“The Ape that Understood the Universe” – Book Review

Not your mother’s alien scientist’s guide to the human universe. If you were looking for a new book to put on your shelf next to Darwin’s Origin of Species, Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and Harari’s Sapiens (after you’ve read it of course!), you’re in luck: Cambridge University Press has just published the book for you.

The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams (associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus) brings together and nuances key elements of the knowledge humans hold (so far) regarding their own nature, drawing from cornerstone findings in the fields of biology, evolutionary psychology, and cultural evolutionary theory. It’s a neatly crafted introduction that responds to “What are humans most likely all about?”, a question that may at some point inhabit the mind of an alien scientist whose task may be to figure out what this particular type of ape is made of.

This is the starting point for Stewart-Williams’ book. A thought exercise placing our species under the scrutiny of a hypothetical, hyperintelligent alien anthropologist. What would it write back home about us? The human author’s take is that the alien would be pretty baffled and face a rather difficult task clarifying for itself and its species human-related subjects such as sex differences, sexual behavior, child-rearing patterns, social behavior and cultural aspects regarding our religions, language, music, and science.

“Humans are strange fish”, the alien may conclude at some point in the report, but the thing is our evolutionary psychologist did most of the homework for it. If skilled enough, the alien explorer could basically just retrieve this book’s manuscript from Stewart-Williams’ backpack when he’s not looking – I’m not casting any moral fault on the alien species or this specific individual, I’m just thinking that it’s very likely that it would prefer to remain anonymous, but OK, fair enough – or kindly ask to exchange notes with him and it would soon find itself bestowed with robust data, evidence and reason-driven interpretations that will most likely answer some of its most pressing questions about “the strangest animal in the world: the human animal” (author’s words, not mine, I peeked as well).

Entertaining hypothetical context and character aside, The Ape that Understood the Universe is a noteworthy material on what makes us humans or highly functional, highly skilled apes that randomness, selection, and the selfishness of not-yet-thoroughly-understood building blocks pushed into a very privileged position within the animal kingdom.

The six chapters of the book cover the main aspects related to the greatness, strangeness and, at times, contradictory character of human nature, explaining the evolution of our bodies and minds using both biology and culture-generated conceptual frameworks.

Darwinism offers both theoretical guidelines and solid evidence for the human behaviors and traits addressed in the first parts of the book. Taking a Gene’s-eye View to all things biological (A Selfish Gene’s-eye View, to be more precise), Stewart-Williams explains a series of main elements that make us the humans that we are today, evolutionary mismatch and all.

Altruism, mating, sex differences, sexual behavior, laws of (evolved) attraction (sic), gender roles, parental traits, love, jealousy, human groups, violence, our relationships with kin and non-kin, wealth, and status, they are all discussed, analyzed and explained from an evolutionary perspective.

Critical thinking, intelligence, science, culture (cumulative culture especially), conditioned behaviors, language, religion, music, and even business and how technology is shaping biology are also covered.

Dawkins’ meme The Selfish Gene is not the only one highly represented throughout the book. His meme meme is taking center stage in the sixth (and last) chapter of The Ape that Understood the Universe, memetics being used as framework for understanding cultural evolution, the main topic of this book segment. This is by far my favorite chapter. It brings together most of the evidence-based information into one big picture using the gene-meme coevolution perspective to explain the gradual changes reflected in our minds and bodies. 

I liked the fact that Stewart-Williams took a step-by-step critical reasoning approach when guiding readers through the various topics of the book and when presenting the arguments that lead him to specific conclusions about each of them. I found his overall analysis pretty balanced, even though I do not agree with all of his conclusions – However, this is a frequent and mostly healthy occurrence in scientific contexts that deal with big questions such as the nature of the universe, evolution of humans or that of life itself. He does an amazing job providing valid arguments against the Nurture Only perspectives that try to explain main human traits and behaviors from an extreme, blank slate starting point, but at times I would’ve preferred a versus regarding the Nurture Mainly stance, since the selected arguments for the Nurture Only team made the context seem like the big ol’ straw man fallacy when considered for this scientific era. Nonetheless, the specific arguments still add to the knowledge base of human evolution.

Even though The Ape that Understood the Universe covers and offers valid evolutionary explanations for an impressive range of traits that are central to the human nature, I have to mention the big absent: consciousness. I understand the author did not think he had THE answer to what consciousness is all about, but even so, a discussion, a hypothesis, some sort of evolution-guided perspective for one of the most significant aspects of biological entities, including humans, would’ve closed the circle for me when reading the book. There’s one paragraph. Relevant, but it doesn’t make justice to this critical in-built feature humans and many other animals display. Especially since the author chose an argumentative style for the book, leaving this concept out creates the perfect loophole for pseudo-scientific approaches that waste no time throwing good-for-nothing memes about consciousness and related elements into the social environment. And you can’t win the natural selection game if you don’t at least buy a ticket. Content-wise, this is what I think the book lacked.

I also need to mention a style related issue. Even though the overall message of the book is a positive one when it comes to the way we can address gender differences and sex roles from an evolutionary perspective, there are a few things that may make the author and the message come off as sexist. To clarify, it’s not the data. Data is data. Measurements of different traits may favor one gender or the other, but they are not to be interpreted as “better than” or considered in good/bad terms. These are differences and most of us know already there’s no point in comparing apples to oranges, so I am not bothered by these sets of data. However, some of the comments and examples are definitely sexist. I will not provide any sort of examples here since a) I read an advance copy of the book and the segments, especially since they were out of sync with the rest of the text, may have been removed from the final version of the book and b) the purpose of this article is to review, not to extensively comment on tiny fragments of text. To conclude here, I do not believe that it was the intention of the author to project such a message, nor the publisher’s, and it is definitely not the main feel of the book. I do however hope they were edited out in the final version, because the public response to the otherwise extremely documented and balanced text may be skewed by these random elements.

This being said, The Ape that Understood the Universe is a great introduction to the evolutionary perspective regarding human nature and is a good example of meme evolution – it draws from the work of giants in the fields of biology and evolutionary psychology and it adds to that body of work a significant amount of information and evidence to help human knowledge move forward. It’s fit for a general audience and at the same time provides great arguments for the relevance and validity of the field itself. When reading the book, you can definitely tell Stewart-Williams is in love with his field. It’s refreshing and reassuring to know that domains so important to our base of knowledge, such as evolutionary psychology, benefit from this level of interest and passion for one’s work. The two appendixes of the book, “How to Win an Argument with a Blank Slater” and “How to Win an Argument with an Anti-Memeticist” provide further proof that the author has made defending his field an important part of his professional life. And that’s great, because he has the arguments for it. (By the way, if you’ve read Michael Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things”, you’ll love the structure and feel of these book segments).

In conclusion, I highly recommend The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams to both alien and human readers. I am however aware of the dangers of recommending the book to the first category: reading all about the “dating, mating, baby-making” habits of humans may result in crop field messages changing from geometric patterns to “TMI”. Risk worth taking.

The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve is available in Kindle and Hardcover formats starting September 13, 2018. You can Look Inside or buy the book here:


P.S. This is not a commercial endorsement deal. I get no commission from the sales of this book. A representative of Cambridge University Press invited me to read and honestly review the book for Psychology Corner. My review is based on an advance copy of the book.

Photo Source: Copyright (C) Cambridge University Press. Used with publisher’s permission.

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