The Ape That Understood the Universe: How The Mind and Culture Evolve, Steve Stewart-Williams

Let me start by saying that this book was even further out of my average reading zone than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I chose it specifically because it was out of the realm of what I would normally read, but woah. It has been a relatively long time since I have read (cover to cover) a popular science book, but I would say that this one pushes the line on the ‘popular’ bit of that genre title. The Ape That Understood the Universe is, as you might guess, about the species Homo Sapiens and how we evolved (literally) to what we are today: essentially, an ape that understands the universe (theoretically!).

I quickly discovered (this will teach me for assuming what a book will be about based on the cover and a scan of the blurb!) that this book teaches you about genetic evolution and evolutionary psychology, and how those two realms actually affect and are affected by each other. I’m not going to lie, I don’t have a ‘science-brain’ so a little of what is in this book was tough for me to wrestle with, but I did actually enjoy that. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s been a while since I was truly challenged by learning something new, mostly because as an academic I ‘stay in my lane’ most of the time, so my lane is starting to look pretty familiar. This was challenging for me. I mean, I believe in science more than an invisible being in the heavens, so the concept of genetics and genetic evolution isn’t something I’m totally unfamiliar with, but nor is it something I’ve ever really thought about seriously. Going with the lanes analogy, this one is on a superhighway three miles to the left of me.

It was incredibly interesting to learn about normally-incomprehensible topics from someone who clearly knows what they’re on about, but also has the knack of explaining these things to non-subject matter experts like yours truly. Could I explain to you exactly what Mr. Stewart-Williams tried to explain to me? Yeah, probably not, except in the most general sense. However, the concepts introduced and the way that they are explained in this book made me really percolate the arguments and evidence being put forward, and I truly enjoyed the appendices at the end of the book (How to win an argument with a blank-slater (i.e., the nurture-only POV-ers)).

Would I have read this book had I actually properly looked at the content? Honestly, probably not and that would have been a damn shame. I really enjoyed this one, and I learned a lot from it. That said, it’s never going to be a book you sit down to breeze through and relax with, unless you do have a science-brain and aren’t angered by evolutionary psychology which makes scientific sense and I will now fight you about this.

I recommend this book for a bit of brain-training and education, and also just to take a break from what you normally read. It’s good for you!

Five star read, people.


Image credits: the inset image of the phone was taken by me; the featured image of the book cover came from the publisher’s page for this book.

Disclaimer: I did request and receive a review copy of this title through Netgalley, but as with all my reviews the provenance of the title does not affect my honest opinion of the content.

Categories: Psychology

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