Saturday, June 15, 2024

Review of The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Science
Book Club Event = Book List (10/26/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) The Evolution of Evolution, 2) Why Do People Think Differently?

Watch Short Review


Natural selection, in their view, doesn’t just explain our most basic drives and abilities, or the things we obviously have in common with other animals.  It also helps to explain many things that psychologists traditionally ascribed solely to learning, socialization, and culture.  This includes various sex differences, a range of mate preferences, complex emotions such as love and jealously, and the tendency to favor our relatives over unrelated individuals.” – Steve Stewart-Williams, Chapter 1: The Alien’s Challenge, Page 37

“The concept of natural selection is the single most important tool in our Darwinian toolkit.  And the most important thing to remember about natural selection – a point we’ll come back to again and again – is that natural selection creates an illusion of intelligent design, or what Richard Dawkins calls design without a designer.  Adaptations look as if they were invented by a conscious agent for a particular purpose: hands for grasping; eyes for seeing.  But they weren’t; Darwin stuck a pitchfork in that hypothesis.  The design in nature comes not from a designer but from the mindless accumulation of favorable accidents over vast periods of time.  The only genuine intelligent design found in the biological world comes from us, in the shape of our dogs and cows and other organisms which we’ve deliberately modified via selective breeding.  Beyond that, the apparent intelligent design in nature is a forgery perpetrated by natural selection.  Conscious intentions play no role.” – Steve Stewart-Williams, Chapter 2: Darwin Comes To Mind, Page 44

“We need to distinguish between two modes of selection: selection operating between individuals within a group, and selection operating between groups within a larger population.  Within groups, selfish individuals do better than altruistic ones, just like the free-rider lemmings.  At the same time, though, groups of altruists tend to do better than groups of self-interested individuals; they work together better and burn up fewer resources fighting among themselves.  Thus, within-group selection favors selfishness, whereas between-group selection favors altruism.” – Steve Stewart-Williams, Chapter, Page 60


Is This An Overview?

Evolution effects more than just biology, evolution also effects the mind.  Many social behaviors have evolutionary explanations.  Evolution is the process by which the best genes are able to copy themselves, to propagate the gene pool.  Evolution is about the genes, not the organisms, nor survival of the species.  Evolution is competition within a species, that can enable favorable individual traits which are detrimental to the species.  Evolution captures historic beneficial adaptations, but lacks foresight.  Creating an evolutionary mismatch as behavior that was appropriate in the evolutionary past might not be appropriate within different contexts.


Genes and cultures coevolved.  Genes affected behaviors which formed cultures, while cultures are able to change which genes are selected.  Information within cultures evolve the same way genes do, through the ability to copy themselves.  Cultures enabled and were created by cooperation.  Within a group, selfish individuals do better.  Within a population, altruistic groups do better than selfish groups as altruistic groups waste less resources competing against their own members.  Reciprocal cooperation enables each individual to improve their outcomes, as they are unable to do everything on their own.   Cooperation is a form of competition, as members cooperate due to self-interest.  As the selfless would be exploited by the selfish, self-interest is needed to prevent the self-interest of others.   



This book shows the evolution of evolution, how the idea of evolution changed.  The organizational structure has mixed results.  Part of the organization relies on hypothesis testing, through an evolutionary process.  Showing the hypothesis that fail and why they fail, then the improved hypothesis in the following iteration until an appropriate hypothesis.  Another part of the organization is the use of an alien as an analogy to science, an objective observer.  An objectivity derived through subjectivity.  This book describes various socially sensitive topics, expressing how evolution effects them rather than just culture.  The socially sensitive topics could have been handled more sensitively. 

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is evolution?  What is evolution about and what is evolution not about? 
•What is evolutionary psychology? 
•What does natural selection work on?
•Are adaptations beneficial to the species? 
•Are adaptations beneficial to the individual?
•What is inclusive fitness? 
•Is there intelligent designed? 
•Can a society avoid selfish members?
•Why are there altruistic groups? 
•What is the different between selection operating between individuals in a group, and selection operating between groups within a larger population?
•How did cooperation evolve? 
•Are all genes useful? 
•What would an alien think of humans? 
•What are intercourse differences? 
•Is evolution an accepted idea?
•What prevents people from understanding evolution?
•What is conditioned taste aversion? 
•What is the different between proximate and ultimate explanations? 
•Does every action an organism take meant to propagate genes?
•What is evolutionary mismatch?
•What are typical mammalian sex differences?
•Are humans different in their sex differences than other mammals? 
•What is inbreeding depression?
•What are eusocial species? 
•Why is self-interest part of the culture?
•When to be altruistic? 
•How did evolution of math effect how people think?
•What is the Myth of the Heroic Inventor? 
•How does innovation occur? 
•Why did monogamous norms evolve? 
•How is the birth rate effected by evolution?
•How do cultures evolve? 
•How do genes and culture effect each other? 
•Is behavior that was developed through evolution inevitable? 

Book Details
Foreword Author:   Michael Shermer
Publisher:               Cambridge University Press
Edition ISBN:         9781108776035
Pages to read:          367
Publication:             2019
1st Edition:              2018
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          4
Overall          4