Steve Stewart-Williams’ book about human evolution in all its various fascinating forms begins with an intriguing premise – that we’re so busy being human we don’t stop to notice what strange creatures we are, so what would happen if we examined ourselves from the perspective of a hyper -intelligent alien species? It’s a novel way of tackling a dry subject, but Stewart-Williams doesn’t do enough with it to make it interesting. Maybe if he’d channelled Mork from Ork sending a report back to Orson the outcome would have been different, but as it stands The Ape that Understood the Universe – despite being packed with interesting ideas – is a hard slog to get through.
During that slog, Stewart-Williams discusses everything from Charles Darwin, the differences between the sexes (did you know that the largest number of children any woman has given birth to is sixty-nine?! True, it was nineteenth-century Russia and there was no TV…), dating, mating and baby-making, our capacity for altruism and culture, and how to win an argument with someone who’s on a complete downer when it comes to evolutionary psychology and memetics. Of course, our answer to that would be “why bother?” but that would rather undermine the whole point of the book.
Working from the visiting alien’s central question – how did an ape evolve the intelligence to understand the vastness of our universe? – Stewart-Williams ticks off our survival-of-the-fittest imperative to live long healthy lives so that our genes can be passed on for generations, and then spends a lot of time discussing the differences between sexes and the often very opposite desires that motivate us. He also raises the indisputable point that our civilisation is, at any given time, potentially able to enjoy the sum total of all the thousands of years of knowledge that came before it. To that degree, it’s both a hopeful book and a deeply depressing one. After all, the way we’re currently allowing history to repeat itself (in the worst possible way) means we might be standing on the summit of mankind’s knowledge but we’re still refusing to learn from our ancestors' mistakes. Still, we've invented VR goggles and the iPhone X so it can’t be all bad.
If you’re in the market for an academic tome that’s dressed itself up with a quasi sci-fi conceit to make itself sound more approachable, then The Ape that Understood the Universe is for you. Otherwise, if you want to find out more about the evolution of the species, there are plenty of less intensely written books out there. But that’s just our opinion. Maybe we’re just The Ape that Didn’t Understand The Ape that Understood the Universe…
THE APE THAT UNDERSTOOD THE UNIVERSE / AUTHOR: STEVE STEWART-WILLIAMS / PUBLISHER: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW