Book Review: ‘The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve’ by Steve Stewart-Williams (Part 3)

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This is the third and final part of my review of this book. Believe it or not this was supposed to be just one post! The first and second part can be read by following the links.

Chapter 6 (continued): More About Memes

I ended the second part of this review questioning what determines which memes will be the ‘fittest’; which memes will survive and be circulated in a culture. Dr. Stewart-Williams cites Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine to offer one explanation. Memes, according to Blackmore, need to be able to increase their ‘market share’ by first, being able to get into people’s minds and then secondly, being able to influence people’s behaviour.

In Part 2 I mentioned E. O. Wilson’s theory that memes which improve an organism’s fitness will be more successful than other kinds because organisms have evolved to latch onto fitness-enhancing memes. This is explored further here in the book with the notion that memes relating to sex, relationships, kinship, threats and status do particularly well as they are evolutionary relevant. This may explain why many cultures share similar types of customs such as religions, rituals, traditions, ceremonies etc. as they relate to biological realities.

Since human beings are incredibly varied, the circulation of memes is even more complicated as intelligence and personality type can affect which memes are spread by an individual. This suggests a relationship between genes and memes as intelligence and personality are partially heritable. An individual who spreads memes, or a ‘meme vector’ also has an impact as a highly prestigious individual can influence the behaviour of a large group of people. Stewart-Williams gives celebrities and the Pope as examples of ‘meme vectors’ who have the power to spread certain memes amongst their followers.

This brings us to the subject of cultural phenomenons like religion and monogamous marriage. It is said that memes that increase reproductive success have a good chance of surviving as there will be more individuals who can spread this particular meme. This in turn would help the group who possess the meme to survive over a long period of time. This may explain why religions tend to preach a message of ‘go forth and multiply’.

In contrast, the book describes the religious sect called the ‘Shakers’ who preached total celibacy for its members and eventually died out as a result. These examples can be described as ‘good memes’ and ‘bad memes’ as they are cultural practices that diverge in how good they are for the meme and the groups spreading the meme. In short, the ‘go forth and multiply’ meme is good for the group and good for itself, whereas the ‘total celibacy’ meme isn’t.

Monogamous marriage as a meme is another example presented in the book as one that is good for the group and good for itself. Steve Stewart-Williams points out that in many earlier civilisations with disparities in wealth, it was not uncommon for wealthy, high-status men to have many wives and that this situation may have benefitted women as well in terms of reproductive success. This meant of course that many low status men had no wives at all. This is contrasted with modern societies which, despite having similar gaps between the rich and poor, has not resulted in billionaire men having multiple wives with poorer men having none. The author gives Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos as examples of such men which is interesting since both have divorced their wives since the book’s publication! The reason given for this disparity is the cultural practice or meme of monogamy. This meme may have caught on because monogamous societies became more productive and less unstable than polygynous societies. Polygynous societies were less stable according to the author because of the greater surplus of young unmarried men who would cause more violence and crime.

There is logic to this suggestion but for me this seems like a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. What differentiates modern societies from past ones is the greater availability of resources and technology that protects most people from harm and the need to fight for survival. Poor people obviously exist today, but compared to those who lived in poverty in the past, the living standards of the poor – in Western countries at least – is far superior. It wouldn’t surprise me, therefore, if polygynous societies developed in places with limited resources and high levels of risk which meant there was already a lot of instability whilst monogamy developed in less extreme conditions. Not surprisingly, in a harsh environment there would be a great deal of competition amongst men and thus the high status men would have a monopoly on resources and subsequently women. The young unmarried men would have to fight amongst themselves for whatever was left over. In a stable society with security and plentiful resources, there would be less need for men to compete against each other and more opportunity for them to invest in creating families with low paternal uncertainty. Monogamy, then, could be a product of stability as well as the cause of it.

Many religions are known to promote the ‘memes’ of reproductive success and monogamous marriage which has enabled them to survive and spread over long periods of time. Religion is presented here as being a type of ‘memeplex’ which are memes that exist in clusters like genes in a genome. Since memes are designed primarily to spread themselves, it is argued here that many memes found in religions are designed chiefly to be good for themselves rather than to simply benefit believers. Religious practices like proselytising or ‘spreading the word’ were ways to spread the meme(s) of religion according to this argument.

There is also discussion here over whether memes are ‘parasites’ that occupy our minds and take over them or if memes simply adapt to our minds like an organism to an environment. Religion is suggested as a possible ‘parasitic mind virus’ as certain religious practices are good for its followers but not in all cases. An extreme example is a suicide bomber who sacrifices their life and others for their beliefs. In other words, memes that benefit the religion may not benefit the practitioners of that religion.

Although I consider myself to be agnostic, I have some disagreements here with how religion is conveyed in this chapter. Stewart-Williams writes:

“Most religions involve complex and time-consuming rituals and practices. Time spent praying, proselytising, or worrying how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is time that could have been spent looking for food and mates, or keeping an eye out for predators. Religious memes burn up precious fuel without any obvious countervailing advantage.”

But if this is the case with religion, then why haven’t these so-called religious memes died out? And don’t ‘time-consuming’ rituals and practices give people a sense of meaning and purpose? What doesn’t seem to be considered here is the existential problems that humans uniquely deal with which such activities may have evolved to satisfy. Think also how much time some people have wasted obsessing over a man or woman they can never have or some resource or property they may never own. Hence, it’s not necessarily an advantage for humans to spend too much time “looking for food and mates.”

Additionally, the vow of celibacy and other prohibitions relating to sex that is expected in certain religions are described here as memes that “sterilises the people who hold them.” Similarly, the author writes that the taboos of masturbation, sex before marriage and sex purely for pleasure in many religions is, according to the psychologist Darrel Ray, a way of making people feel guilty and thus redoubling their religiosity:

“the fact that these religious rules are hard to follow is not a bug, it’s a feature.”

Essentially, the stricter the religion, the more its followers will try to adhere to its rules and ultimately spread its memes.

This, for me, doesn’t take into account how people may have benefitted from these practices. If we take the vow of celibacy to start with, it’s true that practitioners of this command deliberately prevented themselves from reproducing, but in doing so they may have had more time to spend doing other worthwhile things. For example, although monks and nuns have traditionally expected to be celibate, they have made many contributions to human knowledge throughout history such as studying, teaching and other activities. Had they being allowed to reproduce, they may not have devoted as much of their time and effort towards these areas.

Furthermore, while it’s true that it is difficult for most people (particularly men) to avoid masturbating or sex before marriage or just for pleasure, indulging in any of these things can come with its own difficulties. Some of these include sexual frustration, unwanted pregnancies, possible sexual exploitation of either men or women, jealousy, heartbreak or some other kind of trauma. You could still argue that total prohibition of these things is an extreme position to take, but the downsides may have been far more costly in the past which could be why many religions proscribed them.

It is clear that Steve Stewart-Williams’ thinking has been influenced by ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who I’ve mentioned in other parts of this review. Steven Pinker is another prominent atheist thinker whose work is referenced a few times in the book. While I think all these men have worthwhile things to say in certain cases, I don’t share their general view of religion even though I’m not a particularly religious person myself.

The idea of God as a ‘meme’ is presented here and the author questions why it has persisted throughout human history :

“No one has any trouble shaking off their belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. The God meme, on the other hand, is almost impossible to dislodge from some minds, regardless of evidence or arguments.”

I think framing the question in this way comes across as a little arrogant and reductionist personally as it implies that religious people are simply foolish and irrational, even if Stewart-Williams didn’t intend it be so. It reminds me of militant atheists calling God an ‘invisible friend’ or a ‘sky fairy’ as a way to sneer at religious believers. Obviously, atheists don’t all think the same way and people are welcome to disbelieve in God if they wish, but believers presumably don’t consider God to be a ‘meme’ even though others like Stewart-Williams and Dawkins do. I’ve read arguments against this theory which point out that atheist thinking, at least as described by people such as Richard Dawkins, could be considered as a group of memes as well.

Faith is also presented as simply a meme to help religion:

“As Dawkins points out, if you wanted to find a way to insulate a memeplex from rational criticism, you couldn’t do much better than the idea that accepting that memeplex on blind faith in the highest virtue – and doubting is a terrible sin.”

This implies though that faith is simply ‘irrational belief’ rather than the ‘consideration of things beyond that which we can fully understand or rationalise’. Some believers may have blind faith in a religion, but it’s possible for a religious person to be perfectly rational and still have faith. I’m not a theologian and I’m probably not intelligent enough to get too deep into this topic, but it seems to be me that faith is a different way of conceptualising something that cannot be described in a rational or scientific way. I’ll move on to avoid devoting too much time to this one area of the book.

In the final analysis, I think there’s definitely something to the idea of memes but it probably needs to be developed further in the future.

Here are some other interesting things explored in this chapter:

  • ‘The ratchet effect’ – the progression of knowledge goes in one direction: ‘the cultural ratchet’ – this is not necessarily restricted to humans as several animals have been observed adopting cultural practices. Examples include chimps using sticks to fish for termites and using leaves as napkins which they can learn from copying each other. Other chimp groups may not have developed these practices but can learn them. Orang-utans have been observed using leaves as gloves and apparently riding on falling trees for fun. Animal culture can also include whale or birdsong. Of course, no other animal has been able to accumulate ideas and develop a culture in the way that humans have.
  • Ideas tend to be a combination of previous ideas or what Matt Ridley calls ‘ideas having sex.’ The internet to Ridley is a combination of the computer and the phone. Great ideas are rarely ‘Eureka!’ moments but the product of many smaller ideas.
  • Cultural adaptations such as reading rewired parts of the brain that were involved in visual perception. Obtaining the ability to recognise and interpret words changed the function of that region of the brain. This is an example of a meme ‘parasitising’ the mind.
  • Lactose intolerance is actually not an unusual disorder. Most mammals become intolerant to milk after weaning as they no longer drink it so stop producing the enzyme lactase which breaks it down. Humans are the exception in this case but not all humans are lactose tolerant even though we often assume they are. Humans in areas such as Northern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula began producing lactase throughout their lifespan after we started herding milk-producing animals and consuming their milk. This is an example of memes and genes influencing each other.
  • Cultural innovations such as being able to make a fire and use tools help us but can also kill us. The IQ researcher Linda Gottfredson has argued that intelligence in human beings developed not just to deal with dangers from nature but man-made dangers as well.
  • Technology has helped us in many ways but has probably made humans weaker as well, what Timothy Taylor calls ‘the survival of the weakest’. Compared to other apes, we are physically weaker and have conditions such as short-sightedness and myopia that would have probably died out if we were exposed to the same selection pressures we evolved from. To quote Stewart-Williams: “We simply have to recognise that the longer we live with technology, the more dependent on it we’ll inevitably become.” While not explored in this book, this is particularly relevant to the plight of men and explains some of the problems men are experiencing in society.

Conclusion and Appendix

Steve Stewart-Williams concludes his book by saying that human nature developed as a set of strategies for passing on the genes that created it. During this process memes also developed which started to shape human nature as well. Because of this, humans turned into ‘gene-meme hybrid creatures’ which simultaneously pass on genes and memes. The observations that confused the alien scientist at the beginning of the book can be explained by this theory.

What the future holds for humans, in the author’s opinion, is uncertain as we increasingly have the power to direct the evolution of ourselves and other organisms which can be used for good and bad purposes:

“This is an awesome responsibility, and one we may or may not be fit to carry.”

At the end of the book there are two appendices dedicated to answering criticisms of evolutionary psychology and memetics respectively. Stewart-Williams takes the time to frame the criticisms and then answer them in detail showing that he is thoughtful and contemplative in coming to his own conclusions about them.

In the first appendix, titled ‘How to win an argument with a blank slater’, it is argued that some people dislike biological and evolutionary explanations for human behaviour, a mentality that Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have called ‘biophobia’. One criticism of evolutionary psychology is that it is used to justify inequalities and gender roles and is ‘right-wing propaganda.’ In response, Stewart-Williams writes:

“leaving aside the automatic assumption that “right-wing” equals “bad”, most evolutionary
psychologists (like most academics in general) lean to the left politically.”

I find this quite telling as it explains what I thought was a favouritism shown towards women in this book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any truth to the theories of evolutionary psychology of course. Stewart-Williams believes this criticism is an example of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ – the assumption that if something is natural then it is good:

“This assumption probably explains why the politically correct view on issues such as traditional
sex roles and violence is that they’re entirely due to nurture, whereas the politically correct
view of homosexuality is that it’s entirely due to nature.”

That latter part of the quote may get him in trouble in the future!

Other criticisms explored here include the idea that evolutionary theories are unfalsifiable as we cannot travel back in time to prove their origins. The author states that being false and unfalsifiable are not the same thing and also some theories in evolution have been proven wrong.

Another criticism is the fact that most of the theories in evolutionary psychology have only being tested in ‘WEIRD’ (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) nations which limits the veracity of their conclusions about human nature. Stewart-Williams concedes this point but notes that evolutionary psychology also draws from other fields like biology and anthropology. This, in my view, is usually where it is strongest.

A further criticism of the field is that it presents every aspect of human nature as a product of adaptation, which is something the biologist Stephen Jay Gould also accused evolutionary psychologists of doing. Stewart-Williams again believes this is a valid criticism but points out that evolutionary psychologists present non-adaptationist theories as well.

If I were to put forward a criticism of evolutionary psychology, it would be that is sometimes doesn’t differentiate enough between human and animal behaviour, particularly in areas like violence and sexuality. There’s a danger that you could project human behaviours onto animals or vice versa and make assumptions that may be inaccurate. Obviously, there is a connection in what underlies theses behaviours in any organism but for humans there is far more variation and complexity as well. There is certainly merit in observing how animals behave and relating it to humans though.

The second and final appendix deals with criticism of the theory of memes and memetics. The first criticism is the fact that memes are difficult to define. Susan Blackmore points out that the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be considered a meme by itself or the whole composition could be considered a meme. Moreover, is the idea of a thing a meme or is the thing that is produced from the idea a meme? Stewart-Williams responds by saying that words like ‘idea’, ‘customs’, ‘norm’ and ‘ritual’ are not clearly defined either but are useful enough to explain cultural theories.

A second criticism of memes is that it is just another word for ‘idea’ or the simple observation that ‘good ideas spread.’ The counter argument presented here is that memes are not just ideas, but any feature of culture that could spread and be sustained within that culture. The central theory of memetics as previously mentioned is that memes can be considered ‘good’ if they are adept as spreading themselves regardless of if they are ‘good’ in the sense that they benefit the individuals who spread them. Religious belief is given as an example but I’ve already explained my disagreements about that. Nevertheless, the general theory of memes still makes sense as it is useful for them to be good for people to aid their spread.

Yet another criticism of memes is to what extent they are comparable to genes. Genes are replicated with high fidelity but memes are not. Also, unlike genes, memes have to be reconstructed in an individual’s mind. Furthermore, genes undergo random mutations whereas memes are generally created for a particular purpose. Steve Stewart-Williams answers these criticisms by pointing out that culture is recorded and passed on from generation to generation so memes can be accurate enough to be replicated across time. It’s true that memes have to exist in a person’s mind, but there are similarities in how human beings conceptualise certain things. A fascinating example given here is Pascal Boyer’s observation that many different cultures have similar ideas about ghosts – i.e. they are sentient beings so they sense things. Humans therefore may have certain psychological biases that mean certain memes take hold over others. This is similar to the point made previously about how memes relating to our biology tend to be successful. Memes don’t ‘mutate’ in the way that genes do but are often products of trial and error which was also discussed in the second part of this review. Memes may also be products of mistranslations or misconceptions.

As I said before, I believe there is something to the theory of memetics but it might need to be developed further by other thinkers in the future. However, because language is so complex and flexible, there may not ever be a sufficient way to concisely define the theory of memes.

Summary

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book despite some of my own criticisms of it. Steve Stewart-Williams seems like a good guy who wants to be objective about his findings, even though I may not always come to the same conclusions that he does. If you don’t know anything about evolutionary psychology and want to learn about it, I think this would be a good book to start with. It covers a broad range of topics and is concise and easy to read. If you’re looking for more ‘red-pilled’ content, however, I’d recommend looking beyond this book.

Thanks for reading if you managed to get through all three parts.

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