Cultural Variation Does Not Preclude Cognitive Universality

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon


In her 1966 essay, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the anthropologist Laura Bohannan challenged the received wisdom that great literary works speak to universal human concerns and conditions and, by implication, that human nature is the same across cultures. Her claim was based on a sample size of one culture: the Tiv of West Africa. In the course of summarizing the plot of Hamlet for a small group of Tiv villagers, she found that their interpretation of the play was different from hers, and took this as evidence of fundamental inter-cultural psychic differences. In so doing, she made two misguided assumptions: (1) that there is a homogeneous “Western” interpretation of the play; and (2) that cultural variation is prima facie evidence of the absence of human universals. My 2003 essay on the subject (Scalise Sugiyama, “Cultural Variation”) addressed the second of these assumptions, showing that cultural variation and cognitive universality are not mutually exclusive phenomena. This becomes apparent when the issue is framed in terms of the ecological niche to which humans are adapted.

Every species occupies a given ecological niche, and every ecological niche poses a set of adaptive problems—problems that affect the organism’s ability to survive and/or reproduce. Collectively, the set of adaptive problems posed by the human ecological niche can be thought of as the human condition, or the ineluctable challenges of human existence. In turn, the cognitive capacities that evolved to respond to these problems can be thought of as human nature. Adaptive problems and the cognitive software designed to address them are more or less constant across cultures; what varies between them is habitat and the events that transpire therein. Due to ecological and episodic variation, the means and information relevant to addressing adaptive problems differ from place to place; thus, different cultures result in large part from universal cognitive structures responding to universal problems as they play out under different sets of ecological conditions. We find differences between cultures not because human neurocognitive architecture varies in design, but because human habitats vary in resources, constraints, and history. On this view, we would expect stories to reflect both, human universals and cultural particularities: we would expect to find universality at the macro level (e.g., adaptive problems, cognitive adaptations) and variation at the micro level (e.g., local constraints on fitness, local solutions to adaptive problems).

In my 2003 essay, I showed that this prediction is borne out by closer examination of fundamental concepts at the heart of the play, such as incest, murder, and revenge. The Tiv not only recognize these behaviors, they exhibit predictable emotional responses to them and rules aimed at regulating them. Their rules differ somewhat from the practices evinced in the world of the play (which largely reflect Renaissance English law), but this variation can be traced to differences in local economic practices, which in turn stem from differences in habitat and historical trajectories. If this variation grew from differences in human psychology, we would expect Tiv culture to lack words, attitudes, and rules pertaining to these behaviors. In the present essay, I supplement my earlier analysis by explaining the role that culture plays in the human ecological niche, and discussing some of the shared reasoning and motivational systems exhibited by Bohannan and the Tiv in their reaction to Hamlet.

The Human Ecological Niche

One of the most obvious facts about human cultures is that they exhibit variation. This would appear to argue against the existence of human universals were it not for another, equally important fact: culture itself is a human universal (Brown, Human Universals, 130). Not merely “creators and users of cultures” (Goodenough, Description, 129-130), humans are a culture-dependent animal (Boyd et al., “Cultural Niche”). To a greater degree than other species, humans depend for their living on complex manipulations of the physical and social environment. This “instrumental intelligence” (Tooby & DeVore, “Reconstruction”) enables humans to bypass their anatomical limitations and acquire resources that would otherwise be unavailable to them (Kaplan et al., “Human Life History Evolution”), and has enabled them to colonize virtually every terrestrial habitat on the planet. Different habitats present different challenges, which in turn require different technologies and tactics. This, along with historical happenstance, is ultimately the source of cultural variation: there is no single set of knowledge, tools, and practices that provides effective solutions under all ecological conditions.

When confronted with the diversity of cultural solutions to recurrent problems of human existence, it is easy to mistake variation for an absence of universals. This is because, in the humanities and social sciences, the study of culture does not tend to concern itself with questions of origin and design. From a biological, evolutionary perspective, however, these questions are paramount: complex cultural behavior is one of the things that distinguishes humans zoologically from other species. Humans use culture because they are designed to—that is, they have evolved cognitive traits that enable them to generate and transmit ideas, artifacts, and customs. Chief among these traits is the ability to reason counterfactually, which enables humans to imagine things that do not exist, have not happened, or cannot be detected by the raw senses. Also referred to as “improvisational intelligence” (Barrett et al., “Cognitive Niche,” 242) and the “mental simulation of alternative perspectives” (Schacter et al., “Remembering,” 660), this capacity scaffolds the ability to generate new ideas, anticipate the future, and intuit the mental states of others. Hand in hand with this capacity goes a profoundly causal understanding of the phenomenological world. Combined, these two capacities enable humans to run mental simulations of possible problems, solutions, and outcomes (Tooby & DeVore, “Reconstruction”), which is the essence of invention, planning, and prediction. Our highly developed capacities for cooperation and communication make it possible for us to share this information, which in turn leads to cumulative culture (Tomasello, Cultural Origins; Tomasello et al., “Cultural Cognition”)–vast, commonly held sets of beliefs, technologies, and behaviors.

This cognitive trifecta—counterfactual and causal reasoning, cooperation, and communication—is what enables humans to generate cultural solutions to the problems posed by their ecological niche. Unlike other animals, humans do not have to wait around for new adaptations to evolve in response to novel environmental developments; instead, they can invent solutions of their own in real time (Barrett et al., “Cognitive Niche”). Our ancestors who moved onto the African savannas millions of years ago did not evolve sharp claws and powerful jaws for digging tubers and killing game, but that did not prevent them from accessing these resource bonanzas. Their ability to experiment, innovate, and share resultant discoveries enabled them to invent and deploy tools and tactics that accomplished the same end.

As our ancestors migrated out of Africa into novel habitats, the adaptive problems intrinsic to the human ecological niche accompanied them. No matter where they went, they faced the same fundamental tasks, such as route finding, acquiring food, securing protection from the elements, forming cooperative networks, selecting mates, rearing children, and resolving conflict. These are universal human problems, but they manifest differently across habitats due to variation in flora, fauna, topography, and climate. Different technologies and resource acquisition strategies, in turn, mandate different practices, customs, and rules. Marriage is a case in point. Coastal Tlingit traders in southern Alaska sought inland Athapaskan husbands for their daughters in order to establish social and economic ties with the interior (Cruikshank, Life, 273). Farther north among the Tareumiut and Nunamiut, however, marriages between people of different resource zones were impractical because a man could not afford to marry a woman untrained in the skills necessary for survival in his own habitat (Minc, “Scarcity”). Whether or not one sees the pan-human aspects of culture depends in large part on whether one is looking at these local solutions (e.g., exogamy or endogamy) or at the universal problems they address (e.g., finding a suitable mate).

The same principle applies to storytelling. The diversity of themes, styles, and genres in world literature may blind investigators to the psychological continuities that underlie them. The most obvious of these is narrative itself: all normally developing humans acquire the ability to produce and process narrative. Narrative is a cognitive universal, exhibiting striking continuities in content (Scalise Sugiyama, “Forager Oral Tradition”), style (Scalise Sugiyama, “Pedagogy”), and structure (Scalise Sugiyama, “Narrative”) across cultures. The latter is particularly illustrative: narrative structure appears to be designed to represent agency—that is, goal-directed action and the set of environmental constraints under which it occurs (Scalise Sugiyama, “Narrative”). Narrative is not merely about characters, it is about their goals, obstacles encountered in the pursuit of those goals, and solutions devised and deployed to surmount those obstacles (Scalise Sugiyama, “Reverse-engineering”). In other words, stories are mental simulations of problems, solutions, and outcomes encountered (or that might be encountered) in the course of human experience. Because obstacles and solutions emanate from the local environment, and environments vary across time and space, the obstacles and solutions depicted in stories vary from culture to culture. Thus, as with culture in general, whether or not one sees the universal aspects of storytelling depends on where one looks.

Differences in traditional caribou exploitation among the Tanana, Ingalik, and Chipewyan peoples illustrate how the same psychology produces variation in response to different ecological conditions. Each of these sub-Arctic Athapaskan culture groups depended on caribou for a substantial portion of their livelihood, but their degree of dependency and their hunting methods varied according to the distribution of caribou in their respective territories (Heffley, “Northern Athapaskan”). Caribou were only available in Tanana territory twice a year, when they passed through on their fall and spring migrations. Capture techniques capitalized on this behavior to maximize the quantity of game harvested: caribou were hunted communally using the surround method, whereby a herd is driven between two fences into an enclosed area where the animals can be more easily dispatched. Although the meat was preserved (by freezing or drying) and cached for later use, it was not sufficient to sustain the Tanana year-round, so the diet was supplemented by fishing and moose hunting in the summer and early fall. The distribution and timing of these critical resources affected Tanana settlement patterns: for most of the year, people lived in small two-family bands of 8-20 people dispersed throughout the forest, but in the spring and fall, bands joined together to maintain the surrounds and cooperate in the hunt. The Ingalik, too, hunted caribou in large numbers using the surround method, but only in the fall because the spring migration route did not pass through their territory. As a result, the Ingalik depended primarily on salmon, which they harvested and dried during the summer and stored in permanent villages for use in the winter.

The Chipewyan, in contrast, had access to caribou on a year-round basis, because their territory encompassed not only the animals’ migration routes, but their winter and summer feeding ranges as well. Consequently, caribou were hunted all year and made up 90% of the Chipewyan diet. Due to this heavy dependence on caribou, intercepting migrating herds was critical to survival. This task was complicated by the tendency of caribou to change their migration routes periodically and by the difficulty of predicting the location of new routes. In response to this problem, the Chipewyan developed an elaborate information exchange network. Search parties were sent out from local bands as the animals began to aggregate for migration, and information about their location and direction of movement was shared with other search parties and with other bands. This enabled the people to assemble in large numbers at a site that anticipated the migration route, which was critical to using the surround method. Compared with Tanana and Ingalik settlement patterns, then, Chipewyan movements were more strongly influenced by caribou behavior. The largest concentrations of people (200-400 individuals) occurred during the spring and fall migrations; afterward, when the caribou were dispersed in their summer or winter ranges, the people broke up into smaller groups (11-41 individuals) to hunt independently with bow and arrow or from canoes with spears.

Tanana, Ingalik, and Chipewyan caribou hunting practices show that a solution that works in one place might not be available or effective in another. In each culture, the objective is the same—to hunt caribou—but local conditions constrain the means used to achieve it and the extent to which it may be achieved. As simulations of human environments and events, stories may be expected to reflect regional constraints on and solutions to common human problems. This is evident in the fact that, when we engage in story worlds, we often find ourselves in an unfamiliar habitat—ancient Mesopotamia, the Carolingian Empire, Norse Scandinavia, etc. This experience is analogous to visiting a foreign country and being unacquainted with the local way of doing things. Misinterpretation may be said to occur when we apply the solutions of our own culture to the problems of the culture we are visiting—that is, when we fail to situate the problem in its proper cultural context. This mistake is understandable: faced with an unfamiliar setting, an individual has only her own experiences, beliefs, and practices to consult when determining the exact nature of the problem at hand and how best to solve it. This is precisely what the Tiv do: knowing nothing of Renaissance England or the Hamlet story world, they diagnose problems and prescribe solutions in terms of their own cultural and ecological milieu. It does not follow from this “misinterpretation” that there are no human universals.

Rules and customs may differ from culture to culture, but the logical structure that underlies them and the motivational systems that guide them are part of the deep structure of human psychology. In the remainder of this essay, I discuss three additional sets of universals that play a significant role in the generation and transmission of human culture, and are implicit in the Tiv interpretation of Hamlet: the ability to reason about social conditionals, to recognize and interpret motivational states, and to predict and manipulate the behavior of conspecifics.

Social Conditionals

Rules of behavioral conduct are one of the universals identified by Brown (Human Universals, 138), and one of the most obvious universals exhibited by the Tiv. From a cognitive perspective, these rules are evidence of a capacity for reasoning about social conditionals (Cosmides, “Logic”; Cosmides & Tooby, “Generation of Culture”; Fiddick et al., “No Interpretation”), such as deontic reasoning (i.e., what is allowed or obligatory) and reasoning about precautions (i.e., safety procedures). Deontic reasoning includes social exchange, obligations, permissions, and threats. An example of social exchange reasoning can be seen when the Tiv demand a story from Bohannan in exchange for all the stories they have told her: “They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine” (Bohannan, 45). Further social exchange reasoning is seen when the conversation turns to Ophelia’s marriage prospects. Bohannan summarizes the situation in Tiv terms, explaining that Polonius is worried that Hamlet’s romantic interest in Ophelia might compromise her honor, thereby lowering her bride price. A Tiv elder retorts that “‘a chief’s son would give his mistress’s father enough presents and patronage to more than make up the difference’” (Bohannan, 49). The implicit rule here is that, if a father gives his daughter as mistress to another man, then that man must compensate the father for the consequent diminution of her bride price.

The ability to reason about permissions is seen when the Tiv object to the ghost’s choice of Hamlet as his avenger: according to their custom, important matters such as revenge and punishment are the purview of chiefs and elders. This rule, as proclaimed by one of Bohannan’s informants, is clearly framed as a social contract: “‘If your father’s brother has killed your father, [then] you must appeal to your father’s age-mates; they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives’” (Bohannan, 51). Reasoning about social obligations is seen in Tiv rules regarding marriage, which include the practice of the levirate: “’In our country . . . the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children” (Bohannan, 46). Framed as a social contract, this rule mandates that, “If a man dies, then his brother must marry his widow and provide for his children.”

An integral component of deontic reasoning is the ability to determine when a rule has been broken (Cosmides & Tooby, “Social Exchange”). This, too, is in evidence among the Tiv: as noted above, the Tiv criticize Hamlet for seeking to avenge his father, because this violates their rule proscribing violence against elder kinsmen. Further evidence of the ability to detect rule violations is seen when Bohannan describes the scene in which Hamlet chides Gertrude for her prompt remarriage: Hamlet’s behavior produces “a shocked murmur from everyone” because, according to Tiv rules, “a man should never scold his mother” (Bohannan, 50). In a similar vein, the Tiv condemn Hamlet for his desire to kill Claudius: “‘For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father—that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched’” (Bohannan, 51). This pronouncement evinces another important component of social exchange reasoning: the motivation to punish transgressors. The Tiv believe that insanity is caused by witchcraft and thus believe that Hamlet has been bewitched. As evident in the sentiment that such a man “ought to . . . be bewitched,” they see Hamlet’s madness as fitting punishment for plotting to murder his uncle. They condemn Claudius as well: since the Tiv believe that a person can only be bewitched by his/her paternal relatives, they conclude that Claudius is responsible for Hamlet’s madness. They see Claudius’ action as “wicked” (i.e., a rule violation) and Hamlet’s homicidal designs on him as poetic justice (i.e., punishment): “‘if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother’” (Bohannan, 51).

Rules of etiquette and hospitality, another human universal (Brown, Human Universals, 139), are also in evidence, as seen in Bohannan’s description of the protocol for serving beer: “I accepted a large calabash full of beer, poured some into a small drinking gourd, and tossed it down. Then I poured some more into the same gourd for the man second in seniority to my host before I handed my calabash over to a young man for further distribution. Important people shouldn’t ladle beer themselves” (Bohannan, 45). Another proscription is expressed in the host’s comment that “‘One does not discuss serious matters when there is beer’” (Bohannan, 44), which can be re-phrased as the rule, “If there is beer, then one does not discuss serious matters.”

The Tiv also have rules pertaining to personal safety, which attests to a capacity for reasoning about hazards (Fiddick, “Deontic Reasoning”). They invoke one of these precautions in their response to Polonius’s death. Summarized by Bohannan, the rule stipulates that a hunter must give an alarm before loosing his arrow, and that any humans in the vicinity must announce their presence: “at the first rustle in the grass an arrow is aimed and ready, and the hunter shouts ‘Game!’ If no human voice answers immediately, the arrow speeds on its way. Like a good hunter, Hamlet had shouted ‘A rat!’” (Bohannan, 50). From both a Tiv and a Western perspective, then, Polonius’ skulking is seen as a potentially hazardous activity: by not identifying himself, he runs the risk of being mistaken for something (game) or someone (a fratricidal uncle) else. The main cultural difference here is that the Tiv parse the danger in terms of the perils inherent in their own environment—the risk of being accidentally killed by a hunter—instead of the risk of being killed for spying. From their perspective, Polonius’ death is his own fault, attributable to his ignorance or disregard of an eminently sound precaution: “’That Polonius truly was a fool and a man who knew nothing!’” (Bohannan, 50). Bohannan concedes that many Westerners agree with this assessment (Bohannan, 49)–yet another continuity between the two “different” interpretations of the play.


Emotions are motivational mechanisms designed through the process of natural selection to guide responses to environmental stimuli in ways that, in ancestral environments, tended to increase fitness (Tooby & Cosmides, “Past”). In other words, emotions are adaptations. Thus, we would expect all normally-developing humans to exhibit emotions, and to exhibit a similar set of emotions. Tellingly, pain, sexual attraction and desire, and other emotional states are among the human universals identified by Brown (Human Universals, 135). We would also expect developmentally normal humans to exhibit similar emotional responses to a given adaptive problem. Snakes are a case in point: venomous snakes were a recurrent feature of the environments inhabited by early hominins (and their non-human primate predecessors), and most humans readily acquire avoidance-based emotional responses (e.g., fear, revulsion, wariness) to these animals (Russell, Snake; Brown, Human Universals, 115). A related capacity, the ability to infer the emotional states of others using cues such as facial expression and tone of voice, is instrumental to the maintenance of the complex cooperative networks that characterize human life, and is also included on Brown’s list of human universals (Human Universals, 135). Research on facial expressions has identified at least six universally recognized emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust (Eckman et al., “Facial Displays of Emotion”; Eckman, “Facial Expression”). Brown includes contempt on this list, and notes that the coyness response is also common—and commonly understood–cross-culturally (Human Universals, 134). The use of tone of voice to communicate meaning is a universal feature of human languages (Brown, Human Universals, 131). Characterized by Bolinger as “a nonarbitrary, sound-symbolic system with intimate ties to facial expression and bodily gesture, and conveying, underneath it all, emotions and attitudes” (Intonation, 1), intonation appears to be designed to transmit information about the speaker’s affective state.

All of these capacities are exhibited in the Tiv response to Hamlet. The most obvious capacity they exhibit is the ability to recognize different emotions and attribute emotional states to conspecifics. Bohannan tells the story in the Tiv language, and often explains character motivation in terms of emotion; thus, their language clearly contains words for the affective states evinced by the characters in the play, indicating not only that Tiv culture includes the concept of emotion, but that Tiv and Western emotional repertoires are consonant with one another. This can be seen in the Tiv rationale for a leader having multiple wives: “It was better . . . for a chief to have many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms and feed his people; then everyone loved the chief who gave much and took nothing” (Bohannan, 47; emphasis added). Similarly, when Bohannan explains why Polonius eavesdrops on Gertrude and Hamlet’s conversation, they appear to have no difficulty understanding a mother’s love for her children: “‘The great chief told Hamlet’s mother to find out from her son what he knew. But because a woman’s children are always first in her heart, he had the important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the wall of Hamlet’s mother’s sleeping hut’” (Bohannan, 50; emphasis added).

Bohannan references a broad spectrum of emotions, with which the Tiv show no signs of being unfamiliar. For example, her discussion of Gertrude’s hasty remarriage references sadness and grief: “‘The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom for a widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for two years’” (Bohannan, 47). She references regret—or its absence–when she tells them that Claudius “‘was not sorry that Hamlet had killed Polonius’” (Bohannan, 51). Fear is referenced multiple times—for example, when she explains that Horatio and his companions were “‘troubled and afraid’” (Bohannan, 46) when they saw the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and when she explains that Hamlet “‘behaved so oddly’” toward Ophelia that “‘he frightened her’” (Bohannan, 49). Her summary of the play-within-a-play alludes to sexual desire, ambition, guilt, and distrust: she explains that Hamlet asked a visiting storyteller to tell Claudius and his household a tale “‘about a man who had poisoned his brother because he desired his brother’s wife and wished to be chief himself. Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without making a sign if he was indeed guilty, and then he would discover whether his dead father had told him the truth’” (Bohannan, 50). The Tiv themselves reference emotional states in their interpretations of the characters’ behavior. For example, believing that Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave to prevent Laertes from selling her body to the witches, they attribute Hamlet’s actions to envy and Laertes’ response to rage: “‘Hamlet prevented him because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful. Laertes would be angry, because he would have killed his sister without benefit to himself’” (Bohannan, 52). The Tiv even evince an appreciation for irony, as seen in their “applause” for the old man’s judgment of Claudius: “‘if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother’” (Bohannan, 51). As these examples illustrate, the Tiv clearly understand the power of emotions such as ambition, rage, and desire, and the causal relationship between emotion and behavior.

The Tiv also exhibit the ability to infer the emotional states of others. At one point in her narration, for example, Bohannan feels herself getting angry, and tells her audience, “‘If you don’t like the story, I’ll stop’” (Bohannan, 52). The response from the senior elder—an obvious attempt at appeasement–indicates that he has accurately interpreted her feelings: “The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer” (Bohannan, 52). The opposite is also true: Bohannan is able to make accurate assessments of her audience’s mental state. For example, when she agrees to tell them a story, she notes that the men sit back to listen, “puffing contentedly” on their pipes (Bohannan, 46). Indeed, over the course of her narration, she repeatedly gauges audience interest and attitude using facial expression, tone of voice, and/or body language. The range of facial expressions she describes is impressive. For example, she reports that that “the old man beamed” (Bohannan, 46) with approval upon hearing that Claudius married his brother’s widow, and that he “frowned” (Bohannan, 48) at his wife for asking a stupid question. When she explains that that there was no need for Gertrude to remarry, she notes that “no one looked convinced” (Bohannan, 47), and when she attempts to explain that the king’s ghost is not an omen, she notes that the “audience looked as confused as I sounded” (Bohannan, 48). She also monitors the glances exchanged between audience members, noting, for example, that the “second elder looked triumphantly at the first” (Bohannan, 46) when the former’s interpretation was vindicated, and that the “old men looked at each other in supreme disgust” (Bohannan, 50) upon hearing the cause of Polonius’ death. Similarly, she monitors the glances directed expressly at her. For example, when Bohannan accepts the old man’s invitation to join in the beer drinking, she notes that he looks at her “approvingly” (Bohannan, 45). And, after explaining that Hamlet changed Claudius’ orders so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were killed instead, she remarks: “I encountered a reproachful glare from one of the men whom I had told undetectable forgery was not merely immoral but beyond human skill” (Bohannan, 51).

The use of gesture and body language to infer attitude and emotional state is also in evidence. For example, Bohannan notes that there was “a general shaking of heads round the circle” (Bohannan, 46) in disapproval of a son exacting vengeance for his father’s murder. She also monitors her audience’s attentional state, noting for example that her “audience suddenly became much more attentive” (Bohannan, 49) when she began discussing Hamlet’s madness. She is particularly alert to tone of voice, noting a “reproachful” (Bohannan, 51) comment, a “growled” (Bohannan, 48) answer, a “bewildered voice” (Bohannan, 49), and a “babble of disbelief” (Bohannan, 48). Her comment that Hamlet scolded his mother elicits “a shocked murmur from everyone” (Bohannan, 50), and an elder’s pronouncement that Claudius was wicked to bewitch his nephew elicits a “murmur of applause” (Bohannan, 51). Bohannan’s descriptions reference a broad range of emotions, and in some cases are highly nuanced, as seen when she notes that her host addressed her “with that insincere, but courteous, agreement one extends to the fancies of the young, ignorant, and superstitious” (Bohannan, 48).

Clearly, Bohannan and the Tiv have no trouble interpreting each other’s tone of voice, body language, or emotional states. The main interpretive difference between the two cultures lies in the motives attributed to the characters, which the Tiv parse in terms of local constraints and practices. For the most part, however, the Tiv respond to the characters in the same manner that Westerners do, expressing sympathy for some and antipathy for others, and understanding their behavior in terms of their motivational state. This is arguably the most remarkable cross-cultural continuity evinced in the essay: Tiv and Westerners alike respond to story characters as if they were actual human beings, assuming not only that they experience emotions, but that they experience the same set of emotions that humans do.

Machiavellian Intelligence

Because humans are highly social animals, one of the main obstacles to the attainment of fitness-related goals is other humans. Resources are finite; consequently, competition for access to food, territory, mates, allies, and other necessities has always been a feature of human environments. The selection pressure exerted by this competition led to the evolution of adaptations for manipulating the beliefs and behavior of conspecifics (Jolly, “Lemur”; Humphrey, “Social”). Commonly referred to by the shorthand term “Machiavellian intelligence” (Byrne & Whiten, Machiavellian Intelligence; Whiten & Byrne, Machiavellian Intelligence II), this capacity includes the ability to dissemble and deceive, and the attendant ability to predict human behavior. This capacity is evinced in the intrigues that pervade Hamlet, as well as the facility with which the Tiv understand these machinations and generate alternative schemes of their own.

The Tiv have no problem understanding that humans engage in intrigue or understanding the nature of this behavior, and readily follow the maneuvers deployed by the characters to achieve their various ends. Consider the plots and counterplots launched by Hamlet and Claudius, beginning with the play-within-a-play. When Bohannan explains that Hamlet’s motive is to “‘discover whether his dead father had told him the truth,’” the old man asks “with deep cunning, ‘Why should a father lie to his son?’” (Bohannan, 50). The Tiv understand both, Claudius’ plan to send his nephew away “‘with letters to a chief of a far country, saying that Hamlet should be killed,’” and Hamlet’s counter-move in which he “‘changed the writing on their papers, so that the chief killed his age mates instead’” (Bohannan, 51). Even more telling is their response to Claudius’ subsequent plot to encourage Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel. When Bohannan explains that “‘Hamlet’s mother drank the poisoned beer that the chief meant for Hamlet in case he won the fight’” (Bohannan, 53), one of the elders corrects her interpretation. In so doing, he envisions an alternative plot: “‘The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft’” (Bohannan, 53).

This penetrating insight is not a fluke: another example is seen when a debate arises concerning the ghost, which the Tiv interpret as a “false omen” sent to Hamlet. One elder argues that Hamlet should have consulted a diviner, who “could have told him how his father died, if he really had been poisoned’” (Bohannan, 50). Another elder disagrees: “‘Because his father’s brother was a great chief, one-who-sees-the-truth might therefore have been afraid to tell it. I think it was for that reason that a friend of Hamlet’s father—a witch and an elder—sent an omen so his friend’s son would know’” (Bohannan, 50). The Tiv exhibit an equally Machiavellian view of Laertes’ motives. Bohannan explains that, because Polonius was worried that his son might behave in a prodigal fashion while in Paris, “‘he sent one of his servants to . . . to spy out what Laertes was doing’” (Bohannan, 49). One of the elders offers the following interpretation of Laertes’ behavior when, upon his return, he learns of Ophelia’s death and visits her grave:

“Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.” (Bohannan, 52)

As these and many other examples in the essay illustrate, the Tiv exhibit a keen understanding of humans as political animals. They are neither surprised by the duplicitous behavior exhibited by the characters, nor incapable of generating original schemes on their own.

Future Research

Although it would be an ambitious project, one obvious avenue of inquiry would be a cross-cultural comparison of emotional responses to the main conflicts in the play. This could be done by analyzing a cross-cultural sample of audience responses to Hamlet. For each culture, audience response could be operationalized as the most highly cited or most commonly taught interpretation—that is, the within-culture interpretation for which there is the highest consensus among literary scholars. Since Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into many languages and subjected to international academic scrutiny, the assembly of such a sample is not outside the bounds of possibility. Regardless of culture of origin, we would expect these consensus interpretations to evince similar attitudes toward key behaviors in the story, such as murder, incest, adultery, and betrayal. Specifically, we would expect these behaviors to be associated with a negative valence, and to be explicitly or implicitly characterized as antisocial conduct. We would further expect the targets of such behaviors to be seen as aggrieved parties and, on this logic, would expect to find rules aimed at regulating these behaviors and overt or tacit approval of the punishment of transgressors (e.g., via shaming, ostracism, execution). Finally, we would expect audiences to attribute motivational states to the story characters, to attribute the same motivational states to the characters that they attribute to actual humans, and to understand these motivational states as the impetus for the characters’ behavior. Cross-cultural consonance in these affective responses would constitute compelling evidence that “human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over” (Bohannan, 44).

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Scalise Sugiyama“).]

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