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Sociobiological approaches have made great inroads into psychological science over the last few decades. This has not come without a fight. One of the main fronts on which the battle has been fought is the origins of human sex differences. Evolutionary psychologists have made a strong case that many basic sex differences in our species have an evolutionary origin; the case is now so strong, in fact, that it seems unreasonable to deny a significant evolutionary contribution. A question mark remains, however, over the relative magnitude of the evolved differences. Are we highly dimorphic, polygynous animals like peacocks? Or are we relatively monomorphic, pair-bonding animals like robins? In this chapter, I argue that we are closer to the latter than the former – a fact that makes us somewhat anomalous among the animals. In many species, the males alone compete for mates and the females alone choose from among the males on offer.
This book is about the strangest animal in the world – the animal that’s reading these words and the animal that wrote them: the human animal. Because we’re so used to being human, and to living with humans, we sometimes don’t notice what a peculiar creature we are. As a corrective, I want to begin by looking at our species from a new perspective. This perspective might initially seem somewhat alien to you… but so it should because that’s the perspective we’ll be using. We’ll be looking at our species through the eyes of a hypothetical, hyperintelligent alien – an anthropologist from the planet Betelgeuse III – as it visits the Earth on an intergalactic Beagle and studies us “as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” But this isn’t just any old hyperintelligent alien. It’s a gender-neutral, asexual, asocial, amoral, areligious, and amusical alien. It is, in other words, a stranger to many elements of human life that are so familiar to us that we simply take them for granted. And that’s why its perspective is useful. The alien’s uncomprehending eyes will make the familiar seem strange, waking us to aspects of humanity that we normally overlook and which are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice require an explanation.
I first heard this wisecrack as a graduate student in psychology, and it instantly rang true. In everyday life, most people recognize that the sexes differ. We see it at school; we see it at work; we see it in our kids and in ourselves. To start with, we know that men and women have different bodies and reproductive equipment, that men are generally larger and stronger, and that women generally live longer. But we also know that the differences are not just physical. We know that men watch more sports and more porn, whereas women watch more rom-coms and read more. We know that men are more inclined toward violence and more likely to end up in prison, whereas women are more likely to take sensible precautions. We know that men are more interested in things and machines, whereas women are more interested in people. And we know that men are more likely to go into “nerdy” professions such as math or engineering, whereas women are more likely to go into the caring professions and to spend more time looking after children.
In 2011, the Australian state of Queensland suffered extreme flooding. As with any disaster, this one left many tales of heroism in its wake. Among the most poignant is the story of thirteen-year-old Jordan Rice. Jordan had been out shopping with his mum, Donna, and his younger brother, Blake. They were in the car heading home when, out of the blue, they found themselves caught in the middle of a flash flood. Unable to drive any further, and unable to get to dry land, the three scrambled onto the roof of the car and then sat there, stranded in the middle of a violent torrent of water. Fortunately, some bystanders saw what had happened. One man – Warren McErlean – tied one end of a rope to a post, and the other around his waist, and then pushed his way through the rapidly rising waters to the car. He reached for Jordan, but Jordan pulled away, begging him to save his little brother first. McErlean complied: He picked Blake up and carried him quickly to safety. Before he had time to rescue the others, however, a sudden surge of water flipped the car. Jordan and his mum were swept away and killed.
To say that human beings are interesting is an understatement. We’re freaks of nature! We’re blobs of matter that fall in love with each other. We’re mammals with the child-rearing patterns of birds. We’re mortal beings that, alone among the animals, know that we’re going to die one day and flee in terror from this knowledge. We’re bald apes that can think each other’s thoughts simply by making noises at each other. We’re creatures designed by a cruel, amoral process which invent moral codes for ourselves and sometimes even live up to them. We’re carnivores that sympathize with our food. We’re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes, but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves. We’re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality. And we’re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds.
Guess what? Earlier today, I received some good news. I don’t want to say too much about it in case I jinx it, but… well, just between you and me, I got a letter today that was sent to me for good luck. The letter has been around the world nine times already. I’ll receive good luck within four days of getting it – providing I send it on. This is no joke. I need to send copies to people I think need good luck. I should not send money, because fate has no price. I must not keep the letter. It must leave my hands within 96 hours. I’m usually skeptical about this kind of thing, but an RAF officer followed the instructions and received $70,000. I could do with $70,000. Meanwhile, Joe Elliot received $40,000, but then lost it because he didn’t send the letter on and thereby broke the chain. And in the Philippines, Gene Welch lost his wife just six days after receiving the letter. He’d failed to circulate it. Before his wife died, though, Welch received $7,755,000. That probably eased the blow a little.
Imagine, if you will, that our alien scientist arrived on planet Earth with a hangover, and that its normally magnificent and penetrating intellect was initially somewhat dulled. Imagine further that, in its compromised state, the blurry-eyed alien didn’t realize that human beings are naturally occurring organisms, and instead mistook us for factory-built machines. What would the alien think these “machines” were designed to do? Its first guess, as the hangover slowly subsided, might be that human beings are machines designed to make new machines of the same general kind – new human beings, in other words – which in turn make more new human beings, and so on. The alien would probably wonder why on Earth anyone would design a machine to carry out such a strange and apparently pointless task. But a well-traveled alien would have seen plenty of strange stuff in its time, and as hard as it might be to fathom the designer’s motives, the alien would find it even harder to shake the impression that humans are machines designed solely to replicate their kind. We’ve got all the anatomical equipment needed to accomplish this task: sex organs, wombs, nursing apparatus.
The Ape that Understood the Universe is the story of the strangest animal in the world: the human animal. It opens with a question: How would an alien scientist view our species? What would it make of our sex differences, our sexual behavior, our altruistic tendencies, and our culture? The book tackles these issues by drawing on two major schools of thought: evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. The guiding assumption is that humans are animals, and that like all animals, we evolved to pass on our genes. At some point, however, we also evolved the capacity for culture - and from that moment, culture began evolving in its own right. This transformed us from a mere ape into an ape capable of reshaping the planet, travelling to other worlds, and understanding the vast universe of which we're but a tiny, fleeting fragment. Featuring a new foreword by Michael Shermer.