The Ape that Understood the Universe

The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve  - Steve Stewart-Williams

[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.