Steve Stewart-Williams

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Steve Stewart-Williams (born 1971) is a senior lecturer in psychology at Swansea University and author of the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life. He was born in Wellington, New Zealand.

Quotes[edit]

Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Think You Know (2010)[edit]

  • Evolutionary theory answers one of the most profound and fundamental questions human beings have ever asked themselves, a question that has plagued reflective minds for as long as reflective minds have existed in the universe: why are we here?
    • (p. 1)
  • Why would the omnipotent creator of the entire universe be so deeply attached to a bipedal, tropical ape? Why would He take on the bodily form of one of these peculiar tailless primates? Why would such a magnificent being be so obsessively, nit-pickingly preoccupied with trivial matters such as the dress code and sexual behaviour of one mammalian species, especially its female members?
    • (p. 4)
  • The idea that the Biblical stories are symbolic is charitable to the point of absurdity. What would we think of a university professor who, happening upon unambiguous errors in a favourite student’s work, concluded that the student was speaking symbolically and awarded top marks?
    • (p. 63)
  • Some claim that life, the universe, and mind are miraculous. My conclusion is that these things are really, really amazing, but that they’re not miraculous (unless by miraculous, you just mean ‘really, really amazing’).
    • (p. 74)
  • Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, mind is not the cause of the order in nature; mind is an example of the order in nature - something to be explained rather than the explanation for everything else.
    • (p. 101)
  • People kill nonhuman animals for food, for their skins, and sometimes just for fun. We enslave animals and force them to work for us. We experiment on them and justify their suffering in terms of our advantage. Because most of us want to be able to view ourselves as good people (and, perhaps more importantly, because we want others to view us as good people), we may be motivated to view nonhumans in such a way that these activities are rendered morally unproblematic. One way to do this is to view other animals as utterly different from us.
    • (p. 111)
  • Bertrand Russell once pointed out that ‘People are more unwilling to give up the word “God” than to give up the idea for which the word has hitherto stood’. Evolutionary theory may not persuade everyone to give up the word. However, to the extent that it encourages people to alter its meaning beyond recognition, it could be argued that God has nonetheless been a casualty of Darwin’s theory.
    • (p. 136)
  • It seems that the evolutionist must conclude, along with the writer Vladimir Nabokov, that ‘our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’. Brains that think otherwise – brains that deny they are brains and believe instead that they are eternal souls - are brains that hold false beliefs about themselves.
    • (p. 150)
  • To a hypothetical alien with a vastly superior intellect to our own, human minds would be classed as intermediate forms between the mindless and the fully minded.
    • (p. 151)
  • When you contemplate the universe, part of the universe becomes conscious of itself.
    • (p. 152)
  • Around 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and almost four billion years since life first evolved, something strange began to happen: Tiny parts of the universe became conscious, and came to know something about themselves and the universe of which they are a part... Eventually, some of these tiny parts of the universe - the parts we call ‘scientists’ and ‘scientifically-informed laypeople’ - came to understand the Big Bang and the evolutionary process through which they had come to exist. After an eternity of unconsciousness, the universe now had some glimmering awareness that it existed and some understanding of where it had come from.
    • (p. 152)
  • It may be the fate of the universe to spend an eternity in darkness, save one brief flash of self-awareness in the middle of nowhere.
    • (p. 154)
  • Certainly, the human-animal distinction is still workable; after all, we rarely make errors in assigning entities to one category or the other. But after Darwin, the distinction suddenly seems arbitrary – as arbitrary as the equally workable distinction between, say, turtles and non-turtles.
    • (pp. 154-155)
  • It is not clear that people have fully taken on board the idea that humans are animals. If they had, then perhaps academic disciplines such as sociology and anthropology would be viewed as specialist branches of zoology; medical doctors would be viewed as a subtype of veterinarians (one that specializes in tending to the health needs of just one species); human rights would be viewed as a subset of animal rights; and the socialization of children would be viewed as one example of the training or domestication of animals (making parents and teachers a subtype of animal trainers).
    • (p. 155)
  • A Ku Klux Klan member would be mortified to learn that he was actually a Black man. Many people’s reaction to learning that they are actually animals, or actually apes, is the same.
    • (p. 156)
  • Some people worry that to say we are nothing but matter is to deny that we think or feel. It’s not. The strange fact is that, when suitably arranged, matter thinks and feels.
    • (p. 160)
  • Changes in the inhabitants of the earth do not reflect a constant process of improvement in the design of organisms, any more than changes in fashion over the years reflect a constant process of improvement in the quality of clothing.
    • (p. 173)
  • One could even argue that our creative endeavours and achievements and small acts of kindness are all the more impressive against the backdrop of a purposeless universe.
    • (p. 196)
  • The claim that women have a stronger average parental urge than men is sometimes viewed as a sexist generalization. But it’s only sexist if we take a dim view of the trait in question: the parental urge. One could turn the accusation on its head: Those who view the evolutionist’s claim (that women are more parental than men) as sexist are actually being sexist themselves, because they’re taking a negative view of a trait that’s usually found more strongly in females than males. They are therefore prizing prototypically masculine traits more highly than prototypically feminine ones.
    • (p. 230)
  • Even if we accept the basic logic of the natural law argument against homosexuality, we have to ask just how wicked a sin it could really be. People sometimes use metal coat hangers as impromptu TV aerials, a purpose for which they were not designed. Likewise, children sometimes climb up slides instead of sliding down them. Are these activities heinous infractions of the moral law? Are they an insult to the people who designed the coat hangers or the slides?
    • (p. 247)
  • People often assume that anyone who studies evolution thinks that everything should be about the survival of the fittest. However, this makes no more sense than assuming that anyone who studies glaciers thinks that everything should be done really, really slowly.
    • (p. 256)
  • We like to think that reason is the supreme adaptation; that rational animals deserve preferential treatment; and that nonhumans, because they don’t have reason, have no intrinsic moral value. However, after Darwin, this is no different and no more convincing than, say, an elephant thinking that trunks are the supreme adaptation; that animals with trunks deserve preferential treatment; and that non-elephants, because they don’t have trunks, have no intrinsic moral value.
    • (pp. 263-264)
  • If we decide – and this is our decision; it’s not imposed on us from above – if we decide that reducing the amount of suffering in the world is a good ethical principle to live by, then it becomes entirely unjustified and arbitrary to extend this principle to human beings but not also to extend it to other animals capable of suffering. Why should the suffering of nonhumans be less important than that of humans? Surely a universe with less suffering is better than one with more, regardless of whether the locus of suffering is a human being or not, a rational being or not, a member of the moral community or not. Suffering is suffering, and these other variables are morally irrelevant.
    • (p. 274)
  • The amount of suffering and pain caused by the tyranny of human beings over other animals (particularly in food production) far exceeds that caused by sexism, racism, or any other existing form of discrimination, and for this reason, the animal liberation movement is the most important liberation movement on the face of the planet today.
    • (p. 278)
  • Several years ago, the Foundation for Biomedical Research ran an ad campaign in support of medical experimentation on nonhuman animals. The ad featured a photograph of a group of animal rights protestors under the caption: ‘Thanks to animal research, they’ll be able to protest 20.8 years longer.’ But imagine a parallel universe in which medical research is conducted on black people, and in which an equivalent foundation employs an equivalent argument: ‘Thanks to research on black people, these white protesters will be able to protest against experimentation on black people 20.8 years longer’! Would this justify experimentation on black people? Obviously not! We would immediately reject the argument as founded on a deeply racist assumption, namely, that the costs inflicted on ‘mere’ black people are justified by the benefits produced for whites. But the original argument is founded on an equivalently speciesist assumption: that the costs inflicted on ‘mere’ animals are justified by the benefits produced for us.
    • (p. 278)
  • Tying morality to religion is a little like transporting a precious cargo on a sinking ship. What happens when the child grows up and starts doubting the factual claims of the religion? The cargo may be lost with the ship.
    • (p. 287)
  • If religion doesn't make people good, why do people think that it does? Simple: Because religion teaches that it makes people good. It’s part of its sales pitch. But it's also quite possibly untrue.
    • (p. 290)
  • Even in a pointless universe, pointless happiness and pleasures are surely preferable to pointless suffering.
    • (p. 307)
  • Some may find these conclusions frightening, and perhaps that's an appropriate reaction. But then again, maybe it’s not. For it is certainly possible to frame an ethic consistent with the Darwinian view of the world. Such an ethic might emphasize the virtue of being honest enough and courageous enough to acknowledge unflinchingly that there is probably no God, no afterlife, and no soul; that there is no objective basis to morality or higher purpose behind our suffering; that we are insignificant in a vast and impersonal cosmos; that existence is ultimately without purpose or meaning; and that the effects of our actions will ultimately fade away without trace. It is admirable to acknowledge these uncongenial truths, yet to struggle on as if life were meaningful and strive to make the world a better place anyway, without promise of eternal reward or hope of ultimate victory, and indeed for no good reason at all.
    • (p. 308)
  • Of course, nothing can be said to argue that people are morally obliged to accept this ethic, for to do so would be inconsistent with the ideas that inspired it in the first place. It is an ethic that will be adopted – if at all – by those who find a certain stark beauty in kindness without reward, joy without purpose, and progress without lasting achievement.
    • (p. 308)

The Ape that Thought It Was a Peacock: Does Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex Differences? (2013)[edit]

Stewart-Williams, S., & Thomas, A. G. (2013). The ape that thought it was a peacock: Does evolutionary psychology exaggerate human sex differences? Psychological Inquiry, 24, 137-168.

  • As a result of high levels of male parental investment, humans evolved into a somewhat “androgynous” species - a species in which human females exhibit traits generally found only in males (e.g., competition for mates) and human males exhibit traits generally found only in females (e.g., the provision of parental care; choosiness about mates).
    • (p. 138)
  • We are a species in which both sexes have their equivalents of the peacock’s tail. Indeed, when it comes to physical beauty, the usual sex difference has arguably been reversed: Females are the “showier” sex.
    • (p. 139)
  • For much of the 20th century, the blank slate view was the dominant view in the social sciences. With the popularization of sociobiology in the 1970s, however, evolutionary approaches to human behavior became the locus of an academic culture war between biologically minded thinkers and advocates of the traditional social science model.
    • (p. 141)
  • The pattern of sex differences found in our species mirrors that found in most mammals and in many other animals. As such, considerations of parsimony suggest that the best explanation for the human differences will invoke evolutionary forces common to many species, rather than social forces unique to our own. When we find the standard pattern of differences in other, less culture-bound creatures, we inevitably explain this in evolutionary terms. It seems highly dubious, when we find exactly the same pattern in human beings, to say that, in the case of this one primate species, we must explain it in terms of an entirely different set of causes — learning or cumulative culture — which coincidentally replicates the pattern found throughout the rest of the animal kingdom. Anyone who wishes to adopt this position has a formidable task in front of them. They must explain why, in the hominin lineage uniquely, the standard evolved psychological differences suddenly became maladaptive, and thus why natural selection “wiped the slate clean” of any biological contribution to these differences. They must explain why natural selection eliminated the psychological differences but left the correlated physical differences intact. And they must explain why natural selection would eliminate the psychological differences and leave it all to learning, when learning simply replicated the same sex differences anyway. How could natural selection favor extreme flexibility with respect to sex differences if that flexibility was never exercised and was therefore invisible to selection?
    • (pp. 142-143)
  • From a comparative perspective, we are a relatively monomorphic mammal, with relatively monomorphic minds.
    • (p. 143)
  • Human beings are an exception to many general rules in biology. In many species, female mate choice alone is important; in our species, male mate choice is important as well. In many species, males alone are showy and ornamented; in our species, females are as well. In many species, males alone compete for mates; in our species, females compete as well. In many species, males invest nothing other than sperm in their offspring; in our species, men typically invest a great deal. Not only are human beings exceptional in these ways, but they all tie together into a cohesive story.
    • (p. 144)
  • The idea that humans form pair bonds, and that males often invest in their young, has a long history in biological anthropology. Early incarnations of the idea were criticized for painting an overly simplistic picture, according to which “Man the Hunter” provisioned his dependent wife and children with meat in a stable nuclear family, suspiciously reminiscent of a 1950s-style Western family. However, with appropriate amendments and qualifications, the idea that pair bonding and biparental care are a central part of our evolutionary endowment appears to be viable.
    • (p. 145)
  • It is therefore a curious fact that our dominant mating system is more like the typical mating system of birds than that of most mammals, including our nearest relatives, the Great Apes.
    • (p. 145)
  • Our claim is not that pair bonding is humanity’s singular mating pattern. Our claim instead is simply that the pair bond is the most common setting for sex and reproduction in our species, that it has been for a long time, and that this has left a deep imprint on our evolved nature.
    • (p. 145)
  • Human beings are, by nature, the kind of animal that falls in love. The cross-cultural record also suggests that humans are also the kind of animal that commonly provides biparental care for its young. In 95% to 97% of mammalian species, only the females care for the young. We would no more expect males in these species to invest in their offspring than we would expect them to get pregnant or lactate. Humans are not like that.
    • (p. 147)
  • In some domains, women are more sexually selected than men; one could say in these cases that women have the larger “peacock’s tail.” An example can be found in the domain of physical attractiveness. Women are typically rated as better looking than men, by both men and women. The difference is plausibly a consequence of the fact that, although both sexes care about good looks in a mate, on average, men care somewhat more. This means that, since this sex difference first evolved, there has been a somewhat stronger selection pressure on women than men for physical attractiveness — the opposite of what we find in peacocks.
    • (p. 149)
  • If men in our evolutionary past did not invest in offspring, they would not have evolved strict mate preferences and thus women would be as drab as peahens. The fact that women are not as drab as peahens suggests a long history of male mate choice, which in turn suggests a long history of pair bonding and high male parental investment.
    • (p. 149)
  • Most male gorillas either have a harem or do not have a mate; in contrast, most men who have more than zero mates have only one. This means that, whereas only harem-holding male gorillas contribute to the gene pool of the next generation, most human males who contribute to the gene pool do so in the context of a pair bond. Consequently, our evolved sexual nature has been shaped more by pair bonding than by harem polygyny.
    • (p. 150)
  • However, the absence of perfect concealment does not imply the presence of active advertisement, and if fertility were advertised in humans, we would presumably not need to employ sophisticated experimental methods to demonstrate its detectability.
    • (p. 151)
  • To the extent that we accept this view, we effectively mistake ourselves for highly dimorphic animals such as peacocks or deer.
    • (p. 153)
  • Think about some of the highest status men in modern societies: sports stars, rock stars, politicians. At first glance, it might seem that these individuals provide further proof of men’s polygynous nature: They are often notorious for their sexual antics and infidelities (the famous scandal with Tiger Woods is a case in point)... However, the picture is not so simple. Many of these men are in the position where they have essentially an unlimited supply of potential sexual partners. Do all of them or even most of them eschew long-term relationships and opt instead for as many one-night stands and brief love affairs as possible? Sometimes, perhaps, but often they do not. These men — the most eligible bachelors, the highest status males in our species — often do what male chimpanzees never do: They fall in love and form long-term pair bonds.
    • (pp. 156-157)
  • The idea that women are the choosier sex is one of the best-known claims associated with EP [evolutionary psychology]. Ironically, another of the best-known claims associated with EP is an exception to this rule: On average, men are choosier than women when it comes to the physical attractiveness of a prospective mate. Even if we put this counterexample aside, though, the statement “females are choosier than males,” although true of many species, does not apply easily to our own. It is true that men may sometimes be more willing than women to lower their standards for a casual sexual partner. However, when it comes to the most important mating decisions of a man’s life — who he will marry, who he will have children with — the difference in choosiness is much smaller and maybe nonexistent. This fact of human life is even implicit in everyday folk psychology; the stereotype is that men will “sleep with anything that moves,” not that they will marry or have children with anything that moves. In long-term, committed relationships, men are about as choosy as women.
    • (p. 157)
  • Language, intelligence, and humor, along with art, generosity, and musical ability, are often described as human equivalents of the peacock’s tail. However, peacocks afford a poor analogy for the role of courtship displays in humans. Other animal models offer a better fit. In a number of nonhuman species — species as diverse as sea dragons and grebes — males and females engage in a mutual courtship “dance,” in which the two partners mirror one another’s movements. In Clark’s grebes and Western grebes, for instance, the pair bond ritual culminates in the famous courtship rush: The male and female swim side by side along the top of the water, with their wings back and their heads and necks in a stereotyped posture. If we want a nonhuman analogue for the role of creative intelligence or humor in human courtship, we should think not of ornamented peacocks displaying while drab females evaluate them. We should think instead of grebes engaged in their mating rush or sea dragons engaged in their synchronized mirror dance. Once we have one of these alternative images fixed in our minds, we can then add the proviso that there is a slight skew such that, in the early stages of courtship, men tend to display more vigorously and women tend to be choosier. However, this should be seen as a qualification to the primary message that intelligence, humor, and other forms of sexual display are part of the mutual courtship process in our species.
    • (p. 160)

The Ape that Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2013)[edit]

Stewart-Williams, S., & Thomas, A. G. (2013). The ape that kicked the hornet’s nest: Response to commentaries on "The Ape that Thought It Was a Peacock." Psychological Inquiry, 24, 248-271.

  • Most effects in psychology are relatively unimportant. That is, most variables, considered in isolation, have relatively little impact on behavior. This doesn't mean... that we should all abandon psychology and become plumbers instead. The small magnitude of most effects in psychology is itself a discovery of psychology. One might argue, in fact, that it is one of the great metadiscoveries of the field. Most variables have little impact, and thus most of the phenomena studied by psychologists are products of a multiplicity of variables.
    • (p. 251)
  • The reproductive benefits of polygyny were so great for genes located in male bodies that the male mind might still have evolved to take advantage of those opportunities, if and when they did arise. As a result, men may harbor strong polygamous desires — much stronger than women’s — even if these desires are frustrated for most men throughout most of their lives.
    • (p. 255)
  • A truly integrative model of sex differences would weave together sociobiological theories and sociocultural theories. SRT [Social Role Theory] simply rejects the sociobiological theories. Indeed, to a large extent, the theory is a reaction against those theories — an attempt to frame an alternative explanation for the findings of evolutionary psychology. It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that Wood and Eagly's biosocial theory is essentially a traditional social theory disguised as a biosocial theory.
    • (p. 259)
  • Given that sociobiological theories offer an explanation for the cross-species trend [in sex differences], whereas SRT [Social Role Theory] does not, it would be rash to accept Wood and Eagly’s conclusion that sociobiological theories are “outmoded” or “outdated.”
    • (p. 260)
  • Just as our tools evolved culturally to fit our hands, so too our social roles evolved culturally to fit persisting aspects of the human mind. Roles that jar too violently with human nature are unlikely to persist for long, at least without the application of significant social force. If this is correct, it raises the possibility that some social roles might have evolved culturally to fit traits that, although found in both sexes, are more common in one than the other. This is emphatically not to say that there are some male roles and some female roles. But it is to suggest that there might be some social roles that suit more men than women, and others that suit more women than men — not just because of evolved physical differences but because of evolved psychological differences as well.
    • (p. 261)
  • Overall, attempts by [Lynn] Miller and others to make the sex difference in short-term mating go away have been unsuccessful. One might argue that their continued efforts to do so make them examples of what Kenrick called "the social science equivalent of climate-change deniers."
    • (p. 265)
  • Imagine that a zoologist from Mars was sent to Earth to study elephants, and that it had never seen one before. Its initial observation upon seeing a herd of elephants for the first time would presumably not be: “Wow! On average, the males are somewhat larger than the females!” It would be: “Wow! Those are large animals!” A follow-up observation would be the average sex difference in size. However, this would be a qualification to the initial observation — a peripheral rather than a central claim about the morphology of elephants. If, in its subsequent report, the Martian zoologist began by highlighting the sex difference and barely mentioned that elephants are, first and foremost, large animals, we should not be surprised if other Martians got the wrong idea.
    • (p. 266)
  • The distinction between central and peripheral claims is applicable to many aspects of human sexuality. Consider, for instance, the emotion of jealousy. Evolutionary psychologists place a strong emphasis on sex differences in this domain. The standard claim is that men are more worried by a partner’s sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity, whereas women are more worried by a partner’s emotional infidelity... [However] the overwhelming trend is that most men and most women are extremely upset by both sexual and emotional infidelity. This suggests that the central EP claim regarding jealousy should be “Human beings evolved to experience jealousy in romantic relationships” rather than “Men and women evolved different patterns of jealousy.” The latter statement is true but should be considered a qualification to the former: a peripheral rather than a central claim. To stress the sex difference alone would be like observing that male elephants are bigger than females while steadfastly neglecting to mention that all adult elephants are large compared to most terrestrial animals. It would almost certainly foster an inaccurate view.
    • (pp. 266-267)
  • A similar analysis applies within the realm of mate preferences. Several commentators pointed out that sex differences in human mate preferences are generally quite small... As such, the central claim in EP [evolutionary psychology] should probably be "Human beings evolved to put a fair amount of weight on good looks in a mate" rather than "Men evolved to put more weight on good looks than women." Again, the latter statement is true but potentially misleading. This sounds like a contradiction, but it is not; the statement is misleading if it is given undue weight.
    • (p. 267)
  • When it comes to the traits we consider most important in a long-term mate, human beings are largely monomorphic. This is one of the most significant findings of these studies; however, it is easily overlooked when the discussion becomes fixated on traits that people consider less important but where sex differences are found. By shining a spotlight on these traits, we may create an inaccurate picture of our species, even though the differences are real. Our picture of human nature may be built on a foundation of exceptions to the rule. The rule — the fact that males and females in our species are surprisingly similar in many ways — may be relegated to the background. By taking genuine differences and then exaggerating their importance, our picture of our evolved nature may become a caricature: It may contain a recognizable grain of truth but distort its object.
    • (p. 267)
  • A danger in emphasizing mean values for each sex is that these values may be projected onto all or most normally developing men and women. The mean may be treated as a description of the typical group member, despite the fact that the majority of individuals fall above or below it. Psychologists do make some effort to stress that means cannot be attributed to all members of any group, as evidenced by the fact that we often append the phrase “on average” to our descriptions of mean differences. But is this enough? Consider again the robust sex difference in willingness to engage in casual sex: The mean SO [sociosexuality] score for men is higher than that for women. What does this tell us, though, about individual men and women? It clearly does not tell us that all men are interested in casual sex and that all women are not. However, given the degree of overlap between the male and female distributions, it also does not tell us that a large majority of men are more interested in casual sex than a large majority of women. That is, it is not accurate to say even that “men are typically more interested in casual sex than women, but there are of course exceptions.” Here is what the data that the means are drawn from actually tell us:
    • Men and women can be found at virtually every level of interest in casual sex. At the right-hand tail of the distribution, only a small number of people are strongly interested in casual sex; however, of these people, more are men than women. At the left-hand tail, only a small number of people are strongly disinterested in casual sex; however, of these people, more are women than men. Most people — men and women — fall somewhere in between. If you were to choose one man and one woman at random, it would be somewhat more likely that the man would have higher SO. However, you wouldn't want to bet your life savings on it. Around a third of the time — i.e., closer to 50% than to 0% — the woman would have higher SO.
  • If this is not what springs immediately to mind as soon as the words “on average” are appended to a description of mean differences, then the words “on average” have not rectified the damage done by the use of means to describe populations of varied individuals.
    • (p. 268)
  • This is especially important when addressing less statistically savvy audiences. Such audiences could perhaps be encouraged to think of two normal distributions, one representing males and the other females. Instead of imagining that natural selection creates two distinct psychological types — a male type and a female type, described by the mean values for each group — they could be encouraged to imagine that natural selection pushes the male and female distributions closer together or further apart. This simple expedient may help people to visualize the effects of natural selection on average sex differences without at the same time losing sight of the variation within each sex.
    • (p. 268)

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