (above). The sections are:

1: The Alien’s Challenge

2: Darwin Comes To Mind

3: The SeXX/XY Animal

4:The Dating, Mating, Baby-Making Animal

5:The Altruistic Animal

6:The Cultural Animal.

There are also two appendices, A and B, to advise on how to win an argument with, respectively, a Blank Slater (people are born with no in-built mental content) and an Anti-Memeticist (opponent to the studies of information and culture, analogous to Darwinian evolution). The book is extremely well cross-referenced, and supported, with an extensive listing of other notes and works.

The Alien’s Challenge:

Following on from the report as given by our hypothetical Betelgeusean friend, the author constructs his response using evolutionary theory. We are products of natural selection, he argues, and have evolved in order to pass on our genes. We (i.e. me writing this, and you reading it) are currently the end product of millennia of millions of infinitesimal, unplanned and unconscious favourable accidents, and will contribute in our own small way to the propagation of the species, by ensuring we pass on our genes to the next generation.

Cultural issues complicate the story, for example why is it women invest more in child-rearing than men, and why do men do any at all (given most males in other species literally just contribute the basics and move on)? Why are people more co-operative than other species? Evolutionary psychology is hot-wired into the very essence of human nature.

Darwin Comes to Mind:

The author then proceeds through Darwinian Theory, natural selection, which officially began in 1838 when Charles Darwin had “The Greatest Idea Anyone Ever Had”, answering the question of how life had come to exist. Ultimately, all life traces back to a simple, self-replicating molecule, about four billion years ago or so. Since then, countless species have evolved, for species are not static, and most have become extinct (estimated some 98%). Some traits survive as they (unconsciously) offer a better survival mechanism (e.g. longer claws, faster legs for running), allowing that trait or gene to survive where less-effective genes die out. This is the crucial point – evolution is not about THE SPECIES surviving, but rather, within that species, the survival of THOSE GENES e.g. stronger claws for Lioness A allows it to capture more prey, ensuring its survival versus shorter-clawed Lioness B. By surviving, the author means surviving long enough to reproduce faster than the completing gene, ensuring that that gene is passed on or propagated to the next generation.

The author discusses how psychological adaptations have evolved to execute functions e.g. disgust, fear.

The SeXX/XY Animal:

The author discusses sexual dimorphism, and addresses and dismisses outdated and debunked myths of differences between the sexes.

He applies the social scientist approach, first advising us to forget about humans while he lists differences between the sexes and how they evolved [See page 66 – some interesting anecdotes] (e.g. in size, sex drive, choosiness of the opposite partner, ornamentation, etc.).

The author then cites both Darwin and Robert Trivers, and the latter’s study of parental investment theory, and explains “the casual sex” gap. Again, natural selection comes into play.

The Dating, Mating, Baby-Making Animal:

While having children is not for everyone, out of choice or circumstance, it is the implied goal of our biology. This chapter covers the basic standard milestones of what he calls the [reproductive] conveyor belt of life, from choosing a partner, all the way through to getting the resultant children ready for adulthood. That said, there are parts of this chapter that really would make you reconsider the whole thing (sorry, family!! :D).

The Altruistic Animal:

This chapter opens with the sad story of brave thirteen year old Jordan Rice, and his sacrifice to save his baby brother Blake. Herein lies the thrust of this chapter – why would anyone consciously act against the instinct of natural selection i.e. act in a way that solely benefits another without benefitting to self?

The Cultural Animal:

This chapter explores how context counts. Where we are, and at what time, influences us. The author, through the example of chain letters, introduces the concept of memetics, based on the “meme”. It is broader than is currently considered the case (e.g. an internet image), encompassing everything that can be passed on via social learning. Memetics focuses on how cultural products benefit the products themselves, rather than traditionally a particular individual, group or both.

What I Liked:

- Well-written, with a touch of humour, and excellent examples to support his point
- Very well researched, with well-cited sources.
- Most definitely not on the Creationist/Intelligent Design side of the argument, and hopefully gives much food for thought for those who are.
- The surprising and various facts that the author sprang on us – for example: What was the largest number of children ever had by one woman? And fathered by one man?

What I Didn’t Like:

- Began to repeat the arguments in the later section (which is naturally the case with natural selection, but I had already gotten the point in the first chapter).
- I would have liked more detail into the cultural/anthropological side of things, for example how various religions drive their arguments that counter evolutionary theory.


Well-written, well-informed, and an excellent primer into this discussion. It respects the reader by engaging their mind through well-constructed arguments.

I would thoroughly recommend this book


My thanks to NetGalley and the author for a free copy of the book, in return for an unbiased review.
Profile Image for Brianna Silva.
Author 3 books107 followers
February 7, 2022
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.
Profile Image for Buck Wilde.
787 reviews37 followers
December 31, 2019
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 people who would suggest... that uh... that some of these traits... both... both physical and... and sometimes like, y'know... non-physical... might also extend to human beings but obviously I wouldn't try to make that point but if I DID try to make that point, which I'm not doing, but if I did I would say that there are other animals operating within very similar paradigms who developed these differences by evolutionary processes -- I'm so, so sorry. I have to go. Good night."

I also learned the word "memeplex", as a collective noun referring to the interaction of multiple memes. It's used in the traditional Dawkinsian selfish gene/God meme connotation in the book, but if you've ever seen a doge meme in the form of loss? That's a memeplex now.
12 reviews2 followers
June 26, 2020
-> 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 evolution deniers and it also has an appendix on how to deal with those kinds of people. At some points, some claims did seem a bit far fetched but those moments were rare, thankfully. It is unlikely that a person reading this book will grasp all of the vast amounts of "memes" covered in the book, so I suggest either reading it at least twice or taking notes.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Stolar.
426 reviews22 followers
January 5, 2022
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 could picture this as a professor teaching a class, complete with some intense explanatory minutia, as well as jokes and asides that relate examples to more common, everyday experiences. It does explain the existence of religion particularly well.
Profile Image for Lecy Beth.
1,083 reviews10 followers
April 15, 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 for my honest review.
Profile Image for Jake Chisausky.
15 reviews1 follower
June 4, 2021
By far the best evolutionary psychology book I have yet encountered! The chapter on memetics is especially thought-provoking.
Profile Image for Yaiza Gómez Mejías.
5 reviews4 followers
April 18, 2022
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.
626 reviews13 followers
November 12, 2022
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 practices.

Stewart-Williams examines a variety of human traits, showing that they are universal to all cultures and often found in other mammals. The inference is that they are more fundamental and therefore likely genetic as opposed to arising through culture.

The main learning from these ideas is that perhaps too much human behaviour is attributed to culture and learning through early life, when may traits may be be a direct result of human evolution. While interesting, the ideas don't seem to lead to any insights or predictions.

The author provides and awkward overview of evolution, culminating in Dawkin's "selfish gene" viewpoint. He notes that natural selection creates an illusion of intelligent design. Evolutionary psychology argues that behavioural traits arise from evolution rather than social pressure. The idea is that the mind is a gene-propagating mechanism represents a rather spectacular break from traditional thinking. Geoffrey Miller argues that many of the traits that most strikingly distinguish our species from other animals are not survival tools but mating ornaments. The concept of evolutionary mismatch posits that that we are essentially the same as our hunter- gatherer forebearers, but modern processes make these drives less suitable. Examples include the over-consumption of sugary foods and the tendency for young males to have a difficult time sitting in a classroom (ADHD).

The author examines the differences between the sexes and the question as to whether they are cultural or genetic. “Everyone knows that men and women are different ... except social scientists .” Male and female animals differ from one another because the things that enhance male fitness don’t always enhance female fitness, causing humans to be sexually dimorphic. Making a new human being is an extremely expensive enterprise - it takes ten-to-thirteen million calories to ferry a human child from birth to nutritional independence.

The author argues that the differences can be seen to be evolved. The tendency for casual sex in men versus committed sex in women, suggests that it is genetic rather than cultural. As Warren Farrell put it men see women as sex objects, whereas women see men as success objects. Men have a preference for good looks. Women consistently rate a mate’s wealth and status as more important than do men. Sex differences in the desire for good looks, wealth, and status in a mate were crafted by natural selection. In most animals, it is the male that is attractive - humans are unusual in this regard.

Sex differences are associated with certain hormones. Testosterone, for example, is linked to a variety of traits found more commonly in males than females, including a high sex drive, aggression , competitiveness, dominance, impulsivity, risk-taking , and status seeking. The same sex differences found in humans are also found in other closely related mammals

The author examines love and long term pairing, starting out with Darwin's list of the pros and cons of marriage. The Westermarck effect is the avoidance of mating with anyone you spent a lot of time with as a child - Chinese sim-pua brides (pairings for marriage while still children) and love between separated siblings illustrate this effect. Jealousy originates in mate guarding. Men tend to be more upset than women about sexual infidelity, whereas women tend to be more upset than men about emotional infidelity. The author's conclusion "In short, it’s not a matter of figuring out which mating pattern is human beings’ natural and ideal one – the one that will finally let us live happily ever after. Instead, it’s a matter of choosing which of the naturally occurring relationship types we prefer, each of which will satisfy some aspects of human nature but not others."

The author asks "How can we explain our undeniable altruistic streak?" William D. Hamilton’s big breakthrough was his kin selection theory, which suggests that an organism may support favour relatives as that has the greatest likelihood of furthering one's genes. Early-life cohabitation is the basis for determining relatedness, but a second idea is to be nice to individuals who are similar to you. Stewart-Williams goes on to consider the issues of cooperation and reciprocal exchange. Group selection is a controversial topic in evolutionary biology – the question of whether selection among groups could ever override selection among individuals. Strangely, early on in the chapter he observes "Admittedly, the fact that a trait is universal doesn’t necessarily mean that it has an evolutionary origin."

In the last chapter, Stewart-Williams considers culture as being made up of a variety of memes that evolve in the same way as do genes. The field is known as Memetics - memes are subject to natural selection , and that selection favors “selfish” memes – memes that, through accident or design, are good at getting themselves replicated and keeping themselves in circulation in the culture. Cultural evolution is the idea that genes and culture co-evolve – that new culture creates novel selection pressures, which leads to biological evolution, which in turn makes possible more new culture. The focus is almost entirely on how cultural products benefit the individual, the group, or both. Memetics, in contrast, focuses on how cultural products benefit the cultural products themselves.

Darwin noted that the analogy between biological evolution and language evolution is surprisingly close. Popper observed that the growth of scientific knowledge is literally an evolutionary process within the realm of ideas. The author suggests that the fact that it’s possible to place these cultural entities on family trees is important, because family trees are a telltale sign that the entities in question arose through a process of descent with modification - in other words, that they evolved. While he describes evolution or change of language, music and others, he fails to show the natural selection that drives fitness.

The idea of cultural group selection involves the retention of group-beneficial memes, rather than group-beneficial genes. The claim is that memes that are good for the group can be selected even when they’re not good for the individuals possessing them. An example is that while polygyny is common in many human societies, societies that insist on monogamous marriage have a number of advantages over those that permit polygyny - less violence, etc. - enabling them to grow faster and be more productive. Cultural group selection may explain how norms of monogamous marriage established themselves in the West. Various scholars, including David Sloan Wilson and Ara Norenzayan, have argued that religions are shaped in large measure by cultural group selection

Dawkins proposed that natural selection operates not just on genes, but on any replicator. First, through cultural competition, memes get better and better at surviving and spreading. Second, given enough time, memes start falling into mutually supportive clusters, known in the trade as memeplexes. This leads to the idea of gene–culture coevolutionary theory. The author uses the example of a milk-drinking meme which created a powerful new selection pressure for the ability to digest lactose throughout the lifespan. While this is a well known example of evolution, it is not clear what the addition of calling Milk drinking a meme adds to story.

According to the cultural intelligence hypothesis, human intelligence evolved in lockstep with our evolving culture - as culture is adaptive. Selection for culture resulted in higher intelligence which demanded more culture, causing a feedback loop. Our gift for language may have started with a cultural mutation, rather than a genetic one. Humans may have evolved over time to be more and more open to religious beliefs and practices. The conclusion is that our talent for culture opened up an entirely new arena for evolution by natural selection.

84 reviews2 followers
November 27, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Jim Razinha.
1,233 reviews61 followers
September 17, 2018
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 business, but sans those notes.

Stewart-Williams explores Darwinism, genetics and sex differences, reproduction, altruism, and cultural influences. (He also includes his takes on how to refute Blank Slaters and Anti-Memeticists in two appendices). I grind my teeth over the sections for which I lost my notes (apologies to the publisher/author - I'm sure other reviewers will be able to synopsize), but trust me that there are wealths of information to be had in there on attractions and preferences, practices, selection, offspring and rearing, monogamy, polyandry and polygyny; altruism and selfishness. And memetics.

Stewart-Williams's analyses are cogent, his arguments sound; he pokes logical holes in prevalent (and past) theories. He supports his theses with facts and induction (with deduction thrown in.) He cautions against the "risk of mistaking elements of one's own culture for aspects of human nature,..."

I mark this as five stars because seldom does a book evoke a paradigm shift in me (It happens, just rarely) and this book did. For twenty some years now, I have been resolved to the position that humans evolved to believe in religions - with exception, of course - and the wake-up here was a smack-in-the-face memetic solution that religions (and God) evolved for the human brain. Finally, something that makes sense to me.

Now, as thoroughly researched and eloquently composed as Mr. Stewart-Williams is in this book, he referenced at least one Disney Nature series myth when trying to make a point in his altruism section: "Like suicidal lemmings..."

I would like to read this again, but in physical form. It does not lend well to electronic reading as i couldn't follow cites easily, or "flip" back and forth between sections as I digested the contents.
Profile Image for Kathryn Patterson.
Author 3 books6 followers
August 2, 2018
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 on to explain humanity, answering the alien's questions.

I found this book to be interesting, in the good sense of the word. I also found that I could not read it as quickly as I read other books. I would cover one section, and then my brain felt full. There is no better metaphor for the sensation. I spent time thinking about what I read, and sometimes I would even reread sections. It was a slow, wonderfully-engaging narrative that made me think about what it means to be human.

I recommend this book to anyone who wonders about who we as a species are, why we exist, and where we might be going.
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