What are Human Universals?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2019
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"Human universals" is a term used in anthropology and evolutionary psychology to refer to behavioral or cognitive traits common to all neurologically normal humans. The notion of human universals was partially formulated as a challenge to cultural relativism, a predominant view of human nature in the late 20th century, which some psychologists and anthropologists see as greatly exaggerating the variance among members of the human species.

In a book of the same name published in 1991, professor of anthropology Donald Brown listed hundreds of human universals in an effort to emphasize the fundamental cognitive commonality between members of the human species. Some of these human universals include incest avoidance, territoriality, fear of death, rituals, childcare, pretend play, mourning, food sharing, kin groups, social structure, collective decision making, etiquette, envy, weapons, aesthetics, and many more. Wider recognition of human universals has led to a sort of mini-revolution in psychology, which has begun to take more input from the harder sciences of anthropology and biology, and less from the ubiquitous pop-psychology of the 20th century.


One of the greatest popularizers of the notion of human universals in recent years has been from Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard and author of four widely read books on the human mind. As a champion of the rising science of evolutionary psychology, Pinker argues that, in the same way we all have ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth, all with the same basic biological features from person to person, we should expect our cognitive features to have similar commonality. The psychological differences between human beings are then differences of degree, not in kind.

The existence of an experimentally verifiable set of human universals has two key consequences. The first is that it makes further psychological experimentation and research more valuable than some may have thought. If we can identify the common cognitive features between us and their characteristics, we learn not only about every human culture and individual on earth today, but of those into the indefinite future, as long as their genomes stay essentially human. The second is that the human species has more in common than conventional psychology would have us think - that conflicts arise in spite of our fundamental cognitive similarities, rather than from them.


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Post 3

@browncoat - I prefer the ideal of human universals, because when you get too far into cultural relativism it starts becoming a little bit too close to labeling one culture as superior to another. Humans can't really look at culture with complete objectivity, so we always end up comparing.

When there are a handful of universals, it becomes more about explaining a culture in terms of those, rather than in terms of how it looks in comparison to another culture.

Post 2

@Ana1234 - The occasional exception doesn't mean that these aren't human universals. Incest avoidance might not be followed in every case, but it is generally acknowledged in every culture. When it is disregarded, it is in spite of its presence, not because of its absence.

I don't think it's useful to talk about cultural relativism as though there is no bedrock to human behavior that can be used for comparison. That's patently untrue.

We just have to act like adults who realize that nothing is universal, but many things might as well be.

Post 1

I do think it's important to remember that some people might not actually have ten fingers though. They might have been born with more or fewer, and they might have lost one through an accident.

I think the same thing is true of so-called universals. They might be close to universal, but there are always exceptions.

Incest avoidance, for example, is often held up as one of the fundamental aspects of human society, because it leads to the formation of alliances between family groups through marriage.

But there are plenty of examples of cultures where there is institutionalized incest. For example, royal families where brothers and sisters were expected to wed to keep blood lines "pure".

Cultural relativism still has a place in our thinking about society, and even if universals can be a useful tool, they shouldn't be taken too literally.

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