Cultural anthropology tends to emphasise the differences between different cultures. Human Universals, a 1991 book by anthropologist Donald E. Brown, is more interested in the similarities.

Inspired by Noam Chomsky's idea of the Universal Grammar - that we have an innate, genetically hardwired mechanism in the brain devoted to learning language - he postulated the The Universal People. Brown studied the archives of anthropological research, critically reviewing research suggesting differences and similarities between cultures.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct neatly summarises Brown's findings. I should point out that I have not read Brown's book, and I am paraphrasing Pinker's summary of it - any errors are mine.

Language-related:

Value is placed on being articulate. Gossip. Lies. Misleading. Verbal humour. Funny Insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and Telling stories. The use of metaphor. Poetry, using repeated linguistic elements (e.g., rhymes, alliteration, etc). Words for:

Categorisations.

Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age of sequence. Binary categorisations, including male and female, black and white, nature vs. nurture, good and bad. The use of measures. The use of logic, including words for 'not', 'and', 'same', 'equivalent', 'opposite', for general as opposed to particular, and whole as opposed to part.

Non-verbal behaviour.

Nonlinguistic vocal communication, such as cries, gasps and squeals. Folk psychology. Facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Smiling as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Attempts to mask, modify and mimic facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sex, fears, and instincts.

A sense of self and other, sense of responsibility, a distinction between voluntary and involuntary behaviour, intention, a private inner life. Seeing a difference between normal and abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises. At the end of the first year of life, fear of strangers. Fear of snakes. Feeling possessiveness towards the mother and coolness toward her consort. Ability to recognise faces. Adorning the body and arranging hair. Basing sexual attractiveness partly on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dancing and Music. Playing, including play fighting.

Artifacts.

Making and depending on a large variety of tools - things for cutting and pounding, containers, string, levers and spears - using culturally transmitted motifs. Decorated artifacts. Fire used for cooking and other purposes. Medicinal and recreational drugs. Shelter.

Family.

Standard patterns of and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of a publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman able to bear children. Socialization of children (e.g., toilet training ) by senior kin. Children mimicking their elders. Distinguishing close kin and distant kin, and favoring close kin. Avoidance of incest between mother and son. Great fascination with talking about sex.

Society.

Status and prestige, both gained and given (by kinship, age, and sex). The presence of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. Women doing more child care. Men being more aggressive and violent. Acknowledging that men and women have different natures. Men dominating the public political sphere. Trade of labor, goods and services. Reciprocity and retaliation. Gifts. Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government - binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, usually non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, and disliking it. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/Out-group conflicts. Property and inheritance. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Social behaviour

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasts. Being diurnal, rather than nocturnal. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex in private, usually. Liking sugary foods. Taboos relating to food. Pissing and shitting discreetly. Supernatural beliefs. The use of magic in an attempt to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations for disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming and interpreting them.


Pinker points out that the above traits are not inevitable. Neither are they the only possible similarities between people, or even necessarily desirable; it is simply a list of what different cultures have in common. He is not saying that, say, having sex in private is necessarily genetically hardwired. Instead, being an evolutionary psychologist, he is claiming that these human universals are a result of the complex interaction between the environment and genetics.

It seemed an appropriate thing to node to a place called Everything2.


Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. London, England: Penguin.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.