Transcript for Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams – Evolutionary Biology

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huiling interesting content his name is

dr. Steve Stewart Williams Steve Stewart

Williams is an author and researcher who

delves into how the theories from

evolutionary biology might help us

understand our human behavior and

culture he attained his PhD in

psychology and philosophy at Macy

University in New Zealand and is an

associate professor of psychology at

Nottingham University at the Malaysia

campus Steve has written a number of

books looking at evolutionary topics and

conundrums his latest book is called the

ape that understood the universe and how

the mind and culture evolved dr. Steve

it’s a pleasure to have you on the show

sir welcome to hxp thanks very much

pleasure to be here so wow you know I’ve

got the book in my hand the ape that

understood the universe it’s a really

interesting perspective that you start

with you know why don’t you start why

don’t you kick us off by giving us a

little bit of your background how how

did you get into this work

well so I’m originally a Kiwis let me

just say that first I’m a Kiwi I’m from

New Zealand originally that’s where my

accents from if you’re trying to place

the accent so how did I get into it well

it was actually I’ve always been

interested in the kind of the big issues

in science and philosophy where we came

from why we are the way we are the real

turning point though was a pair of books

one of them was a book called the moral

animal by Robert Wright which is about

evolutionary psychology and then a

second one was a book by Steven Pinker

called how the mind works and those two

books they really got me into

evolutionary psychology the thing that

really struck me is that the theories

and evolutionary psychology that there

is from evolutionary biology I just very

very powerful they have a lot of

explanatory a loving spirit or power in

terms of explaining human beings human

nature and why we behave the way that we

do and they’re just really into

intellectually satisfying explanations

ok ok so then you know it seems like you

took a very macro cosmic view on what it

would look like to another civilization

if they came to visit our planet and

studied it right that’s that’s how you

begin the book yeah that’s right so I

basically the main gimmick of the book

is that it starts with the perspective

an alien scientist I have a sort of

hypothetical scientific article written

by an alien scientist from the planet

Betelgeuse 3 who comes from a thread of

weird species that doesn’t have males

and females they don’t fall in love they

don’t have families they don’t have

music or art or reality TV or anything

else like that and I start by asking so

how would a being like that completely

different from us

how would it view our species and the

short answer is that it would just be

very very puzzled by our species and it

would just have a ton of questions about

us we want to know why don’t they come

in two main forms and males and females

and why do the males and females differ

from each other but but don’t differ as

much from each other as for instance

male gorillas or male peacocks male male

and female gorillas peacocks deer etc

why do they fall in love why this blue

I’m not always go smoothly

why do they get jealous

if the person they’re in love with

decides to get involved with somebody

else why do they tend to look after

their own children rather than the

next-door neighbor’s children why do

they kind of hypnotize themselves with

these rhythmical sounds of with

different pitches sure it’s etem yeah

and I use that so the point of that

basically is to to look at our species

and to get the reader to look at our

species anew as if for the first time

and say look at all the stuff you take

for granted and it’s come so naturally

to you you might not even think that it

requires an explanation all the stuff is

kind of strange it didn’t have to be

this way why is it this way so okay so

let’s define evolution how do you define


well evolution and in the biological

sense it refers to a change in the

frequency of genes within the gene pool

and that’s all it is really so it’s it’s

change over time a key ingredient of

evolution is natural selection so you

get natural selection of genes with an

evolutionary biology you can actually

also extend that into the cultural realm

and you get that the natural selection

of different kinds of cultural variants

some do better than others and and

that’s why cultural evolutionary theory

looks in I can tell you sorry go ahead

no no go ahead god please finish my best

thinking I find one of the most useful

ways to to introduce evolutionary theory

and how you can apply to the mind and

behavior is to think about how you apply

evolutionary principles to explain into

anatomical features and other animals so

so one question might be why don’t–why

de Lyonne have those big sharp fangs

okay so why do those evolve why they

useful if the lion and the answer of

course is that they’re they’re useful

for catching prey and then for once the

prey is caught they useful for devouring

the brain why do gazelles have really

fast legs well that’s so they can run

away from the Lions run run away from

other predators now whatever we share

psychology does is it takes that

explanatory framework and it applies it

to the human mind and human behavior so

you might ask for instance why is it

that if we haven’t eaten for a while we

feel the sensation there’s motivation

called hunger so why is that and that’s

pretty clear right we have

this motivation because it pushes us and

prompts us to go and get some food that

we need to fuel our bodies and build our

bodies now the question might be why do

we have sexual desire and the idea there

of course is that it motivates certain

kinds of behavior that throughout the

bulk of our evolutionary history in

other words before we have better birth

control reliably resulted in offspring

and we pass on our genes that way

parental care is another one why do we

have this love for our offspring and

that’s because it motivates us to care

for our offspring so that one day they

can start this whole cycle all over


hmm okay so so it’s a matter of genes

and they’re editing and you know

reproduction that’s is that the basis of

what I’m looking at reproduction is

about 95 percent of it for human beings

it does also apply though natural

selection can favor traits that allow us

to help relatives other than our

offspring as well so so what is about

100 percent of what it’s about is is

passing on our genes so a selection

favors traits that lead us typically to

pass on our genes and the rationale for

that is that if you mention any gene

that came along that caused its owner to

pass on its genes less reliably that is


well that gene is soon going to

evaporate from the gene pool and we’re

just going to have left those genes that

cause their owners to pass on their

genes reliably ok so so the the alien

anthropologist that came from the planet

Betelgeuse I mean tell us a little bit

more about what he would encounter or he

or she or it would encounter when when

it encountered our species in this

male/female regard I mean there’s so

much of a difference in culture with us

because it evolves through time I mean

this is what isolate humans from other

creatures on the planet right it really

is yes the really big difference between

ourselves and basically every other

animal on the planet

I think is culture there are those some

sort of biological consistencies that

you do find across very very different

cultures and in sex differences are one

of those if you like maybe we could pick

one out a random shall we we could maybe

talk about sex differences and


talk about how sir biology and culture

interacts then because that’s quite an

interesting case study and it would I

think answer quite a few of the alien’s

questions about ourselves and why we

like other animals in some ways and why

we’re different in others and I guess

the first thing to say there would be

that is there’s no doubt at all that

culture and socialization and learning

do affect the propensity to aggression

and they can magnify or minimize the

size of the sex difference and


probably the best evidence that culture

is very very important here is the

evidence documented by Steven Pinker and

is both the better angels of our nature

and also an is more recent one lisent

now and he documents very convincingly

that the levels of violence have come

down pretty steadily so it’s some ups

and downs but they come down pretty

steadily over the last few decades over

the last centuries over the last

millennia as well and that’s not because

of Eylau it’s all having to fast to be

due to biological evolution there has to

be an example of a cultural change we’ve

managed to tame our aggressive instincts

but there are reasons to think that

there are aggressive instincts in the

first place that we have to tame various

reasons and one of those is just simply

that we have brain mechanisms that that

cause us to get angry and certain

circumstances give us a desire to lash

out in certain circumstances but they

don’t force it right they may give us a

motivation to do that but we can we can

import into our heads cultural software

that allows us to control them

things like counter to 10:00 when you’re

angry is a very simple idea legal

systems that incentivize not being

viciously aggressive a random and things

like them do you want me to say a little

bit about sex differences in aggression

how we know that those are not just

purely a product of culture yeah let’s

go for it okay so several lines of

evidence I guess one place to start with

that would be the fact that you find the

sex difference and basically every

culture for which we’ve got good data so

if you look for instance at homicide

records most homicides are recorded so

we do is some pretty accurate evidence

in that respect you find in every single

country without fail homicide is

overwhelmingly perpetrated by males tez

around 90% as the global average 90% of

homicides I do to men rather than women

now you might say what that’s just

because men on average is stronger and

men larger maybe maybe that’s the reason

and it could be part of it right but

actually where you also find is that in

most cultures the culture actually tries

to clamp down on male aggression and

through and therefore that in effect

reduce the size of the sex difference

and then do a lot more clamping down on

male aggression than on female

aggression just simply because males are

more aggressive what you find those that

despite the culture pushing against male

aggression males are more aggressive

anyway okay so we have an example here

of a sex difference that persists

despite culture rather than the cause of

culture now you’ll say prenatal hormonal

correlates of aggression so greater

testosterone in the womb seems to be

associated with higher levels of

aggression what else you know and

another I guess a very important one is

that you find very very similar things

and in other species you don’t find it

in all other species but importantly you

find in other species that are

evolutionarily comparable to our own

they’ve faced similar selection

pressures to our own and and one little

heuristic is that in mammals basically

the sex that is larger which is you see

the male but a sex that is larger is

also usually the more aggressive sex and

the larger the gap between the males and

females the larger the sex difference

and aggression and embarrass other

behaviors as well wow that’s fascinating

so you’re saying that like among whales

it’s different

the aggression level is based on how

much larger the other the the sex of the

male would or female would be yeah yeah

yeah so the size of the sex difference

so what a good example might be gorillas

another example would be there and both

of those species the male’s I shall tell

you what a very best example I think is

actually elephant seals so so if your

listeners are interested in googling

this Google elephant seals they’re a

really fascinating animal and one thing

that’s really fascinating about them is

that the males are about 3 or 4 times

larger than the females and then goes

hand-in-hand with it just a massive

difference in terms of aggression the

Meza vastly more aggressive

then the females are now you can tell

the difference is a lot smaller in our

species that the size difference is a

lot smaller and along with the size

difference a lot of the psychological

sex differences now species are a lot

smaller as well where we’re somewhat

dimorphic like we have moderate sex

differences but there that that they

just moderate rather than massive sex

differences hmm okay I mean I’m

intrigued by all of this information so

I mean I want to understand

I mean why why did humans evolve faster

than other animals is that the correct

term that we evolved faster I think that

I probably wouldn’t put it that way

actually I think the way that biologists

would usually say that is that every

species on the planet is equally evolved

because we’ve all been evolving for the

same length of time which is nearly 4

billion years we’re all nearly 4 billion

years of evolutionary history now we are

certainly we have certain traits that

outstrip other animals so we’re more

intelligent we have a greater cultural

capacity we can do things like Skype

each other from opposite sides of the

planet like we’re doing right now and

and other animals couldn’t possibly do

that we can go to the moon etc etc the

list is very long but although we

outstrip them in those ways that doesn’t

doesn’t mean we’re more evolved it just

means that we’ve our evolution has gone

in a different direction so evolution so

so like I mentioned right at favours

traits that allow us to pass on our

genes but they were just so many many

many different ways of doing that and

different species evolve in different

directions to do that in different ways

so how how do emotions come into play

when we’re talking about the evolution

of us species on the planet

well the main function of emotions is to

motivate behavior so if you had an

emotion that doesn’t actually cause any

kind of behavioural effect it couldn’t

have any evolutionary effect it couldn’t

cause you to survive better or have more

offspring or help your relatives to have

more offspring and it would therefore be

invisible to natural selection so

emotions motivate behavior so just like

hunger motivates the desire to eat anger

motivates certain kind of behavior


self-protective behavior of him disgust

motivates us to stay away from things

that might like like food that’s gone

off and would make us sick or bacteria

that might harm us what other emotions

with some more complex ones as well

actually coming to the mix so jealousy

is one existence yeah yeah I was just

about to go there I apologize so much

jealousy yeah bring up jealousy quite a

bit so like Mia Guardian how does that

work yeah well some mate guarding is the

kind of behavior that jealousy motivates

right so so jealousy both sexes now

species are prone to jealousy and at a

very general level it has the same

function in both so humans are a pair

bonding species we fall in love we form

pair bonds and if children Cameron

aren’t seen we often engage in by

parental care

now pair bonds are adaptive for both

sexes that’s why both sexes fall in love

it’s not just one or other sex if falls

in love that indicates that they’re

adaptive for both of us what jealousy

does is it basically motivates behavior

that leads us to protect the pair bond

so and that’s called may curling so we

guard our mates if we try to retain our

mates and we keep them happy we try to

keep them away from potential you know

individuals that might try to poach them

away from us so that’s that’s the main

function now there are actually there

are some sex differences and when you

look more specifically at the function

of of jealousy and mate guarding for men

it’s mainly about paternity so in

species like our own that have internal

fertilization there’s always a

difference in that the females are more

likely to end up investing in their own

offspring than the male’s own so in

humans for instance there’s been no case

and the entire history of the planet

where a woman has given birth to a baby

and then thought hang on a minute how do

I know that this is my baby and not some

other woman’s baby but there’s never


remain on the other hand if if their

wife or their partner gives birth to a

kid that’s probably their kid but

there’s always some chance that actually

some other guys some other glascott and


some other guys kid they’re going to end

up investing in the jeans that are not

their own and that trade is going to be

selected against basically in that

context any trait that comes along that

means that the guy is more likely to to

look after his his own kids than the

kids with a good-looking next-door

neighbor any trader does that has a good

chance of being selected and jealousy is

one such trade right so there’s the kind

of jealousy that makes men keep an eye

on their partners or their wives keep an

eye on the good-looking next-door

neighbor and try to do what he can to

keep them apart at any trait like

jealousy that any gene that comes along

it creates that kind of trading just

automatically going to be copied into

more new bodies than a gene that

inclines a guy to think well you know in

a cow I mean I’m an enlightened guy I

don’t care my wife sleeps with other

dudes so there’s the male side of the

equation know that for women it’s a bit

different so for women the main purpose

of jealousy relates to paternal care so

care from the father and basically

throughout much of our evolutionary

history having sex reliably led the kids

and kids were a lot of work and woman

women couldn’t really do it alone and in

that context women who had an investing

partner a guy who is willing and able to

look at help and look after the kid

especially in the early years well they

would do better and have more surviving

offspring than that woman who doesn’t

have that and so just as jealousy is

useful for men it becomes useful for

women as well to protect the pair bond

to try to get a good-looking next-door

neighbor if it’s a woman from from

poaching away her mate because you want

the couple to stay committed to the baby

that they’re at the offspring that

they’re raising exactly at least in the

short term and you know pea bonds and

our species they sometimes last for life

often they don’t bother so so most

people fall in love more than once in

their lifetime so I mean how would you

pay tribute to the stereotype that men

are more fate in favour of casual sex

because it does happen yeah yeah yeah

well that is that’s a very widespread

stereotype and I think the reasons for

it was what spread is that’s true it is

actually the case there there are

average differences between men and

in terms of how interested they are in

casual sex now it should probably

preface this by saying that so that

doesn’t mean that there are differences

necessarily in terms of how interested

they are long-term relationships and men

and women tend to be pretty pretty much

similar in terms of how interested they

are in long-term relationships the

differences rarely come when it comes to

short-term relationships and the

evolutionary logic behind this that

people are pretty familiar whether –

it’s quite well known these days I guess

it’s fair to say though that actually

people sometimes get a bit muddled up

and people think it’s because sperm less

costly than eggs and and men have

produced many many more sperm their

women can produce eggs it’s actually not

not quite about that it’s actually about

parental investment more generally and

basically women like mammals in general

women have a higher what’s called a

blicket or a physiological investment

and the young so in other words women

the ones that get pregnant and that’s

non-negotiable where were the ones that

had to give birth to the kid again Don

the Vote negotiable and until recently

that they also would have had to

breastfeed the kid now that’s optional

but until very recently that was

obligatory as well and on top of that

women and all cultures invest more in

the offspring and terms of direct

hands-on child care then men go even

today actually you know that one of the

big things that makes our species

different from most mammals is that the

men do invest as well quite a lot of

other time but still there is a there is

a sex difference there and the overall

sex difference is that women are this

more in a spring band do men now as a

result of that it creates very different

selection pressures on men and women so

if you imagine a guy if he was to have

say three sexual partners in a year

potentially he could have three

offspring at the end of that year sure a

woman on the other hand if she would

have three sexual partners in the course

of a year more than likely she’s going

to have no more offspring than she would

if she only had one and obviously other

things come into it but this would have

created a selection pressure on

ancestral males throughout the course of

our evolution for a stronger desire to

seek out multiple partners and for a

stronger desire for no-strings-attached

sex casual sex in other words and we do

indeed see that and every culture where

we have good evidence you do find that

difference so so wait let me get this

right so

whew if you had an island and you had 99

women and one male on that island the

one male could spread his seed to those

99 women and have potentially 99

offspring but if you exact 99 men and

one woman on that I let the same I that

a different Island then I mean the the

likely there’s there’s there’s all this

competition now right yeah exactly and

she’d only be able to have one kid at

the end of that time and there’s a

really good example a she because that

really makes the point very very clear

so so basically the maximum number of

offspring that a man can have is much

much higher than the maximum that a

woman can have as fast it’s really

fascinating to look at the the

psychology aspect of this because it

does work in and I mean you when you

were studying for this you you I think

we talked about in the pre-show that you

did you move to Malaysia to do the

research for the show or the for the

book yeah yeah yeah so so started in New

Zealand and we then went to Canada and I

work with to the big names in

evolutionary psychology Martin daily and

Martha Wilson then we lived in way I was

for about six years and then moved out

here to Malaysia originally that was

just to be I was on sabbatical to start

work on the book and the ape that

understood the universe actually turned

out that we really love living here

the food is great the weather is great

the people are great and so we decided

we wanted the same so that’s how I got

this job at University of Nottingham

okay okay so would you would you say

that you are a hardcore scientist I’d

like to think I am yeah I mean what I

mean to say by that is I mean how does

religion play into this because it mean

that there should be the God quotient

right what’s that what’s the goal

question I mean do you believe in God

III don’t know okay so you’re anything

and sorry and I’m an atheist yeah and

that’s I don’t comma n oh rather than I

don’t kN I’m guessing you do you do you

I would say I’m an agnostic you know I’m

somewhere in the middle somewhere but

you know religion does seem to play a

really large role in the evolution of

culture and our species so how do

you define that in the book well in the

book I look at for instance how the

concept of God might have evolved and

how religious morality is as well might

have evolved there are a few ideas there

one is that a lot of ideas that you get

in religion including the notion of what

are called big gods so so guys like the

judeo-christian God that there are

moralistic gods that watch everything we

do and that reward us for good behavior

punish us for bad behavior so so one

idea is that that was selected

culturally not not genetically but

culturally because any group that had

those kind of ideas those kind of memes

did better because people behaved better

now in in small groups like the groups

who spend most of our evolutionary

history you don’t really need those kind

of incentives to behave well because

everybody knows everybody else and we

kind of keep each other on line with

just everyday you know approval of other

people’s behavior disapproval of their

bad behavior but when groups get too big

you need other kind of things to keep us

in line and the idea here is that big

God’s evolved culturally for that

purpose they cause people to behave well

even when actually they probably could

get away with it and large anonymous

societies they could get away with bad

behavior but they have in the back of

the mind there are these big guys

watching them and so they do less of

that that’s one idea and another idea is

the idea that God is is kind of like a

catchy meme so you know the air one’s

right the concept of their worms no okay

so so those are like you might know the

word they definitely know what they are

they’re basically annoyingly catchy

tunes right there Oh obviously an

amateurish and they the system the

culture not because they’re good for us

not because they’re good for the core as

a whole but just because they’re catchy

they catch amines and another idea about

the evolution of the Gaia concept is

that it’s evolved culturally over the

ages just to be very very appealing to

us and to be to be an affair too catchy


and sometimes it’s good for us sometimes

it’s not and that that’s true of

religious ideas in general but they

stick around not necessarily because

they’re good for us or for our groups

but just because they’re good for

themselves and that they stick in our

minds and they stick around in the

culture so so humans invented God not

the other way around

yeah and not that says that somebody sat

down and made it up but just in the

sense that it kind of just just evolved

culturally and our species so do you

think do you think that this was just to

determine for groups larger than a

hundred people that were they didn’t

know each other it was a better way to

determine morality like how to keep

people yeah control yeah yeah exactly

and you do say that like it’s not the

only way to do it and you can have moral

systems that are secular and they seem

to work quite well as well you can have

you know CCTV cameras and you know

policing of society and where that kind

of thing comes along sometimes religious

belief seems to decline maybe because

it’s no longer needed as much okay okay

so I mean when you were when you were

doing the research for the book and when

you were putting it together were you

looking at the scope of where we’ve been

and where we are now like how did you

how did you assign the role of

Technology and where the future is right

now yes so no social media I mean things

change our culture recently well I’ll

tell you we’re in a stage at the moment

where things are changing very very fast

right and I didn’t actually said too

much about that I’d be at the end of the

book I touched briefly on where we are

now and where we’re headed and actually

I collect I was planning to say quite a

bit on their topic Claire did a whole

bunch of notes and in the end I just saw

a man but this is just it’s just so hard

to predict where we’re going and I don’t

actually know where we go

and so I in the end decided that the

wise move would be not to say too much

about where we’re going in the future

except say just a few things one is that

we are certainly gaining more and more

power over the planet and over ourselves

and over the future of the earth so

whatever happens

it’s probably to be a big deal we need

to be you know hopefully we’re not going

to destroy ourselves I tend to be

optimistic I think probably we’re going

to probably we’re going to do all right

but either way we are more and more

getting into the driver’s seat of the

planet as a whole

okay one other thing that sorry go ahead

I was gonna say one other thing is that

social media I think is really going to

accelerate the process of cultural

evolution because it makes it so much

easier for ideas to fly around the place

very very quickly the bad ideas spread

but also for bad ideas to be debunked so

for better or worse it’s all

accelerating going much faster I mean it

sounds like a very optimistic view of

where the world is headed

I mean it’s considering the environment

crisis I mean it yep so so you’re

presuming that you know the species is

going to continue evolving continue

expanding culture is going to continue

changing and we’re going to survive and

that’s the assumption

once this assumption if I had to guess

one way or the other that’s best the way

I would guess but I certainly like I’m

not like hyper optimistic I certainly

think that it’s possible they kind of

mess everything up mess up the planet

okay a little bit off-track here I’m

gonna get back on track now you talk

about altruism quite a bit your alien

scientists he’s trying to understand the

concept of being altruistic let’s let’s

define altruism first sure well Ultra

ISM the weather biologists look at it is

it’s any act that helps another

individual and a cost to the optimist

and it’s usually defined in terms of

helping other individual terms of

survival reproductive success and the

cost of the survival and reproductive

success of the person engaged in the

altruistic behavior and the reason this

is such a focus it’s really I think one

of the most fascinating areas within

evolutionary biology and the reason is

that at first glance when you first hear

about evolutionary theory you might not

expect us to evolve to be altruistic at

all you might think okay well what I’ve

heard is that evolutionary theory it’s

all about the survival of fittest

presumably that means that you’re going

to get selection for individuals that

just look out for

and couldn’t care less about anybody

else and they try to elbow everybody

else out of the way so you get selection

for the sharpest elbows and just the

meanest people a you know you said we do

get some that there’s plenty of

selfishness and human beings plain of

human selfishness right throughout the

animal kingdom but the funny thing was

strange thing and this is something that

I think would pass allow our alien

scientists is that as well as that you

do also get a surprising amount of

kindness and altruism and and caring for

other individuals it’s especially common

among among relatives well please

continue I mean um you know when when

you’re looking at altruism are you are

you suggesting that you know there’s I

think you said this I mean there’s

there’s a price do you think that

serving yourself would go further

genetically in some circumstances it

does but in some circumstances it

doesn’t it actually is better for the

the genes of the individual altruist to

be out to a second certain circumstances

so you’re the main one and the one that

you can see just right throughout the

living world is altruism toward genetic

relatives and the basic idea is that

organisms share more genes with their

relatives than they do with anybody else

on the planet and as a result of that

any gene that comes along that helps

lead to the development of a tendency to

help one’s genetic relatives

well that gene can spread just because

that gene is more likely than chance to

be found in those very relatives in

other words in the recipients of the

hell so that’s called kin selection and

it’s very very powerful force in nature

you find it not only in humans so you do

find it in humans and you find it right

across cultures etc but you also find

many other species as well and birds you

find that in paddy bees and ants in fact

it’s not even just limited to animals

you find it in plants as well you find a

bacterial viruses even it’s just this

very very deep trend right throughout

the the natural world wow that’s totally

fascist so it’s ok so you’re saying that

altruism is just a gene and it’s edited

in or out based on how you know well it

does like how natural selection

yeah so it’s probably not one gene but

like many many genes so most complex

traits are product of thousands or tens

of thousands of separate genes all

interacting but yeah altruism in some

cases can be a product of I guess what

you call genetic self-interest so the

individual organism is behaving non

selfishly and that they’re helping

another individual but the genes giving

rise to their trade they’re actually

keeping themselves afloat in the gene

pool because of the effects that they

have on individual basically on copies

of themselves and other individuals okay

so I mean clearly the human is more

nuanced culturally than say a whale or a

turtle even you know like we we see we

seem to have these trends and music and

fashion how did you equate those two the

relationship to natural selection does

it relate at all to the advancement of

evolution yeah I think it does in two

ways fiscally so I completely agree that

culturally we’re just a completely

differently than any other species

completely different than whales and

chimpanzees and you know all these other

species they do actually had some degree

of culture so they can make up different

ways to make a living or to extract food

whales have different whale songs and

they spread among the group culturally

but we’ve taken it to a whole new league

we just completely out of this world

compared to other species now natural

selection I think ties them were there

in two ways one is that natural

selection gave us the capacity of the

culture in the first place so I think

what must have happened is that

somewhere along the line we were we were

less intelligent we have less of a

cultural capacity but we started we

maybe had the level of culture you find

a chimpanzees and so we started making

up these clever little tricks for how to

get food at a processed food and so on

shelter clothe and that kind of thing

once we had a stockpile of those kind of

cultural items the bear became useful

they were so useful that individuals we

could pick them up more quickly they did

better so you would have selection for

greater intelligence a greater ability

to copy other individuals and pick

the culture and because they they do

better they had more offspring and that

tendency increased we became more and

more of a smart cultural animal

we then invented even more clever

culture which increased the level of

selection for being a smart cultural

animal and so on and so on so that’s how

the cultural capacity evolved but then

once it did evolve it’s it’s like a

really open-ended kind of system so if

you can learn one thing you can learn

hundreds of other things and because

it’s open-ended that meant that it to

some degree it came off the genetic

leash and culture started evolving in

its own right by itself independently of

our biology and at that point natural

selection zooms in and start selecting

from among different means different

cultural elements so you have a whole

bunch of different Tunes for instance

they’re bunch of different songs the

ones that are going to stick in people’s

minds better they’re the ones that

people are going to remember more

they’re going to they’re going to hum

them they got to sing them the song is

got to spread better and so you get a

cultural selection pressure for the

catchiest songs the most pleasant song

so there wasn’t people like the most or

at least in the case of ear worms the

ones that they can go out of their heads

even if they don’t like them and the

same applies to art the same applies to

stories you would get selection for more

and more riveting stories more and more

riveting movies and TV partly because

people are trying to make up riveting

movies or riveting TV shows and trying

to make up good songs but it’s also

metal selection gets in there as well

and has an independent effect just

because you know I might want to write

the greatest song or make the greatest

piece of art but I can’t just do that

just because I want to and so you had to

have selection among the many many

different variants that people come out

with and that guy’s the the evolution of

culture as well so you you call this the

memes I view of cultural evolution is

that the way you call it or that the

Isleta fits right okay so and that

traces back to an idea from Richard

Dawkins basically so the genes I view of

evolution let’s the idea we were talking

about earlier basic idea there is that

the genes that get selected genes that

have effects on their owners their

cause those jeans to stay in the gene

pool so it so making sharper teeth

faster legs a motivation to eat when

you’re hungry etc that the memes I view

on the other hand that’s the idea at the

memes that are selected are the ones

that have effects or the people who

encounter them that cause them to act in

ways that keep those memes in the

culture so you know better stories

catchy tunes all those kind of things

ideas and motivate people to they want

to talk about these talk about certain

ideas they want to pass them on they

want to impose them on other people

those are the memes that are going to do

better memes that have less of those

effect they gonna disappear out of the

culture so natural selection on memes

hmmm so like the tide challenge I mean

that’s a form of natural selection yeah

yeah the tide pot challenge right so

there was a year or so ago made a couple

years ago a bunch of teenagers in

particular were they had this challenge

where they were eat at iPod not a good

idea right and and then actually that

raises a quite a big question it’s not

something else that the alien would be

very very mystified by is that we do

often engage in this really weird

behavior that doesn’t seem to be

adaptive it actually looks things like

that it they actually look like they’re

really maladaptive and the question that

for an evolutionist is okay so we do

this stuff how could it be adaptive and

I think the answer is that it’s not

adaptive at all it is actually as

maladaptive as a looks and I think so

then the question so why do we do this

maladaptive stuff that would really

puzzle the alien I think the reason is

that although those particular behaviors

and where challenges or load those are

maladaptive the psychological processes

that make them possible those are very

adaptive in general so those processes

are the ones we talk about in terms of

our intelligence our ability to learn

from each other our cultural capacity

and maybe most importantly just how

simply our ability to copy each other

now I think this good case to be made

that those are part of human nature it

pilots of evolution and they would only

have evolved if they were very very

useful for us in the past on average

but for Trey to be selected it doesn’t

have to be useful 100% of the time it

only has to be useful on average and

because cultural cultural capacity is so

open-ended when it evolved it just made

us vulnerable to learning maladaptive

means as well as learning adaptive ones

it’s truly fascinating it’s really

interesting how it all works I mean what

you talked a little bit about like

prestige bias and conformity bias but

can we define those two things please

yeah sure so the prestige buzz so so I

guess first thing to say would be that

we were a really good at learning but we

don’t just learn anything at all we’re

really really good at copying each other

but we don’t just copy anything or

anyone we have certain kind of biases

that generally lead us to acquire

adaptive means one of those is the

prestige bias and that is the fact that

we tend to copy and learn from

individuals who are high in status and

prestige more than we do people who are

low and status and prestige and it makes

sense right if you’re going to be

copying means you’re more likely to get

a useful one if you copy a successful

person then if you copy an unsuccessful

person we could formally bias on the

other hand that refers to the fact that

we tend to copy memes and cultural you

know ideas that are common in the

culture rather than those that are rare

and again that makes good a depth of

sense because memes that have become

common and more likely to be useful than

rare ones and so it’s better to copy

those memes than to go it alone or to

copy means that very very few people

hold now both those cases they tend to

lead us toward adaptive ideas and memes

and waster to make a living they don’t

always though so the prestige bias for

instance if we’re copying high status

people that’s a good rule of thumb but

thing is that we don’t just copy the

things that made that person higher


we copy lots of stuff and we often we

will copy irrelevant things as well so

one example would be like say it’s a

teenager copying a favorite rock star

copies not only the things that made

that rock star a success but also

you know the boss lifestyle and the drug

habit and and whatever else copying

those things too so yeah prestige buyers

usually useful but not always it’s

really interesting it makes a lot of

sense I mean it seems like then culture

itself could edit out you know the

behavior that it wants us to I mean we

so if we’re copying smarter people it

would lead to longer lifespan if we’re

copying Dumber people then you die

exactly and when you die you take those

memes to the grave with you and they’re

less available for other people to copy

so you just sort of you get it’s

automatic editing out of maladaptive

memes to some degree and the worst the

means that the the more maladaptive they

are the more likely they are to edit

themselves out of the culture so what is

this what the term cumulative culture

would be yes yes so that relates very

closely to that so cumulative culture

refers to the fact that I think it’s

probably the real success the real

secret of our success as a species and

it refers to the fact that not only did

we have culture but we have the ability

to stockpile culture and to add to the

common pool of ideas and discoveries and

technologies add to those to the pool

over time and then we can tinker with

them and improve them a little bit and

then improve them a little more in the

next generation and what that means is

that we we have science and we have

technology that no individual though the

greatest genius in history could never

have invented these things by himself or

herself just because they have they come

about through a very very slow retching

up a progression where we’re passing

these ideas down through the generations

and improving them slowly but surely

over the course of the generations and

that means that we can well tell you my

favorite example so if you think about

Plato and Aristotle so Plato and

Aristotle among the greatest thinkers of

the ancient world they were probably

vastly more intelligent than most people

living today right but most people

living today have a vastly more accurate

view of the universe than the greatest

of these these ancient thinkers that

even most preschool children have a

better understanding of the universe

because most preschool children know

that we live on a spinning rock

when a great big ball of fire they know

that they understand that even even

before they go to school often Plato and

Aristotle didn’t know that so in a

certain sense preschool children today

have a more accurate view of the

universe than did then the greatest of

the ancient thinkers but that has

nothing at all to do it biological

evolution we are basically the same

animal that we were back then

it’s got everything to do instead with

cumulative cultural evolution and our

capacity to improve our knowledge over

time wow this is really incredible to

understand that I don’t think I’ve

thought about that exactly in that way

that a preschool child would have a

better understanding of the universe

just because of the cultural evolution

and the knowledge that we gain as a

species as times time moves on yeah yeah

as I clean I think that is the right

like I say the real secret of a success

it’s quite amazing so I mean what about

the idea that technology has made people

less intelligent technology because you

know you’re looking at your phone all

day and you never have to remember a

number your phone does all the thinking

for you yeah

what happens there well they’re very

mixed arguments about that it is true

that that does take some of the pressure

to remember certain things office and we

no longer had to but I know that

Socrates for instance he worried about

reading for exactly the same reason he

thought that if literacy became

widespread that would be a really really

bad thing and it would make people less

clever and corrupt them they wouldn’t

have to remember things so much you know

I think that obviously it’s actually

gone in the reverse direction and

literacy has made us a lot more clever I

think people worried about the same

thing right throughout history and it’s

possibly just not actually such a

problem today as people are reclined to

think I mean I’m not sure I’m not sure

so I’m not saying as a hundred percent

but I think one line of evidence that I

heard of that I found very very

interesting a few years ago is that you

know people used to worry that if you

had calculators in the classroom kids

were getting useless at maths because

they just wouldn’t have to they wouldn’t

have the same demands on the internet

that they used to have but there’s at

least some evidence suggesting that it

actually goes the other way that if kids

had the calculator to the basic

operations they kind of frees up time

freeze-up cognitive power for them to

think in more depth about more abstract

aspects of mathematics and to understand

that it actually a deeper level but just

because this little tool is taking some

of the pressure off us for the basic

stuff you know maybe maybe the internet

and social media and all its kind of

things things like that maybe they’ll

have the same kind of a state you know

yeah I’m I’m truly fascinated by this

work I mean it seems you’ve really done

the research you’ve really looked at all

these things that determine behavior

culture the evolution of our species um

you know for you was there something

that challenged you the most when you

were writing the book anything that that

you found I don’t know specifically a

hurdle that you had to get past maybe a

gap in information or something like

that I probably probably mentioned the

biggest one already which is trying to

figure out what’s going to happen in the

future and I think by the time I came to

write the book with that exception I had

I basically had most of the material in

a rough form already just from having

taught it for about ten years before

that I think for me probably the the

biggest intellectual challenge became

earlier actually it was when I first

encountered these ideas and when I first

went to university and discovered

evolutionary theory got into philosophy

and that kind of thing

so so I did like I used to be really

religious I used to believe in God and

studying philosophy in particular

slowly but surely sort of changed it for

me okay I mean it seems like I mean I’m

just reading our chat and it seems like

it could go in either direction as far

as how much people connect or disconnect

to your work so you know how do you do

you find that your ideas are

controversial in any way do you find

that people attack you for the book yeah

yeah well there’s several controversial

I think so one area that’s quite

controversial is the area of sex

differences a lot of folks are not big

fans of the idea that we have evolved

sex differences I think that

evidence is very strong that we do I

think I think I do understand where it

comes from to some degree so I know

other past right that there have been

lots of various sexist claims made

supposedly by scientists you know and

the garb of science in the 1800s for

instance there was this guy Gustav Lebon

he basically came out and said well you

know you do actually find some women who

has intellectually accomplished as men

but a very very rare they’re as rare in

fact as a two-headed gorilla or any

other kind of monstrosity something

really really sexist obviously all so

needless to say not true but you can

sort of understand when we have

skeletons like that in our closet that

that actually you can see why people are

about wary about going down this path of

looking at sex differences

I don’t think actually that it’s a

problem though I think that most of the

six differences a relatively modest I

think that a lot of them are in areas

where you know it did the kind of

neutral rather than very very important

things important things like

intelligence there are no sex

differences in that respect and another

thing a lot of them actually what sort

of things we talk about an evolutionary

psychology if anything they put men in

the worst light then they put women so

when we’re talking about things like sex

differences in an aggression and

violence and things like that you know

there’s a bad trait so they’re actually

putting men in the worst light than

women and one other thing I say about

that is that um I think that people be

worried that these looking at sex

differences is going to set back the

women’s liberation movement I think

that’s a mistake

I think that we can we can treat both

sexes fairly and respectfully even if

men and women differ on average and

certain respects okay Steve I’ve got one

question for you I really appreciate you

yeah I’m tonight with us you know

something that I noticed about your work

is you ultimately ended up with what

might be called a gloomy conclusion

about what life may or may not mean here

which is that life has no meaning no

purpose and I mean how do we connect

with this it seems like such a

depressing idea – yeah relate to

it is a bit of a drag so that’s from my

first book Darwin Garden the meaning of

life and what let’s say there I think

probably the way I want to put it is not

that life has no meaning

but rather there’s no ultimate meaning

to life so there’s no meaning to life

that’s imposed on us from outside of

ourselves there’s no meaning opposed by

a god or gods there’s no meaning

imprinted into the basic fabric fabric

of the universe and that can certainly

be a depressing conclusion for people

who have been brought up to think that

that is the case that actually there is

an ultimate meaning of life over and

above our own personal meanings but I

think people pretty quickly get used to

the idea I certainly did so this is what

I was referring to another saying one of

the big challenges for me so certainly

when I came to that view I did think it

was a bit of a drag but I did because it

is but a you know very quickly we can

recalibrate our standards and I think

that actually we do have personal

meanings and our lives that we create

for ourselves and I think that as soon

as you get used to the fact that there’s

no god-given or universal kind of

meaning in life you can’t get used to

the fact that the meanings that you have

in your life are created by yourself and

there is actually there’s a silver

lining in that cloud and that’s that it

actually gives us a whole bunch more

freedom to choose the kind of meanings

that we adopt for our lives we become

much more free than we would be if

there’s some kind of meaning imposed on

us from outside and you know it’s it

sounds like a going to conclusion but

actually I think that life is good and

it can be great and we’re trying to make

it better and I think we’re succeeding

in that respect and I think that’s

enough yeah I think that’s an app to

answer it you know I I really appreciate

your work it it got me to kind of

question my own ideas and really

challenged those which I appreciate it

and usually we go in a different

direction on this show so you know like

I said in the pre-show I really wanted

to look at the other side of the coin of

you know how how does how would an

evolutionary scientist look at the way

that culture and humans have evolved you

know I I think we covered pretty much

everything that we could

in about an hour was there was there

anything I want to give you a chance it

was there anything that you wanted to

touch on that that we haven’t touched on

yet I let me think I actually think we

did quite a good job of covering some of

the main things and I see I gotta say I

really really enjoyed that yeah me too

so where can people where can people go

and get the book where can people find

your work yeah I think that the best way

to get hold of the book is probably

Amazon globally if you’re in the UK go

to the Cambridge website or or Amazon

but better fill up in the UK Amazon is

your best bet just Google eight that

understood the universe or Google my

name if I’m on Twitter is probably the

best place to find me and social media

and my twitter handle is at Steve’s too

well so at ste ve s T u WI Double L it

sounds good doctor Steve thank you so

much for your time guys you heard it

here thank you the the book is called

the ape that understood the universe my

guest his name is dr. Steve Stuart

Williams if you really want to challenge

your thinking and take a different look

at some of the stuff that we cover here

on hxp it I would recommend the read I

really do

so we’re gonna get out of here we’ll see

you guys next week thank you so much for

listening and we are out

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