Review | The Ape that Understood the Universe

G.T. Dempsey


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Steve Stewart-Williams The Ape that Understood the Universe:  How the Mind and Culture Evolve (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. xii, 368  ISBN: 9781108425049

This is an engaging, intriguing, and ultimately most satisfying look into what the human mind can do and how it got that way.  Like all animals, we human beings have come to where we are through natural selection, body and mind.  On the latter, the normative difference between us and the other animals is that our culture is cumulative.   Ten thousand or so years ago, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture was using twigs to extract termites from termite mounds; today, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture is using twigs to extract termites from termite mounds, while we humans have progressed from Stone Age technology to Space Age technology.   The author, a university professor of psychology, is not claiming that this cultural evolution results from natural selection operating on genes, but, rather, it results from natural selection operating on memes: ‘ideas, beliefs, practices, tools, and anything else that gets passed on via social interaction.’  He believes that we may be at a unique moment in human history where it would be possible, for the first time ever, to sketch out an explanation for human behavior and human culture, both accurate and satisfying.

Evolutionary psychology represents a profound shift in our view of ourselves and the wellsprings of our behavior. To explain why we differ from other animals – for example, why do men share in child-rearing when in most species the male doesn’t – we need to penetrate past the familiarity of our behavior. We need to see ourselves with defining objectivity.  To do so, the author posits as his investigating anthropologist an alien.  A Betelgeusean, to be precise, who is gender-neutral, asexual, asocial, amoral, areligious, and amusical.  Utterly un-human, in short.  We are then given his report to the Great Galactic Council, eight pages of devastating observations, which make for hilarious but sobering reading.  For example, on our love of art and music, ‘Many humans while away the hours making or staring at colored splodges on canvas or cave walls…many deliberately hypnotize themselves with rhythmically patterned noises which evoke strong emotional responses in humans and produce weird side effects such as foot-tapping, head bobbing, and even full-body rhythmical spasms.’  Think about it.

Over six chapters and two appendices (the second a romp through the world of the meme, as enjoyable as it is illuminating), we are led through the search for how we humans evolved the capacity for a culture increasingly capable of reshaping our planet.  In successive chapters, we revisit Darwin, we examine love and mating and dating and baby-making, we consider our self-sacrificing altruism, and, crucially, we gaze upon ‘the cultural animal.’  The basic constituents of the human mind are shown to be crafted by natural selection, which itself is shown to be one of the great ideas of science, on a par with such as universal gravitation or plate tectonics.

It was the year 1838 in which Charles Darwin became ‘the first life form in the history of the planet to understand how life had come to exist.  We exist because we evolve.’  It’s not that Darwin and all the evolutionary scientists to follow claim that evolutionary theory explains how matter came to be conscious, for it doesn’t, but natural selection, completely mindless though it is, without foresight or understanding, ‘has given rise to creatures that have minds, that have foresight, and that have some basic understanding of the universe of which they’re a part.’  We have lasted.  And not just by accident.  The author illustrates this evolutionary success story, comprehensively and from first principles, with examples from Breton boat design to Teddy bears to business and science.  Opposing arguments are laid out, fairly, and shown why they don’t hold up, objectively. Common sense, illuminating insights, witty asides (and more than a few actually funny jokes), this is a model of scientific argumentation, for the common reader and the scientist alike.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game. But one thing is certain. Increasingly, over time, the answers to the questions we face – questions of our very survival as humans – more and more fall into our own hands.  When we humans first slipped into existence from the womb of our apish ancestors, we were at the mercy of the non-human world, the weather, predators, famine and disease, like any other animal.  Today, after thousands of years of accelerating cultural evolution, the non-human world is largely at our mercy and we have the power to direct not only our own evolution but the evolution of all other life on this planet.  An awesome responsibility.  One we’ll see if we live up to.  Or not.  The author doesn’t give us the opinion on this of our Betelgeusean visitor.

A review copy of this book was received. 

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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