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Summary The Ape that Understood the Universe

The Ape that Understood the Universe

S languages and science The book tackles these issues by drawing on ideas from two major schools of thought evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory The guiding assumption is that humans are animals and that like all animals we evolved to pass on our genes At some point howe. Note I received a copy curtesy of Netgalley and Cambridge University Press in exchange for an honest review This book is about the strangest animal in the world the animal that s reading these words and the animal that wrote them the human animal This is how the book starts strong and to the point totally loved itAs evolutionary biology shaped humans physically this published study emphasises how evolutionary psychology shaped our behaviourEven though I really liked it as a whole because it opened my eyes to lots of interesting things and made me curious to find about evolution in general and evolutionary psychology in particular there were several dislikes also interesting fact note how the cons are much easier to state than the pros don t know if it s just in my case or others have this issue but I find it fascinating There are ideas that tend to repeat multiple times throughout the book I understand that it s for sedimentation of information but it was still annoying There are things that aren t known so the author assumes something and also assumes that his opinion is better than others much of the book is in this note Without an evolutionary perspective this pattern is hard to explain With it it s a piece of cake In many species the vast majority in fact the ceiling number of offspring for males is higher than that for females The most important reason for this is parental investment well I d have said that the 9 months necessary for birth and after birth plus not being able to have pregnancies at once as man can theoretically have 2 3 n women pregnant at the same time seems reason than parental investment lol It seemed to me that the cultural implications are somewhat minimized Also I m sceptical about the idea of meme evolution in the way it was presented or I understood it from this book as implying that businesses and science and even boats just evolve a boat that floats propagates itself all by themselves imh they evolve through people meaning that people judge them worthy or not and decide to propagate them further or not Anyway maybe it was just the languageformulary used but it bothered me The ending is very abruptI cannot possibly express in my own words most of the ideas so I ll best leave here some many uotes that I liked or thought important To say that human beings are interesting is an understatement We re freaks of nature We re blobs of matter that fall in love with each other We re mortal beings that alone among the animals know that we re going to die one day and flee in terror from this knowledge We re bald apes that can think each other s thoughts simply by making noises at each other We re carnivores that sympathize with our food We re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves We re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality And we re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds How can we explain how such a bizarre creature came to existNatural selection has all the time in the world Just as a mere trickle of water given sufficient time can carve the Grand Canyon out of solid rock so too natural selection given sufficient time can fashion new biological structures out of old And not only does natural selection create adaptations in the fullness of time it carves out new species from the gene pools of existing onesIn his later years Darwin often described natural selection as the survival of the fittest a phrase he borrowed from the philosopher Herbert Spencer Some organisms happen to have traits which boost their chances of surviving and reproducingSamuel Butler s famous aphorism that the chicken is only an egg s way of making another egg has been modernized the organism is only DNA s way of making DNAHerbert Prochnow once described courtship as the period of dating during which a girl decides whether she can do any better As Mignon McLaughlin observed A nymphomaniac is a woman as obsessed with sex as the average man Even today there s a sexual double standard in the West Men who sleep around are viewed as heroes or lovable rogues whereas women are viewed as sluts and not marriage material As Joan Rivers put it A man can sleep around no uestions asked but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes she s a tramp Again this is surely going to have an impact on women s sexual behavior It s not evolution it s just basic human rationality People weigh up the costs and benefits of casual sex and act accordinglyLove has many adverse side effects from poor concentration to obsessive thinking It s a common cause of divorce as when a husband or wife falls in love with someone else And it can provoke a wide range of pathological behaviors from stalking to suicide to murder The clinical psychologist Frank Tallis once suggested that being in love is the closest most people come to mental illness Love also has many positive effects It can turn ordinary people into heroes inspire self sacrifice worthy of a non reproductive worker insect and fuel creative achievements spanning from embarrassing teenage poetry to the majestic Taj Mahal Love is a double edged sword and it s not at all obvious whether on balance the sword has brought joy or misery to the worldAs the economist Tim Harford summed it up if you want to maximize your personal happiness the optimal number of children to have is zero and if you absolutely must dabble in procreation the least depressing number is two Don t take these numbers too seriously the exact estimates vary from study to study and there s always plenty of variation from person to person The stable finding though is that having kids doesn t reliably make people happy and that for a fair number of people it leads to a slump in happiness Parents swear blind that they love having kids and that they love spending time with them But careful research suggests that many parents enjoy their time with their children only slightly than they enjoy taking out the trash or commuting and that they generally prefer watching TVMonogamy is the Western custom of one wife and hardly any mistresses H H MonroMemetics is based on the concept of the meme which Dawkins introduced in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene Roughly speaking a meme is an idea Less roughly it s a unit of culture When people give examples of memes they tend to fixate on uirky pieces of contagious culture jokes recipes writing clean me in the dust on a dirty car catchphrases catchy tunes ways of tying a knot ways of tying the knot viral Internet images and so on But the meme concept is much broader than that It embraces anything and everything that can be passed on via social learning from the trivial facial expressions mannerisms to the historically momentous agricultural techniues political and religious ideologies It s important to stress however that in many ways cultural evolution is very different from its biological cousin For multicellular organisms like ourselves genes are transmitted almost exclusively from parent to offspring Unless you re a bacterium you can t pick up genes from your friends But you can pick up memes from your friends or from your children or from anybody else Indeed in a world of books TV and the Internet you can even pick up memes from the dead Another difference between biological evolution and cultural is that although there s not much sharing of genes between different multicellular species there s often a lot of sharing of memes across different species of culture English for instance is classed as a Germanic language but much of its vocabulary comes from Romance languages such as French and Latin In a sense modern English is a linguistic mongrel a hybrid of Germanic and Romance languages In the same sense rock music is a hybrid of a variety of musical genres including blues and country gospel and jazz And neither rock music nor English is exceptional The sharing of code across species though rare in multicellular organisms is the norm in the cultural sphereBut while the differences between biological and cultural evolution are significant the similarities are often uite startling Arguably the most startling is the fact that like plants and animals cultural products can often be arrayed on a family tree Languages are the best example Like biological species languages descend from other languages and at least within the major language groupings any two languages share a common ancestor if you trace it back far enough Also like biological species any two languages may be or less closely related The fact that it s possible to place these cultural entities on family trees is important because family trees are a telltale sign that the entities in uestion arose through a process of descent with modification in other words that they evolvedAlthough we re clearly smarter than chimps we re nowhere near as much smarter as an alien scientist might surmise from comparing our cultural achievements eg putting people on the moon with theirs eg using rocks to crack open nuts or sticks to fish for termites As individuals we re probably closer to the nut cracking termite fishing end of the spectrum If you doubt this imagine being marooned in the jungle with no relevant knowledge At a push you might figure out how to obtain a little food But you d never figure out how to build a rocket ship and get to the moon The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello dubbed this progression the cultural ratchet Extended across time the cumulative effects of the ratcheting process are astonishing I remember once watching a David Attenborough documentary in which an orangutan rowed a boat down a river At first it struck me as anomalous Here was this animal skillfully piloting a vehicle it could never have invented itself But then it occurred to me that human beings are in exactly the same boat metaphorically speaking In even the simplest human societies people use tools they could never have invented themselves And in our modern age we routinely use technologies so complex that most people don t have the slightest clue how they work It s as if we ve appropriated the technology of an advanced race of aliens after they mysteriously vanished except that the aliens were never really here All of it came from us Cumulative culture is the ultimate time saver Because of cumulative culture we don t need to reinvent the wheel each generation uite literally We don t each need to invent calculus because Newton and Leibniz did it for us We don t each need to have our own Eureka moments to understand fluid dynamics we don t each need to have an apple fall on our head to understand gravity and we don t each need to dream of a snake eating its tail to understand the structure of the benzene molecule All we need is a library card a good teacher or access to the Internet We can then download into our brains some of the achieved knowledge of the species This subseuently becomes the starting point for the next round of innovationOne of my favorite animal anecdotes is about orangutans at a sanctuary in Borneo One day a group of orangs slipped into the kitchen and stole a pot They made a big pile of rocks placed the pot on the rocks and then sat in a circle around it waiting for the pot to give them soup They were attempting to replicate what they d seen humans do a hundred times before This shows just how smart orangutans are and also just how dumb But how much smarter are we Whenever we copy the style rather than the substance of a high status person whenever we wear the same shoes as a sporting hero for instance or try to emulate a rock star s debauched lifestyle we re really not so different from the orangs around the pot Advertisers exploit this chink in our armor when they pay celebrities to endorse their products There s no good reason to think that skill on the football pitch goes hand in hand with skill in choosing the best brand of underwear or the best spray deodorant But otherwise rational people act as if it doesVarious scholars including David Sloan Wilson and Ara Norenzayan have argued that religions are shaped in large measure by cultural group selection Just as the function of sharp teeth is to tear apart prey the function of religions is to knit together collections of individuals into socially cohesive groups This might help explain some central features of the world s religions Among the most important in Norenzayan s view is the widespread belief in Big Gods Big Gods are powerful supernatural beings which keep track of what we do and punish us if we step out of line The belief in such beings is not a human universal it s found only in large scale societies And that s because it s only in large scale societies that we need them As the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has argued for groups of one to two hundred people our social instincts are sufficient to keep society running smoothly We know everyone in the group we can keep tabs on what everyone s up to and we can generally keep people in line with everyday social tools such as approval and opprobrium But the moment groups get much bigger than this people start to encounter strangers and near strangers at an unnaturally high freuency and the usual social tools no longer do the job Social cohesion starts to erode and groups start to break down unless that is new institutions step into the breach and foster group cohesion where our social instincts fall short Big Gods aren t the only way to keep people on the straight and narrow Some traditional societies opt instead for the doctrine of karma and reincarnation and modern secular societies opt for police law courts and CCTV cameras And here s something I ve also read in another study about breast cancer For most of our history women spent the bulk of their reproductive years either pregnant or breastfeeding Women don t menstruate when they re pregnant and they tend not to menstruate when they re breastfeeding either at least not in hunter gatherer conditions The net result is that until recently most women had only a hundred or so menstrual cycles in their lifetimes Things are very different today Women hit puberty earlier have fewer pregnancies and spend a smaller fraction of their lives nursing their young They therefore have many menstrual cycles than their ancestors as many as four hundred This is than their reproductive systems are designed for and it exposes them to unnaturally high levels of ovarian hormones and unnaturally freuent hormonal fluctuations This in turn increases women s risk of breast cancer as well as conditions such as anemia and endometriosis These maladies were almost unheard of until recently Like obesity they re essentially diseases of modernity or what are sometimes referred to as mismatch diseases

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The Ape that Understood the Universe is the story of the strangest animal in the world the human animal It opens with a uestion How would an alien scientist view our species What would it make of our sex differences our sexual behavior our child rearing patterns our moral codes our religion. The Ape That Understood the Universe the second book written by associate professor of psychology Steve Stewart Williams takes a look at evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory in an effort to explain how and why humans evolved Paying particular attention to the way the mind and culture evolve the author writes a witty and fascinating account of these topics Written in a casual conversational style this allows it to be accessible to those who have no scientific knowledge whatsoever Make no mistake this is a challenging read I learned a great deal and found myself totally engrossed from the first pageHowever some parts of the book ramble a bit and the author hammers home his points over and over again so it did get a little repetitive at times That said I particularly enjoyed the ruminations on the nature vs nurture debate which were thought provoking and Stewart Williams objectively assesses the current theories He backs up most of his claims with relevant surveys and research and arguments that are made are cogent but there were uite a few assumptions made by the author which was a little disappointing He does however manage to make a complex topic understandable and entertaining which puts this amongst the best non fiction I have read in uite a while There is a strong sense that Mr Stewart Williams knows his onions and due to my enjoyment I read this much uicker than most non fiction I pick up Well worth your time if it s a subject that interests youMany thanks to Cambridge University Press for an ARC

Steve Stewart-Williams ê 4 review

Ver we also evolved the capacity for culture and from that moment culture began evolving in its own right This transformed us from a mere ape into an ape capable of reshaping the planet travelling to other worlds and understanding the vast universe of which we're but a tiny fleeting fragmen. I first found Steve Stewart Williams on twitter He posted this thread of examples of animals previously thought to be unable to pass the mirror test or the ability to display capability for the theory of mind doing just that His tweet game is on point and I wanted so I got his book Its as advertised really A conversational yet fairly in depth exploration of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory Often takes the perspective of an alien scientist s view of our species Great stuff Like a wetter Richard Dawkins Also contains a healthy dash of Pinker style date dumping and analysis with a moderate deal of Williams own wit and personality 4 stars because it didn t have that x factor uality that makes me desperately thirsty for took me a while to get through the book to be fair I ve been reading a lot of evolutionary psychology lately so it might just be that Was 100% worth it though

  • Hardcover
  • 378
  • The Ape that Understood the Universe
  • Steve Stewart-Williams
  • en
  • 14 December 2017
  • 9781108425049

10 thoughts on “The Ape that Understood the Universe

  1. says:

    Behavior is an interesting field to explore – be it human or animal I read Sapiens and Homo Deus sometime back and liked them for how the books traced the history of how we Sapiens got to where we are I very recently read the brilliant ‘B

  2. says:

    The Ape That Understood the Universe the second book written by associate professor of psychology Steve Stewart Williams tak

  3. says:

    I read long ago The Naked Ape by William Norris Didn’t everyone interested in the sciences of evolution read it? And I have since read a lot of scientific papers on anthropology evolution of species neurology and human brain etc I'm very interested by all these topics So I loved reading this oneOne could say that this book is divided into two large parts the nature innate first and the nurture culture or “memes” second Forget the la

  4. says:

    Note I received a copy curtesy of Netgalley and Cambridge University Press in exchange for an honest review This book is about the strangest animal in the world – the animal that’s reading these words and the animal that wrote them the human animal This is how the book starts strong and to the point – tota

  5. says:

    The Ape That Understood The Universe starts off with a fascinating and uniue notion Because we’re so used to bei

  6. says:

    Excellent combination of old and recent discoveries on the evolution of the human species not from the anthropological point of view but based on sociobiology gene's eye perspective and evolutionary psychology meme's eye perspective We learn how and why we have come to dominate our planet and how the inside genetic and outside social and cult

  7. says:

    Interesting look at human behavior Full details on the how’s and the whys things may be the way they are A new

  8. says:

    I first found Steve Stewart Williams on twitter He posted this thread of examples of animals previously thought to be unable to pass the mirror test or the ability to display capability for the theory of mind doi

  9. says:

    I received a copy of this book from NetGalleyThat was interesting I always find myself on the fence when it comes to “nature vs nurture” to be honest because it can be presented in very deterministic ways in which I don’t find my place anyway aka my instinct to pass on my genes is close to nil and I’m

  10. says:

    It's an easy full of information and very amusing book Thank you Steve Stewart William for the effort

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