Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a science book that purports to look at humans from the perspective of how an alien might see them, but in practice, there is very little of this perspective employed. After an initial flurry, aliens are mentioned only spasmodically.

On the one hand this would seem to offer an interesting PoV, but on the other, this kind of thing been done before, and it seems a stretch to begin with. The arrogance of the pretension that we can honestly and objectively look at ourselves as an alien might see us seems antithetical to a scientific approach. By definition an alien is a being not like us, so to suggest we can honestly put ourselves in their shoes is a stretch at best!

We can't even put ourselves reliably into the shoes of animals most like us on Earth let alone some tentacle-sporting Betelgeusian, so it seems to me that there's an inherent insult in taking such a perspective. Such a PoV almost inevitably makes the alien look like a moron.

I really did not like the Star Trek Original series. Actually, these days I've gone off all Star Trek TV shows. I refuse to watch Discovery for its stupidity and lack of imagination, but TOS was the worst. Admittedly it was a product of its time, and in some ways ground-breaking, but it was nonetheless a poorly-written and simplistic show, and it carried the same pretense this book does: that of an alien observing humans.

The alien was Spock, and in trying to show him coping with human culture, it made him look like a complete idiot who, despite having lived among humans for some considerable time, and being half human himself for his entire life, simply didn't get it. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the fact is that he never got it, and was typically at a complete loss, which is what made him moronic. He wasn't a genius. He wasn't brilliant. He wasn't even logical a good portion of the time.

Star Trek has a habit of doing this. In Next Generation, the resident imbecile was Commander Data. In Voyager there wasn't one single dumb-ass. It oscillated between Neelix, Tuvak, and Seven of Nine. The only show I've seen where the Vulcan wasn't made to look moronic was in Enterprise, which actually made her a complex character with a real life. And we all know what happened to that show! Having realistic characters got it cancelled and kept Star Trek off the air for years! Then they rebooted with Discovery, where everyone's a dumbass. Go figure!

This book treats its aliens in the same way, but since that was a minor part of the book, I let the conceit go, hoping the book would win me over. I'm sorry to report that it didn't. A huge portion in the middle of the book is devoted to sex and reproduction and how animals differ (or don't) when compared with humans. How anyone can make a discussion about sex boring, I do not know, but this author did it with the facility of a guy who was trying to pick up a woman in a bar or some such social setting, and insisted in rambling on about sex and intimacy when the woman wasn't even remotely into him.

That's how this affected me. It went on far too long, it was rambling, it really offered nothing particularly engaging, and as with the rest of the book, for me it brought nothing new, nothing amusing, and not even a new perspective on things. Others may find this more educational and entertaining than I.

I'm not a scientist, but I am very well read across multiple sciences from books and other materials by a variety of authors over many years, and so perhaps I have a leg up on the lay reader, but to me it felt as though you would have to know literally nothing about any of these topics to find much here that was very stirring. In short, you'd have to be the idiot alien!

So, some of the approaches taken here just seemed plain wrong to me. For example, at one point the author informs us that "Evolution ain't about the good of the species." Well you can get into some good semantic arguments here, but from my reading, that assertion is plainly wrong in very general terms, because evolution doesn't work on individual animals! Mutation does work on individuals, but for evolution you need a species over time.

That's how it works, that's the origin of species. Mutations can be good, bad, or indifferent, and not all of them get spread, not even if they're good, but often enough, the good ones - that is the ones that give the organisms in the species some reproductive or survival advantage, will tend to outcompete those without such advantages and there it;s good for the species! The mutation(s) will spread through the species and so the species succeeds where others fail, or it may even become a new species over time.

So is this for the good of the species? Well it's not designed to be for the good of a species. There's no designer. It's simply a filter - rather like a knock-out game. No one designed France to win the last World Cup, but that's how the filters played out. The France 'species' of soccer team proved to be the fittest; better able to compete. No individual won that world cup, but all members of the 'species', fitter than members of competing 'species' in the contest, contributed to the win.

To use the author's example, sharper teeth may be good for a lion, but if the genes that produce them don't spread across the species, then nothing's going to change! Teeth that are too sharp may end up slicing the lion's mouth, allowing infection in, and killing it off before it can reproduce, and that's an end to it, but if the teeth were just perfect and it left offspring that were more successful than their peers in surviving and reproducing, the teeth would spread, over time, through the pride, and so would benefit the species.

The author admits this when he says that evolution works within species - not within individuals, so I really have no idea what he was trying to argue here, and you can argue that's my fault or you can argue that the author did a poor job of getting his point across. The problem is that this was a repeated issue for me in reading this.

This is a long book with 6,904 locations so making it engaging and interesting was important to me, and it simply wasn't. I hate to invest my valuable time in a long book only to find it's not done anything for me or even worse, not so much as done what it claimed it would in the blurb. Of course, blurbs aren't written by the author (unless they self-publish), so the disconnect between what you're told you will get and what you end up getting can be quite jolting and can make or break a book for me.

Talking of book length, I found this formula online which purportedly converts location to page count. If you divide the location number by 16.69 this gives the page number supposedly. By that method, there are over 413 pages in this book. Another online formula suggests dividing by twenty which would mean this one has 345 pages. It's listed online as having 378 pages which suggests the formula ought really to be in between those two, dividing it by 18.26. But maybe there is no accurate formula for every book. What a world we live in, eh? I blame Amazon!

The point though, is that however many pages it had were too many, so this book could have done with a lot of editing and a serious trim to the discussion on sex which rambled on repetitively, circling round and round, until I completely lost interest in reading any more about it or any more of the rest of the book.

I did skim the altruism pages and found it somewhat disturbing that the author has never apparently heard of cases of altruism between different species of animal. It's like he could not see the trees for the florist, so this tended to rob him of whatever point it was he thought he was making about investing in your own genetic lineage. He seemed to be seriously undervaluing nurture and friendship, especially when it came to humans. But as I said, I skimmed it, so maybe I missed something there.

I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot in good faith recommend this particular science book, which is unusual for me. I typically enjoy science books and recommend them, but this one simply did not get there. It was more of a spandrel than a genetic improvement in the species of science books, and definitely not at its fittest.