52 Good Books

Book Review 49 – The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

Who are you? Why do you do the things you do? Why do the people around you behave as they do? If you’re interested in the answers to these questions (and quite honestly, who isn’t?!) then The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams is a great place to start mulling over a few ideas.

This book, like the last one I reviewed was one that I requested from the book reviewer site Netgalley, and was approved to get an ARC (advanced reader copy) from the publisher Cambridge University Press in return for an honest review of the book.

So let me start by saying that The Ape that Understood the Universe is utterly fascinating. It provides answers for a whole host of questions that we have relating to human behaviour. Why are men more sexually motivated? Why is youthfulness in women seen as more desirable than in men? What is the interplay between the tendencies that evolution has instilled in us and those that are socially learned? And, crucially, how does culture tie into our evolution?

Stewart-Williams is a proponent of evolutionary psychology. This is a field that he admits is highly contentious. Scientists have not been keen to put down human behaviours to our genetics, instead favouring socio-political arguments for their sources. This book also proposes the hypothesis of cultural evolution. Whereby the way we live affects how we develop. Take milk drinking for example. We didn’t have the enzyme to digest milk, but years of dairy farming have encouraged this enzyme to develop in our bodies.

For a lot of this book it felt as though Stewart-Williams was trying very hard to argue his point, but herein lies the problem; it felt like he was doing too much arguing. He was constantly trying to provide the rationale for his theories. It all even made a certain amount of sense, but this made me wonder that if everything is as straightforward as he is suggesting then why is his field so contentious? It made the book feel too one sided and I was curious as to what the opponents of his theory would say. There was also a lot of repetition, within and across chapters. Partly this was because some of the same issues keep cropping up no matter what facet of human nature you dissect.

But don’t let any of my grumbling put you off this firecracker of a book! The Ape that Understood the Universe contained some of the most interesting insights I have read in a long time. At its heart this book has the aim to understand ourselves better as a species and why we have developed the way we have. There are some crucial questions about human psychology and development here.

On one level this book made quite depressing reading. It reinforced the gender stereotypes that we live with, citing evolution as the cause behind them. It reduces us down to the level of brainy animals. So we can philosophise and create flying aeroplanes and the like, but we’re still animals with certain inbuilt reflexes that we can’t get rid of, even if we want to. Where’s the hope?!

However The Ape that Understood the Universe was also extremely empowering. Stewart-Williams points out the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us. All of the knowledge that humankind has amassed painstakingly over our existence is now available to us so that we can built rockets and computers. It makes me wonder where humans will be 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years from now. Irritatingly, none of us will be around to see it, but our species will go on; gathering together more and more information, morphing further and further from where we started. It is awe-inspiring to think about where we have come from, where we have got to and where we might be going. If you want to join in with that thought, then this is the book for you.

Come back and see me next Monday, I’ll be reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. I have a feeling this might be a controversial one…

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