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 page.
However, 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 quite 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 quite a while. There is a strong sense that Mr Stewart-Williams knows his onions, and due to my enjoyment, I read this much quicker than most non-fiction I pick up. Well worth your time if it's a subject that interests you.
Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for an ARC.
A fascinating book about evolutionary psychology, The Ape that Understood the Universe seeks to strip back a difficult and complex subject to its most basic tenets. The book opens with a conceit, imagining an alien arriving on Earth to study the planet, and its population. To this alien humans are no more special than any other animal, or plant, but when their behaviour is examined, it seems to be both natural and animal like in some ways, and completely unnatural in others. Through the observations of this alien, the author tries to explain how evolution has shaped human psychology just as surely as it has our biology, while also taking into account social and cultural influences. From chapters dealing with mate selection and reproduction, to those dealing with altruism and culture, the reader is taken on an accessible and informative tour of the human mind. Throughout the book the author compares the behaviour of man to that of several other animals, and the similarities are sometimes surprising. I particularly liked that the author was willing to look at opposing viewpoints , and evaluate the impact of social conditioning etc as well as the evolutionary theories. While it may not settle the nature versus nurture debate, the book certainly had some thought provoking points. The book is well researched but easily accessible to the layman, no specialist knowledge of the topic is assumed or required, the use of simple language and the avoidance of jargon and acronyms make the writing easy to understand and gets the point across clearly. My only slight fault with the book was that I thought the "report" submitted by the "alien" was a little jarring in its attempts to be humorous, it felt out of keeping with the tone of the book as a whole, which did have humorous moments and observations throughout, but none as juvenile as this early passage. I read and reviewed an ARC courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.