The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams an exploration of evolutionary psychology. Stewart-Williams argues for and explains throughout the book how both human minds and culture evolved based upon the principles of natural selection. The author is an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham University Malaysia Campus. He is originally from New Zealand. He is active on Twitter where I find his Tweets thoughtful and enlightening. This was first published in 2018.
This book presents the argument that both human nature and human culture evolved over time. Genes tended to drive human nature and something called memes drive culture. Both genes and memes tend to spread and are more successful when they lead to behavior that promotes their own survival and propagation.
Early on, author talks about the various schools of thought that object to these ideas. There are some who object based upon the fact that they do not accept evolution. Others, often associated with the left, dislike these ideas because these ideas tend to contradict a blank slate approach to human behavior. That is, they attribute almost all aspects of human behavior to culture and do not believe that any behavioral tendencies are innate.
The book digs into things like evolution, genes and heredity fairly deeply. Various human and animal behaviors are examined. So many different behaviors and emotions are covered in this book that it is difficult to write a comprehensive summery of it all. I will try to concentrate on just a few key themes.
An important point here is that genes tend to reproduce and become more commonplace when they encourage the organism to behave in ways that propagate the gene. Thus, genes that lead an organism to be fitter and more likely to survive and reproduce are often successful. But sometimes this work differently. Sometimes genes drive organisms to behave in ways that encourage the spread of the particular gene, even if the behavior is detrimental to an organism’s survival. For instance, human parents often try to protect children, even this behavior risks their own life. Human genes are at the root of this behavior because half of a child’s genes come from one particular parent, so saving a child’s life probably will lead to the spread of these genes. As the book points out, tendencies like parents protecting children are not beneficial to the individual exhibiting them in terms of survival. However, they are beneficial to the gene that encourages such behavior.
The author concludes at one point,
Evolution is about the survival of the fittest genes. Genes are selected if they get themselves copied faster than rival alleles. Adaptations are designed to pass on the genes giving rise to them. And organisms are not survival machines, baby-making machines, grandchild-making machines, or even inclusive fitness machines. Organisms – from worms to groundhogs to humans – are gene machines: biomachines designed to propagate their hereditary material.
Many behaviors and characteristics that people and animals engage in are for the benefit of attracting partners. This has driven both physical characteristics as well as behavior. The peacock’s tail is one of the most flamboyant examples in the natural world. In people, this manifests itself in all sorts of complex ways that are explored in this book. Many of the things that attract people to those of the opposite sex are the result of natural selection. For instance, both men and women look for traits in partners that indicate health.
Another trait that will benefit he propagation of genes is caring for children. The author points out that in comparison to most other species, human children need a lot of care, time and resources. Thus, humans are one of the species where males devote significant time and effort towards childcare. This is because, even if a male has lots of children, his genes will not be passed on if his children do not survive and thrive. In species where the care of young is less resource dependent then it is in humans, males are less likely to be involved in child care.
Attraction, caring for children and protecting family members are only some of behaviors that this book goes into. Many other attributes relating to sex, relationships, jealousy, aggression, cooperation, altruism, to name just a few, are explored.
The later part of the book examines the theory of memetics, that is, the contention that memes evolve based upon the rules of natural selection. What is a meme? Memes include ideas and creative works, but they are more than just those things. The author writes,
memes aren’t just ideas. They’re anything that can be passed on socially, including mannerisms, rituals, and practices.
The author argues that while not entirely identical to genes, memes also evolve in ways that promote themselves. Furthermore, as human culture became more sophisticated, genes and memes began to in influence and shape one another.
Stewart-Williams sometimes goes off in directions where he speculates a lot. When he does so he clearly indicates that he is doing so. This is one of the book’s many strong points.
Science writer Michael Shermer wrote the forward to this book. He points out something that Stewart-Williams does that is very intellectually honest and helps improve the level of inquiry and debate. That is, throughout the book the author steel - mans the augments of people who disagree with his premises. Steel - manning is the opposite of straw manning. Steel- manning means that the best augments of people that one disagrees with are presented in honest ways. This is done throughout the book. This is so well done that at times I was almost convinced of the counter argument presented.
One thing that surprised me about his book is that a lot of it is lively and humorous. The author creates entertaining thought experiments. For instance, throughout the book, the text goes back to a thought experiment where an imagined alien intelligence observing human behavior becomes very puzzled by that behavior. This is presented in a light but informative way. The book is also punctuated by humor. I found that this kept things fun and entertaining despite the importance of this subject.
I believe that this book provides is an accurate description of humanity and how we got to where we are. In our age many are challenging these premises. Stewart-Williams provides a reasoned and spirited defense in response to these criticisms. The book was also educational. It seems meticulously researched and as per above, it was very fair. I highly recommend this to those interested in psychology, humanity, evolution and science in general.
Sounds interesting. But a strict genetic or even memetic determinism can be misused in the wrong hands as a tool of oppression. For example, the historic oppression of women as being capable of nothing more than being "baby-making machines." As the old feminist slogan says, "Biology is not destiny" and a society that promotes otherwise is not to be trusted.
Fascinating and you explain it very well. The science of genes has always been a mystery to me. I think I understand memes better if by memes we mean ideas, culture civilization, rituals and how over time that may influence human nature and begin to influence genes. I think we see an example of how memes can affect genes in the animal kingdom. Dogs for example relate to people in a way other animals don't and I think its due to their close contact with humans the rituals of humans and their environment for centuries. Maybe this is an example of memes eventually affecting genes in dogs?
Wow, Brian, this book sounds great to me. I am always thinking about how we got to where we are in this world. Funny that you mention thought experiments. I love those. Thanks for your review because I had not heard of the book before.
Hi Debra - Stewart-Williams does address this issue in the book. Without a doubt, tendencies brought about by genes have been misused by illiberal forces in the past. However, that does not change what is real. Perhaps more importantly, the enlightened approach is to never stereotype individuals, but to acknowledge the science. Apply genetic based Determinism of individuals is very unscientific and illiberal.
Hi Kathy - Genes and evolution can be tricky. Some of this stuff seems counterintuitive.
I think that you are correct about dogs, memes and genes.
great post i was going to say that environmental factors also govern gene survival, but then i saw you covered that... this is a subject i've given a lot of thought to, so i have to read this book... tx a bunch for a most informative presentation...
Hi Judy - Why the world is like it is, is one of the most fascinating things to think about.
Thought experiments really liven up writing and conversation.
Thanks Muddpuddle The interplay between genes and environment is fascinating.
Though I have problems with his abrasive style over the past decade or so, Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is also a good book for this sort of stuff. It was written before Dawkins became so harsh.
Really excellent review. That's an interesting term, "steel man". I appreciate someone who can honestly provide the arguments of the other side. It increases his credibility, in his attempts to be as objective and honest as he can.
Of course, you know I don't believe in evolution. It doesn't explain how something comes from nothing or how we know something is good or evil. It's on thing to say evolution produced it as a survival skill. It's another thing to prove it.
Thanks for a great review. I always look forward to them.
Yes it is a great book, one of the best in EP field. However when you/he say (...)" memes aren’t just ideas. They’re anything that can be passed on socially, including mannerisms, rituals, and practices" I really can't agree for a simple reason: all this are ideas. Without ideas there will no be mannerisms, rituals or practices. Memes are really ideas, first of all.
All the best.
Thanks Sharon. Steel Manning is a very worthy way to argue.
I thunk that our concept of good and evil did evolve. But I also think that they are worthy and valid concepts.
Thanks for the good word Paulo and thanks for stopping by. I agree that memes are usually ideas. But I am not sure that all mannerism or speech pattens are ideas. Perhaps cognitive processes is a better term.
The purpose of any individual is to contribute to the survival of its species.
Thanks for the link Ron. Interesting musings.
This sounds like a good read! I'm always interested in books that take the ideas of memes seriously, rather than just using them a shorthand for 'funny graphics'.
This is an intelligent and enticing book, from your review.
..."very intellectually honest and helps improve the level of inquiry and debate."
Those words alone may sum up so much. Humor, honesty..Can't beat that.
Hi Stephen - There really is not enough stuff out there on memes. The book does delve into the fact that there is not enough research being done out there.
Hi Susan - Yes, it is put together as an honest enquiry into the truth.
This subject really sounds interesting! I'm glad it's presented with humor as well. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph!
Fascinating stuff. Your excellent review really gives me a sense of this book which sounds like a very worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subject as, in fact, I am.
Thanks Dorothy. I think that you should like this.
I read somewhere that human children need a lot of care because of the way they come out of their mothers; the head can’t be too big, obviously. Other mammals, of course, do need care, but they can walk almost as soon as they’re born.
The “nature vs nurture “ debate has been around for a very long time. Societies with aristocracy tend to believe in nature - that’s no doubt why there is so much fiction about the long lost heir to the throne being special, even when brought up by peasants, a natural leader. Shakespeare’s Perdita(The Winter’s Tale), brought up by shepherds, is obviously a princess! A dubious idea, in my opinion. Too much intermarriage between cousins in Europe over the centuries led to inbred families who were much better off when they started marrying commoners.
Hi Sue - The head size thing might be related to why human children need to much care. I also think that it relates to intelligence.
The nature verses nurture thing is indeed old. Everything that I read from reputable sources indicates that there is now firm evidence that it is 50/50. There are however many who, driven by ideology, attribute everything to culture.
This book actually delves into the incest taboo. Every culture in the world has it and it is clear that it is also driven by our genes and it is for survival purposes to lessen the chance of birth defects. It turns out that many animals and even some plants have it.
this incredibly powerful ,intriguing and fascinating commentary dear Brain !
please accept deepest thanks from me as it is one the most favorite topic
t me as i am thoroughly attracted by how nature works through her all creations including us
i strongly believe that if we human will stick to rules nature has for us from the beginning ,in order to be modern and complex we are breaking her rules quickly and it is only our own loss because by doing so may be we can achieve all we desire but we will loose that simplicity and beauty of life that is required for peaceful healthy existence
no doubt i will read this book sooner or later as it is unavoidable indeed
this is wise to keep it light as text can be heavy for some readers
your review is splendid and i read it twice to feel it's magic
a wonderful job my friend!
Thanks so much Baili.
I am more positive about modern society. I think that in our natural state humans are more violent and generally less fair and egalitarian. Either way, it is good to know where we came from.
Thanks for sharing a most interesting commentary on what sounds like a fascinating book. I was reminded of Dawkin's The Selfish Gene while reading your review. I'll put this on my tbr list.
It seems I can accept that human nature and human culture have evolved over time ... if one believes the evolution of genes then it seems to make sense. You explained the book well .... for us slower to grasping scientific arguments .... sometimes I have to read the material through a couple times to understand fully. Does Richard Dawkins make these same points?
Thanks James. In many ways this takes Dawkins’s ideas and develops them further.
Hi Sue - This book develops Dawkins’s ideas further. It makes a lot of references to Dawkins. This book also is centered on humans where Dawkins covered all of biology.
As difficult science books go, this was in the easier side of things.
Thank you once again for a well thought out commentary on what sounds like an interesting book. That it actually delves into the incest taboo doesn't somehow surprise me.
Thanks Felicity. It turns out that many of our aversions and taboos have evolutionary origins.
Such A Deep Topic And Adding Humor - Way Cool - So Nice Knowing S.Williams Did Some Research To Provide An Accurate Partial Of Time And Space - Evolve On Brother Man
Great review as usual!! I will be adding this title to my ever growing reading wishlist... If I'd seen The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams at a bookstore, I would have probably not looked at it too closely, but your review of this book makes me want to read it.
Sounds good. I may read it.
Hi Padre - Serious science and humor is a great combination.
Thanks Captivated Reader. If you read this I would be curious as to what you thought of it.
Steel-manning, I’ve never heard of that before. I don’t think it’s a common trait, unfortunately!
Hi Carol - Steel manning seems to be fairly rare. But when I think about it, when I was taught to write essays way back in school, I was taught to steel man counter arguments. The word was not used back then but in actuality that is what is was.
This sounds interesting and it's good that the author presents some of it with humor.
Hi Naida - Humor really enhances a book like this.
What a catchy title. I like the idea of the play-off between genes and memes too. I instantly thought of what we now know as social media memes too, and can sort of see how this more formal idea of memes led to them. Sounds like an intriguing book.
Maybe that’s why you are able to be more objective when you write reviews, Brian. It’s a shame it’s not a skill that seems to be taught now.
Hi Paula - I think that social media memes, which on one level are different from memes, are actually memes. If that makes sense. Either way, I think social media is speeding up the evolution of memes.
It is a great title.
I am sure this book will be an interesting reading. Books containing psychological elements have always been my interest to read them.
Thank you for your interesting book review.
Regards from Indonesia.
Hi Himawan - If you read it I would love to know what you thought about it.
Sounds like a fascinating book. I appreciate your review of it. Is this akin to the old nature/nurture argument?
Hi Belle - This is definitely stringy related to the old nature/ nurture debate. Scientists like Stewart - Williams contend that we are a mix of nature/ nurture
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