Blog 2021 10 23 The Ape That Understood The Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

The Ape That Understood The Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

I read on Twitter recently that not understanding the masculine-feminine dynamic explains why society is so confused. I’d push this more forward by saying that we don’t really understand any dynamics. We think we are so smart that we are not led at all by biology except for basic physiological needs.

Given that more and more people live in big cities where we lose touch with nature, we don’t understand how we get food, we wouldn’t be able to live on our own, it’s not so surprising.

Kieran Drew suggested to me to learn more about evolutionary psychology, in particular The Ape That Understood The Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams.

You’ll love this book if you like books where the author first shares his concepts, then he goes into detail trying to prove why his views are right and then he also examines how his hypotheses could be attacked and why the critics would fail.

If you don’t like people who can only see black or white, but you’d rather prefer people who think in a more balanced way, you’ll love this book.

Therefore while some might think that evolutionary psychology claims that there is only nature and no nurture, it’s wrong. That’s what Steve Steward-Williams also says.

Nurture is important, it’s part of the game. Yet, in many cases, nature is more important and we cannot simply ignore it.

How an alien would see Earth?

The book opens with a fascinating chapter. Let’s assume that some alien scientists observe the Earth. What would they think about us? No, don’t be selfish, not about us, humans, but about the Earth and its forms of life?

He shares a couple of possibilities.

They could think that the earth is inhabited by entities made of mostly bricks, mortar and concrete, that we call cities and their sexual organs that help them reproduce are us, humans.

Think about it. Settlements, later cities are conquering the earth, there are more and more of them and it’s us who build them. It’s a possible observation.

Another one is not less surprising either.

What if human beings are slaves of wheat. Wheat has been conquering more and more areas for the last 10 000 years and it spread thanks to humans. You cannot even say that it brought humans an easier life. Farming is still not an easy job, but back in time it was especially hard, the quality, the variety of food we ate deteriorated as wheat is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest and bad for our teeth and gums, in addition, scientists claim our brain got smaller and the life expectancy didn’t grow either. You can read more on this theory in Noah Harari’s book Sapiens.

While the author doesn’t claim that these would be the right explanations for the observations, it should really make you think how differently you can view the very same things.

Can humans be so much different from animals?

Except for social scientists, anyone can see that there are innate differences between men and women. Not that is better than the other, that’s not the case. Simply different. Without any second thought, any hidden agenda.

As the author explains many times in the book, this does not mean that there won’t be women who are more capable in some masculine area than certain men. There were, are and will be. He speaks about averages.

Here comes something interesting. Most people accept the Darwinian idea of evolution. We are evolved from simple forms of life. We are animals after all.

We see, we know, we examine and we accept the innate differences between animals of different sexes. We even have a fancy name for it: sexual dimorphism. Di means two, morph means form. We know that the differences between the looks and also the behaviours of male and female peacocks have nothing to do with nurture, it’s about nature. We understand that a father bear treats differently its cubs than their mother.

Yet, when we come to inspect the animals called homo sapiens, certain scientists forget that if in all species nature has an immense effect on sexual differences, probably we are not an exception.

This doesn’t mean that differences should confirm any abuse, discrimination or oppression. It simply means that you can nurture kids of different sexes anyhow, there will be differences, because… we are different.

An interesting example he gives is male aggression. The vast majority of human aggression is male aggression and the vast majority of male aggression is male-on-male aggression.

The vast majority of prisoners are males.

Societies spend huge efforts on discouraging male aggression and virtually nothing on discouraging female aggression. We even try to encourage it! How often do I tell my daughter to defend herself in kindergarten…

Yet, there are these enormous differences that we cannot ignore.

It’s really hard to describe it as a result of nurture.

Some surprising facts about altruism

There is a full chapter dedicated to altruism in the book. It’s an important topic because at a first glance altruism goes against reproductive goals.

What is the goal of an individual?

Natural selection is all about inclusive fitness. Genes are selected if they enhance the inclusive fitness of their bearers. Adaptations are designed to maximize the organism’s inclusive fitness. And organisms, taken as a whole, are inclusive-fitness machines.

Altruism seemingly doesn’t serve the inclusive fitness of its bearers. How does sacrificing your life make sense?

W.D. Hamilton described it with a rule, with an equation that is often referred to as the E = mc2 of evolutionary psychology. Hamilton’s rule says that altruism can be selected when

br > c

But what does it mean?

r is the relatedness between the altruist and the recipient. First degree relatives, such as parents, offspring, siblings are 0.5 related, second degree relatives are 0.25 related, etc.

b is the benefit of altruism to the recipient

c is the number of offspring the altruist won’t have as a result of helping

So the benefit of altruist help, taking into account the relatedness should be bigger than the cost of the help.

Such rules don’t mean that our genes are all the time doing math, these rules try to explain how we operate in our day-to-day life.

According to this rule, you might expect that we are more altruistic towards our kins than friends or strangers. If you have some doubts, think about what happens when you do something for your brother that would be considered heroic towards a stranger. People will shrug it off saying that it’s just normal.

Another form of kin altruism is inheritance. There are almost never cases for leaving behind possession for friends. We prefer our children and/or spouse(s).

Kin altruism is not unique to our species. It is observed in plants. For example, when an American sea rocket shares soil with sibling plants, it grows its roots less aggressively and less competitively than it does when it shares soil with non-relatives. It’s even found in bacteria.

Kin altruism, even nepotism is very deeply rooted in our nature.


Wouldn’t it be great to understand each other better? I think it would, and it starts with understanding ourselves. Understanding ourselves as individuals and as a species. Understanding our operating system.

The Ape That Understood The Universe is the perfect start for finding that understanding. It presents the main ideas of evolutionary psychology and also its critics.

I strongly believe that if you want to have a better understanding of the world, you should delve into this science.

A highly recommended read!

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