When I first discovered Steve Stewart-Williams, I simultaneously started reading his book, The Ape That Understood The Universe: How The Mind and Culture Evolve, and enjoying his Twitter feed. I regularly link to the latter on Fridays, my day of the week for writing about and linking to stories and videos featuring non-human animals. But for some reason, I got interrupted when reading this book, and have only now got around to reading it properly. I am about half way through it, as I write this.
I am enjoying it because it says everything I already believe about how my species evolved into what it now is, but much better than I could say it. I am finding out, you might say, all the things I believe about evolution, and about the evolution of the human species in particular. I can summarise what I think of this book in the modern phrase: What he said. Or, even more briefly: That.
The central and recurring argument Stewart-Williams deploys, to explain why the contents of the human mind are just as much a product of evolution as the attributes of the human body, is the fact that all the other animals clearly have mental habits that must have evolved, so why should we humans, who are also animals, be any different?
Were we humans the entirely separate creations, quite unlike mere animals, that old-school Christians used to say we were, then for our minds to be entirely different from those of animals might make more sense. As it is, given that we are products of the same evolutionary process that made all the other animals, the “blank slate” notion of the human mind makes no sense at all.
One thing I did – not “learn” exactly – but hear for the first time from a scientist of human evolution, concerned the aggressiveness of the human male. Many human masculine characteristics have evolved not so much because human females like them, but more because other human males are intimidated by them. Males who defeat other males in competition achieve high status, and high status and the resources that accompany it are what human females especially like, rather than necessarily liking the particular characteristics that achieve that high status. Male aggressive characteristics are, metaphorically speaking, deer antlers more than they are peacock tails. They are at least as much for making human males into top dogs, so to speak, as they are for directly impressing the ladies. I can’t help noticing that some human females are impressed, directly, by male aggression. They like to watch men fighting, for instance. But others are very put off by such behaviour, and especially, of course, if it is ever directed against them.
Just about every lesson Stewart-Williams is trying to teach his readers is a lesson I had either worked out for myself, or something I had sort-of worked out, or something I understood the point of as soon as he said it. The above lesson, about how human male aggressiveness is more like antlers than like peacock tails falls into category three. I hadn’t worked that one out properly, but yes, as soon as I read this I knew it had to be right.