Book Review: ‘The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve’ by Steve Stewart-Williams (Part 1)

4/5 stars

Overview: A fascinating analysis of how evolution may have shaped the behaviour of humans and animals. I felt that the book was more favourable towards women though.

This is one of the few ‘first-hand’ books I’ve read about evolution and evolutionary psychology. Most of my knowledge of this subject has been from ‘second-hand’ sources, i. e., people outside the field writing about the findings of those who study evolution. The author, Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams, is a psychologist at the Malaysia site of the University of Nottingham. I first became aware of him whilst following Jordan Peterson on Twitter as Dr. Peterson has retweeted some of Stewart-Williams’ posts often about human sex differences. As I’m interested in men’s issues and anything to do with the sexes in general, I decided to buy his book to see what he had to say about the nature of men and women but also to broaden my knowledge of evolution.

The book has been widely praised by prominent figures in the field of evolutionary psychology such as Geoffrey Miller, David Buss, Helen Fisher and Matt Ridley along with Michael Shermer who wrote the foreword to the book. Shermer is the author of the book The Moral Arc which appears to have a similar theme to Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature as both books claim that societies are becoming progressively less violent and more rational and cooperative. While this claim is very debatable, I found what Shermer wrote in his foreword to be very sensible in terms of how people should think about societies and scientific enquiry.


Shermer compares creationists – people who deny and/or criticise evolution – with what he labels ‘cognitive creationists’ which battle over “the nature of human nature”. Cognitive creationists are those who believe “evolution only applies from the neck down”. Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions and Pinker’s The Blank Slate are cited as offering the ‘tragic’ or ‘realistic’ vision of human nature and reality as opposed to the ‘unconstrained’ and ‘utopian’ vision put forward by cognitive creationists. Michael Shermer promotes a ‘realistic vision’ whist states that human nature is constrained by biology and evolutionary history. The goal of political systems when taking this vision into account is to promote positive incentives over negative ones. Shermer essentially argues for a conservative/social democratic political philosophy:

“family, custom, law and traditional institutions should be the primary source of social harmony with government as a back-up alternative.”

Shermer, however, also takes a centrist position by comparing “conservative creationism” – i.e. promoting intelligent design theory and anti-evolution – with the post-modernism of academia – “the Far-left, regressive left, Alt-left” although he concedes that the latter is far more widespread. The centrist viewpoint is made more apparent by Shermer’s argument that adopting his realistic vision of human nature could help heal the widening political divisions in Western countries. I think this could be naively optimistic though because facts can always be presented in such a way as to serve whatever narrative post-modernists (and others) are promoting. Despite Ben Shapiro’s famous remark that “facts don’t care about feelings”, others have pointed out that feelings often  don’t care about facts.

Chapter 1: Humans from an alien’s point of view

Steve Stewart-Williams introduces his book by imagining how humans would appear to an outsider, specifically “an alien from Betelgeuse III” which is “gender-neutral, asexual, apolitical,” etc. This theoretical alien observes humans then presents its findings in a report to its fellow extra-terrestrial colleagues.

In its analysis, the alien takes a similar view to the singer Bjork in her song ‘Human Behaviour’: “if you ever get close to a human, and human behaviour, be ready be ready to get confused…” Unusual human characteristics are noted such as knowingly eating unhealthy food which to the alien is akin to “having an appetite for poison” to humans being afraid of animals such as snakes and spiders despite rarely encountering them.  Another trait that confuses the alien is humans using contraceptives during sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy or “blocking their own fertility” as the alien describes it. The rest of the book after the alien’s report essentially describes the biological and cultural influences behind the observations that baffled the alien.

The alien also reports on human sex differences and wonders why some humans find them upsetting – a reference to the ‘blank slate’ vision of human nature prominent in certain progressive circles. Although, like Stewart-Williams, I don’t believe in the blank slate vision, I did find some issues with how he describes sex differences in this book. It could well be my own bias coming through, but I did roll my eyes a little at the way men and women are described in the alien’s report:

“the larger ones (males) tend to be more aggressive, more sexually reckless, and more willing to take life-threatening risks. The smaller ones (females) tend to be more selective about their sexual partners, more involved in childcare, and somewhat longer lived.”

While the differences described are valid, it does seem that women come across in a more favourable light than men. This is a pattern seen throughout the book which is overall my main criticism of it. Dr. Stewart-Williams even notes in the third chapter which explores sex differences:

“if the new theories painted an unflattering picture of either sex, it wasn’t women. As we’ll soon see, evolutionary psychologists argue that men are naturally more violent than women, more prone to infidelity and more prone to taking stupid, life-threatening risks.”

This should be music to feminists’ ears! Again, there is nothing necessarily incorrect about what is stated here, but to me the claim begs the question whether we would even be allowed to have an unflattering view of women. A big problem when talking about sex differences at present is that people have no fear of being negative or critical about men (nor should they) but are, conversely, reluctant to portray women in a negative light out of fear of being labelled sexist or misogynistic. While talking about sex differences might be controversial, having an unflattering view of men certainly isn’t.

If an objective alien did in fact arrive from another planet to observe men and women, it may draw more politically incorrect conclusions than the ones presented in this book. Imagine, for example, if the alien stated the following:

“The males appear to be less emotional and more independent. They also produce more exceptional individuals, both good and bad. The females, on the other hand, seem more emotional and dependent, and overall produce less exceptionally good or bad individuals.”

Had Steve Stewart-Williams written something along these lines, his book would have been far more provocative and controversial. To be fair, he has done research on pro-female bias: one of his studies suggested that people are generally more upset about differences that are favourable towards men than women which is explored in this article. Also, considering that sex differences are only one topic of many covered, I perhaps shouldn’t be too harsh about the book overall. That being said, I’ll return to this point a little bit later on.

With that little rant out of the way, I’ll return to the alien’s report. Stewart-Williams writes some rather lame jokes in the report which gives it a feel of a children’s science book. In fact, it reminded me of a children’s TV show I watched as a kid called Dr. Xargle (pronounced ‘zar-gull’) about an alien teacher who educates his pupils about human beings and planet Earth. An example of this is the alien writing “on the other tentacle…” – get it? The alien doesn’t have hands, but tentacles instead, because it’s an alien – LOL! It’s no doubt intended to make the book less dry and more light-hearted so I suppose I’m being a little harsh.

After presenting the alien’s report, Stewart-Williams explores how humans have evolved over time and produced the strange and sometimes contradictory behaviour that perplexed the alien anthropologist. The complexities of human beings are stated to be due to the evolution over time of both genes and culture. Richard Dawkins famously coined the word ‘meme’ to describe ideas, cultural practices, customs and traditions that spread and have passed from generation to generation like genes. The word of course is now more commonly used in relation to the internet. Daniel Dennett has additionally argued that humans are ‘gene-meme hybrids’.

Chapter 2: The nature and function of evolution

The second chapter goes further into the nature and function of evolution and what the author considers to be common misconceptions about it. One of those is the idea that evolution is about ‘survival of the fittest organisms’ or a violent struggle for dominance. Stewart-Williams insteads argues that evolution  is about ‘reproduction of the fittest’ and nature is ‘an orgy, not a bloodbath’. Sex organs are not designed for survival but for reproduction and one sex – typically the female – can choose to mate with the opposite sex depending on certain traits it may possess:

“the mind of one sex can help shape the body of the other.”

The peacock’s tail is described as a sex organ designed to attract females – it is compared to a Cuban cigar or some other indication of high status – even though it may hinder the peacock’s survival due to it advertising to predators or slowing it down.

[As an aside, while this is a common interpretation of the peacock’s tail, I’ve found an interesting, alternative theory about its function which differs to what is presented in this book. I’m planning on writing about it at some point in the future.]

Several definitions of evolution are put forward and explored until the author hones in on what he and other evolutionary psychologists believe to be the true definition of evolution: the survival of the fittest genes. Genes that survive and replicate across time are more successful or ‘fitter’ than genes that don’t. This explanation follows the ‘gene’s eye’ view of evolution put forward by William D. Hamilton and explored in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. This is said to explain why organisms such as ants will sacrifice themselves for other ants in their colony as collectively they are all siblings and share the same group of genes. Even though the sacrificed ant is being selfless, its genes are acting ‘selfishly’ in order to aid their own survival.

Although genes have no thoughts or motivations, they act as if they want to be replicated and spread regardless of how this affects the organism that possesses them. I quite liked the quote that “a chicken is an egg’s way of creating other eggs” as a way to illustrate this point. Like most theories, the gene’s eye view of evolution has its detractors such as the biologist E. O. Wilson but I think it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

Also explored here is how the mind and evolution are interconnected. The mind, according to Stewart-Williams, is “a mechanism designed to propagate its owner’s genes”. Fear, lust and other emotions and desires effectively act like spikes and shells in their function of protecting and sustaining an organism.

Some other interesting points made in this chapter include:

  • Human evolution may be accelerating due to technological advances as our culture is in a constant state of flux. Biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, however, believed that evolution had ground to a halt because the unstable and unpredictable environment we evolved from has largely disappeared.
  • ‘Evolutionary mismatch’ explains why we enjoy food we know is bad for us – like sweets and candy or “human-made superfruit” – as we never evolved in an environment where abundant amounts of very sweet food existed.
  • There are also ‘mismatch diseases’. For example, breast cancer is more common now because women spend less time pregnant or breast-feeding in their reproductive years and so have more menstrual cycles. This leads to more fluctuations in their hormones which can lead to cancer. Women are also now more likely to get post-partum depression as they are less likely to live near close relatives.
  • Some behaviours are by-products of adaptations or ‘spandrels’ which have no apparent function. One example is thumb-sucking – apparently also seen in elephants sucking their trunks – which is a by-product of suckling for milk. Other examples are the male nipple and, possibly and perhaps to the chagrin of feminists, the female orgasm.

Chapter 3: Sex differences in animals and humans

As mentioned before, Chapter 3 of the book explores differences between the sexes. This section of the book is what got me interested in reading it in the first place and, like I said, where I had some disagreements with the author. The controversy surrounding sex differences is noted, particularly within the social sciences, and common sex differences observed between humans and animals are also noted. Some of the most common are:

  • Males are generally larger than females. The difference in size varies among animals. For instance, male elephant seals and gorillas are much larger than their respective females. In humans, the size difference is not as striking. In many birds the sexes are roughly the same size – also called ‘sexual monomorphism’
  • Males have a higher sex drive and a greater desire for multiple sexual partners. The book describes the famous experiment whereby young men and women were approached by somebody of the opposite sex and asked if they wanted to go out with them and if they wanted to go to bed with them. Most of the young men said yes while none of the women did. Females are choosier than males.
  • Males are more ornamented than females and have more ‘built-in weapons’ – peacock’s tail, deer’s antlers, lion’s mane, narwhal’s horn, etc.
  • Males typically ‘pay’ for sex – “intercourse is often presented as a resource that women possess and men pursue.” Most prostitutes are women with male clientele whereas the opposite is far more rare. Pornography is consumed by more men than women.
  • Males are more aggressive and fight more. Men are more violent – at least physically – than women.
  • Females grow up faster than males – ‘sexual bimaturism’. In contrast to the greater size of male elephant seals and gorillas, the females reach reproductive maturity several years before them. Females also tend to live longer.
  • Females do most of the caring of the young. Male involvement in care across species is far more variable. This is reflected in children: girls tend to play with dolls whereas boys engage in rough and tumble play.

I have no issues here as many of these differences can be clearly seen in both humans and animals. After laying out these differences, Stewart-Williams explores the biology behind them.

Robert Trivers’ parental investment theory is described which states that the sex that invests more in their offspring is more selective in choosing a mate. In most cases, this will be the females. This difference stems from the distinctive sex cells possessed by males and females. Males produce the smaller sex cells, sperm, whilst women produce the large ones, eggs, and to a lesser degree.  This affects the number of offspring an individual male or female can potentially have.

Some men have fathered hundreds of children whereas the most children a woman has given birth to is 69 – this was a Russian peasant called Valentina Vassilyev. Stewart-Williams believes this has led to what he and his colleague Andrew Thomas call the ‘males compete/females choose’ pattern or MCFC. In some species there is a reversal – FCMC or ‘females compete/males choose’ such as in Gulf pipefish and ‘Jesus’ birds but the males in these species invest more in offspring than the females. Therefore, the differences in behaviour between the sexes can be best understood if we take into account these size disparities in sex cells. These size differences in sex cells are interestingly reflected in the size differences of spiders.

Also discussed is what men and women find attractive in the opposite sex. For men, it is youth and beauty and for women it is wealth and high status. Reinforcing this is the fact men are more visually stimulated than women are – e.g. pornography. Similarly, females of other species also prefer males that can provide food, resources, living space etc. To quote Stewart-Williams:

“men and women, in effect, selectively breed each other for the traits they most want in a partner.”

The author goes on to explore the prevalence of violence amongst men compared to women. In humans, men commit 90% of murders and are around 70% of murder victims, a phenomenon also seen among chimpanzees. This is especially concentrated within younger men leading to Margo Wilson and Martin Daly coining the term ‘young male syndrome’. This difference between the sexes is explained by the fact that violence pays off more for males than for females. In the animal kingdom, for example, elephant seals can obtain a harem of females by fighting off other males which can be seen in other species too.

The science and reasoning behind this is sound but it is in this section that I have some disagreements with Dr. Stewart-Williams. He notes that men get harsher sentences than women for the same crime but seems to suggest this is because men are more violent rather than possible favouritism towards women. There’s no denying that males are generally more violent than females in both humans and animals but for me this is where sex differences get a little bit more complicated. The author writes:

“the behavioral geneticist David Lykken summed up the situation well when he observed that, if we could cryogenically freeze all the males in this age bracket (MM: adolescents, young men) we would instantly eliminate most of the crime and violence that plagues human societies.”

True, but it could be argued that we would lose a lot of innovation and creativity as well. Notice how similar this quote is to current ideas about ‘toxic masculinity’. Increasingly, men are seen as a ‘problem’ that societies need to ‘fix’ in some way. One solution presumably is to make men more like women. What is rarely discussed, however, is how women relate to male violence, unless they are on the receiving end of it.

It has already been pointed out that women are attracted to men with wealth and high status. How could men achieve both these things, especially in the past? Through violence of course. This suggests that women, particularly younger ones, may have some attraction to men who behave violently, which explains some of men’s behaviour as a result. This is not to shift the blame of male violence onto women or trivialise female victims of it, but just to show that neither sex lives in a vacuum. Women being less violent does not necessarily mean they are ‘more peaceful’. If male violence needs to be controlled then certain features of female behaviour need to be controlled as well. As you can imagine, this is not something that is suggested in this book!

Stewart-Williams ends the chapter by stating:

“To the extent that men are naturally inclined towards violence, for instance, we should aim to dampen this male-typical behaviour, thereby reducing the size of the sex difference in violence.”

Are there any female-typical behaviours that need to be dampened? If so, what? The reader is left to think about that themselves – or not. I’ve suggested one thing that could be discouraged at least.

Another difference described in this chapter is the the greater amount of parental care of children done by women compared to men. A couple of suggestions are offered to explain why this is the case.

The first is paternal uncertainty, a problem that affects men but not women as a man could end up raising a child that is not his own if his wife has been unfaithful. Women can end up unknowingly raising another person’s child if there is a mix-up but every woman who has been pregnant and given birth knows that she’s a mother whereas a man could think he’s a father of a child when he isn’t. This is succinctly summarised by the phrase: ‘mummy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.’ Stewart-Williams notes that men invest more in their children if paternal uncertainty is lower. Men therefore do less childcare because they cannot be entirely sure that a child is truly theirs.

A second argument put forward is the idea of ‘mating opportunity cost’. Men who spend time raising children are sacrificing time that could be spent mating with other women so it is suggested that men are less involved in childcare because of this.

The author states on a few occasions that women are more ‘parental’ than men. Although I’m not a parent (Stewart-Williams, in fairness, is), I can imagine a lot of fathers – particularly divorced fathers struggling to gain access to their children – being irked by this statement. It is true that females care more for their young than males in both humans and animals but, again like with male violence, for me this is where sex differences become complicated.

Men generally do less childcare than women but will typically spend more time working to provide for their families. This is something acknowledged by Stewart-Williams in the fourth chapter but as ‘indirect care’. Nevertheless, providing for families is not trivial as it may determine if children are living in poverty or not, an important concern for responsible parents and society in general.

Other aspects of parenting should be considered as well. Parenting does not just mean childcare but also includes setting a good example and teaching a child about the right and wrong way to behave – things traditionally associated with fatherhood. It would have been useful if the author had talked about the negative consequences of fatherlessness on children, especially boys, as this would show that fathers are important – for humans at least. While I don’t think this is Stewart-William’s intention, I think certain people (feminists, for one) would use the argument that women are ‘more parental’ to argue for giving women exclusive custody of children or delegitimising fatherhood.

I’ve more to say about this chapter and I might do in a future post but to avoid getting bogged down in one section of the book I’ll move on.

Part 2 coming soon!