Fall 2004

Human universals

Donald E. Brown

Donald E. Brown is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include “Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature: The Social Origins of Historical Consciousness” (1988) and “Human Universals” (1991).

Human universals–of which hundreds have been identified–consist of those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and mind that, so far as the record has been examined, are found among all peoples known to ethnography and history. After presenting some of the basic conceptions and problems concerning such universals per se– their kinds and causes and the methodological and disciplinary considerations that have shaped their study– I will explore some of the issues in how human universals relate to human nature and human culture.

I will begin with some examples. In the cultural realm, human universals include myths, legends, daily routines, rules, concepts of luck and precedent, body adornment, and the use and production of tools; in the realm of language, universals include grammar, phonemes, polysemy, metonymy, antonyms, and an inverse ratio between the frequency of use and the length of words; in the social realm, universals include a division of labor, social groups, age grading, the family, kinship systems, ethnocentrism, play, exchange, cooperation, and reciprocity; in the behavioral realm, universals include aggression, gestures, gossip, and facial expressions; in the realm of the mind, universals include emotions, dichotomous thinking, wariness around or fear of snakes, empathy, and psychological defense mechanisms.

Many universals do not fall neatly into one or another of these conventional realms, but cut across them. Kinship terminologies (in English, the set of terms that includes ‘father,’ ‘mother,’ ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘cousin,’ etc.) are simultaneously social, cultural, and linguistic. The concept of property is social and cultural. Revenge is both behavioral and social. Lying and conversational turn-taking are simultaneously behavioral, social, and linguistic. Many behavioral universals almost certainly have distinctive, even dedicated, neural underpinnings, and thus are universals of mind too.

A distinction among universals that figures large in anthropological thought is that between ‘emic’ and ‘etic.’ These words (derived from the linguistic terms ‘phonemic’ and ‘phonetic’) distinguish . . .

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