Human Universals

Human universals comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions to their existence in all ethnographically or historically recorded human societies. Among the many examples are such disparate phenomena as tools, myths and legends, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar, phonemes, EMOTIONS, and psychological defense mechanisms. Broadly defined universals often contain more specific universals, as in the case of kinship statuses, which are universally included among social statuses. In some cases, the content of a universal is highly specific, as in the smile, frown, or other facial expressions of basic emotions (Ekman, Sorenson, and Friesen 1969) and in the more complex "coyness display" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989).

Some universals have a collective referent-being found in all societies, languages, or cultures, but having a contingent relation to individuals. Thus, dance is found in all societies or cultures, but not all individuals dance. Other universals, such as a grasp of elementary logical concepts (not, and, or, kind of, greater/lesser, etc.) or the use of gestures, characterize the psyche or behavior of all (normal) individuals. Some universals -- such as the predominance of women in infant socialization (Levy 1989) or the ease with which youngsters acquire language -- characterize all (normal) individuals of one sex or age range.

Human universals commanded attention from the founding of academic anthropology, but for much of this century a variety of factors promoted an emphasis of cultural particulars and a deemphasis of universals and the psychobiological features that might underlie them (Brown 1991; Degler 1991; see also CULTURAL RELATIVISM). Seminal mid- century essays on human universals (Murdock 1945; Kluckhohn 1953) were followed by the emergence of COGNITIVE ANTHROPOLOGY, a fruitful field for the discovery and persuasive demonstration of universals (D'Andrade 1995). Cognitive anthropology and the study of universals in general have drawn heavily on developments in linguistics (see LINGUISTIC UNIVERSALS).

Anthropologists and linguists generally assume that claims of universality should be validated by cross-cultural or cross-language research. However, a considerable amount of research in economics, political science, psychology, and sociology implicitly assumes universality without demonstrating it (but see COMPARATIVE PSYCHOLOGY). Thus, many research findings from these fields may or may not have universal validity.

Because of the practical difficulties that are involved, the existence of particular universals is normally demonstrated not by exhaustive examination of the historical and ethnographic records but rather by some form of sampling. In spite of these difficulties, existing lists of universals show substantial overlap (e.g., Brown 1991; Murdock 1945; Hockett 1973; Tiger and Fox 1971) .

Among the variations on the basic concept of human universals are conditional (or implicational) universals, statistical universals, near universals, and universal pools. A conditional universal refers to a cross-culturally invariant rule or linkage whereby if condition x obtains, then y will obtain. The evolution of "basic color terms" provides a well-documented example: if a language possesses only three basic color terms, they will be black, white, and red (Berlin and Kay 1969; see also COLOR CATEGORIZATION). The real universality in such cases consists not in the manifest occurrence of specific phenomena but in a pattern of co-occurrences and its underlying causation (see the discussion of universal mechanisms beneath variable behavior in Tooby and Cosmides 1992).

Similarly, although the manifest cross-cultural frequency of occurrence of a statistical universal need only be greater than chance, it implies a universal explanation rather than a series of culturally specific explanations. For example, given all the possible terms that might be used to refer to the pupil of the eye, in a very disproportionate number of languages the term refers to a little person, presumably because people everywhere see their own reflections in the pupils of other people's eyes (Brown and Witkowski 1981; see also FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE).

Keeping domestic dogs is only a near universal, as there were peoples who, until recently, lacked them. In many cases the explanations for near universals and (absolute) universals are essentially the same. The designation of near universality sometimes merely indicates uncertainty about the (absolute) universality of the item in question.

A universal pool is a fixed set of possibilities from which particular manifestations are everywhere drawn. For example, a classic study found that in a sample of diverse kinship terminologies only a small pool of semantic features (e.g., sex of speaker, sex of relative, lineal versus collateral relative, etc.) were drawn upon to distinguish one kin term from another (Kroeber 1909).

There are only a few general explanations for universals. Some cultural universals, for example, appear to be inventions that, due to their great antiquity and usefulness, have diffused to all societies. The use of fire and the more specific use of fire to cook food are examples. The dog achieved near universality for the same reasons. Other universals appear to be reflections in culture of noncultural features that are ubiquitous and important for one reason or another. Kinship terminologies (which are simultaneously social, cultural, and linguistic) are found among all peoples, and in all cases they reflect (at least in part) the relationships necessarily generated by the facts of biological reproduction. Systems of classification -- of plants and animals as well as kin -- were among the most important arenas for the development of cognitive studies in anthropology (Berlin 1992; D'Andrade 1995; see NATURAL KINDS).

Yet other universals spring more or less directly from human nature and, thus, are causally formative of societies, cultures, and languages -- and even the course of history. The syndrome of cognitive and emotional traits comprising romantic love, for instance, is known everywhere, inspiring poetry as well as reproduction, while giving rise to families and much human conflict (Harris 1995; Jankowiak 1995).

In recent decades, an inclusive framework for explaining those universals embodied in or springing from human nature has emerged from a combination of fields. From ETHOLOGY and animal behavior have come the identification of species-typical behaviors and the developmental processes (combining innateness and learning) that produce them (see, e.g., Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989; Seligman and Hager 1972; Tiger and Fox 1971); from SOCIOBIOLOGY have come ultimate explanations for such universals as kin altruism and the norm of reciprocity (Hamilton 1964; Trivers 1971); from Chomsky (1959) has come the notion of mental organs or modules that underpin complex, innate features of the human psyche (Hirschfeld and Gelman 1994; see also DOMAIN SPECIFICITY). Elucidating the evolved architecture of the (universal) human mind and its causal role in the construction of society and culture is the domain of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY (Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby 1992).

Studies within this framework seek to specify the universals of mind that underlie manifest universals and to explain them in both ultimate (evolutionary) and proximate terms. Thus Symons (1979) explains several species-typical sex differences in human sexuality in terms of a theory derived from a wide comparison of animal species. For example, men compete more intensely or violently for mates, desire more variety of sexual partners, and attend more to the physical features (especially signs of youth) of their mates. Both sexes assume that sex is a service or favor that women provide to men. The theory (Trivers 1972) predicts these differences as consequences of the typically larger female investment in each offspring (e.g., the minimum investments are the female's nine months of gestation and the male's insemination). Studies of this sort offer a more comprehensive illumination of human universals than had hitherto been the case.

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-- Donald Brown


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Berlin, B., and P. Kay. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brown, C. H., and S. R. Witkowski. (1981). Figurative language in a universalist perspective. American Ethnologist 9:596-615.

Brown, D. E. (1991). Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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D'Andrade, R. G. (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989). Human Ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Ekman, P., E. R. Sorenson, and W. V. Friesen. (1969). Pan-cultural elements in facial displays of emotion. Science 164:86-88.

Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behavior, parts 1 and 2. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1-52.

Harris, H. (1995). Human Nature and the Nature of Romantic Love. Ph.D. diss., University of California at Santa Barbara.

Hirschfeld, L. A., and S. A. Gelman, Eds. (1994). Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Jankowiak, W. (1995). Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? New York: Columbia University Press.

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Kroeber, A. L. (1909). Classificatory systems of relationship. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 39:77-84.

Levy, M. J. Jr. (1989). Maternal Influence: The Search For Social Universals. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Murdock, P. (1945). The common denominator of cultures. In R. Linton, Ed., The Science of Man in the World Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 123-142.

Seligman, M. and J. Hager. (1972). Biological Boundaries of Learning. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Symons, D. (1979). The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tiger, L., and R. Fox. (1971). The Imperial Animal. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Tooby, J., and L. Cosmides. (1992). The evolutionary and psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, Eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-136.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35-57.

Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell, Ed., Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man. Chicago: Aldine, pp. 136-179 .