The Ape That Understood the Universe – Steve Stewart-Williams

Summary:

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!

Approach:

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 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.

Overall:

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

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to NetGalley and the author for a free copy of the book, in return for an unbiased review.

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