Studying Universals

HUMAN UNIVERSALS (1991): Reflections on its Whence and Whither

Donald Brown, University of California at Santa Barbara

Human universals have been a part of anthropological thought from the field’s academic beginning, yet to my knowledge no book devoted to the topic had been published for many decades before mine of 1991, Human Universals. I here recount how that book came about, along with notes on what followed. (For brevity I will refer to the book as HU; “human universals” will be simply “universals.”)

Much of the attention universals received in anthropology in the twentieth century, notably in the U.S., consisted of denial or minimization of their existence and significance (notably, see Geertz 1965). Some of anthropology’s best-known and influential research publications specifically purported to refute the existence of one or another alleged universal. In the early 1980s, however, some of those refutations in turn were refuted on the basis of competent field research: Deborah Gewertz (1981) refuted Margaret Mead’s (1935) claim of female dominance among the Tchambuli (of New Guinea). Ekkehart Malotki (1983) refuted the claim by Benjamin Lee Whorf (published posthumously in Carroll [1956]) that the Hopi lacked a sense of time. Derek Freeman (1983) refuted Mead’s claim (1928) that adolescent stress was absent among Samoans.[1]

Those refutations of refutations, and other research publications with similar implications, called for a rethinking of anthropological ideas about universals, their scope, causes, and consequences. I decided to undertake that task, spurred in part by losing a bet that I, in a typical relativist anthropologist mode, placed against my colleague Donald Symons’ (1979) claims for universal sex differences in human sexual behavior, as I noted in the preface of HU. Typing “human universals” (without the quotation marks) into the Google Books Ngram Viewer will show a steepened rise in the occurrence of the term in the 1980s.

So much was then beginning to be published on universals that before long I changed my mind about the need for the book I had envisaged. Only when it occurred to me that packaging a list of the many apparent universals in the form of an imaginary ethnography of the “Universal People” (HU’s chapter 6) would be particularly catching, did I change my mind again.

The most effective part of HU was probably that chapter. While the list included many features that are strictly cultural (such as cooking with fire) a large number were strongly suggestive of a rich human nature, in opposition to the predominant view in anthropology and other social sciences that culture (or society) is the supreme determinant of human behavior, and that culture’s (or society’s) features cannot be “reduced” to biology. By happy coincidence, in the same year that HU appeared the historian Carl Degler’s In Search of Human Nature (1991) more thoroughly examined the history of what led to that predominant view. A year later John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1992) critiqued that view as the “Standard Social Science Model,” which the then emerging field of Evolutionary Psychology aimed to supplant. Later, Steven Pinker’s best-selling The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) appended a (very slightly modified) list of human universals that I supplied, which then introduced them to a much wider reading audience (supplemented by variants of the list posted on the internet). Later yet, it was Steven Pinker’s suggestion that Pangea Day—an event held simultaneously on all continents except Antarctica in 2008—take universals as a theme for its TED-related event promoting film as a means to bring the peoples of the world together (find Pangea Day on Wikipedia).

The totality of academic interest in human universals has almost certainly been greater outside of anthropology than in it, where specifically cultural anthropologists are most numerous and less persuaded by the thinking entailed by the existence and importance of universals. Nonetheless, particular anthropologists have been highly influential in the development of studies centrally concerned with identifying and illuminating those universals that comprise human nature. “Evolutionary Psychology” has come to label much of that endeavor. As the label indicates, many psychologists collaborate in it. Psychology may well be the discipline most influenced by the ferment of the 1980s that challenged the Standard Social Science Model. 

Primatologists, often themselves in anthropology departments, have contributed to the study of universals in distinctive ways, given that our relatives in the animal world allow comparisons that throw a distinctive light on the human psyche and behavior. One of the particularly revealing works of this kind is Bernard Chapais’ Primate Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society (2008). It shows that features of human society long considered to be cultural, with origins irretrievably lost in the mists of time, were actually parts of our primate heritage.  Chapais’ development and application of a logico-deductive theory in relation to universals, employed to trace the evolution of human society from its primate ancestors, is a promising development in method and theory (see, e. g., Chapais 2014 and in press).

Primatologists have taken the idea of universals in a yet different direction, by identifying 100-plus “chimpanzee universals”: behaviors common to all the distinct chimpanzee populations that have been carefully studied. Those observed behaviors common to one or more chimpanzee populations but not to all are then candidate cultural behaviors. William McGrew’s The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (2004) pursues this line of thought.

Outside of the social sciences, one of the fields in which thinking about universals has been most stimulated is literary analysis. This will of course be addressed far more competently by others in this forum.[2] But a particularly pleasant surprise to me was the direct influence on novelists, notably Ian McEwan in his essay “Literature, Science, and Human Nature” (2005). Amusingly, in her novel The Family Tree, Carole Cadwalladr (2005) used reference to a short list of human universals to set up a later wry comment on male proclivities.

Universals in the graphic and plastic arts have, very justifiably, not been ignored. Ellen Dissanayake’s What is Art For? (1988) and Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (1992), for example, were thoroughly anchored in considerations of human universals, human nature, and the evolution-minded critiques of the arch relativism of anthropology at that time.

Given that the histories and historically relevant textual materials accumulated over time surely constitute the largest body of “data” on human thought and behavior (until the digital age!), it is no surprise that social scientists regularly call on those materials in attempts to formulate, bolster, or refute claims of universality. But my impression is that few who are professional historians have made it a major focus of their work (recall however the mention of Carl Degler above). The historian-sociologist Keith Hopkins (1980) entered the debate over the Westermarck effect (incest avoidance as an adaptation) but to my knowledge did not further address the study of universals or human nature. One who does, and hopes to encourage it among other historians, is Gregory Hanlon in his forthcoming paper “Historians and the Evolutionary Approach to Human Behavior” (in press).

Two criticisms of HU that I considered valid were presented to me personally. One referred to the credence I gave to the universality of the Oedipus Complex. The critique was toward the underlying tripartite model of the mind that the Complex entails (for a different and comprehensive critique see Sugiyama 2001). The other criticism was that I should get on with a second edition of HU. If I were to do that I would rethink counting the Oedipus Complex as universal. I do not have a second edition on my agenda,[3] but am happy to report there are now other book-length treatments of universals. Moreover, I have had the opportunity to repackage my arguments or expand on particular points in various short essays.

Turning to those essays first, encyclopedia entries allowed brief (Brown 1996) and even briefer (1999b) summaries of the argument and evidence presented in HU.  My “Human Nature and History” (1999a) argued for the inevitable and pervasive links between human nature and history and the links between universals and human nature.  Brown (2000) goes well beyond HU via a wider discussion of the implications of universals, particularly in understanding what it is to be human. Brown (2004b) addresses a wider audience, summarizing key parts of HU but focusing particularly on the linkages between universals and human nature and then on human nature’s causal role in the production of human culture. Brown (2013) addresses the theoretical relevance of universals in anthropology, summarizing what suppressed the study of them in much of the twentieth century, and the variety of recent conditions—particularly in the sciences—that have now antiquated key features of that century’s sociocultural theory.

What those essays have not addressed, and would definitely be in any re-write of HU, would be updates to its roster of universals. The universals in color nomenclature that HU summarized, for example, have undergone considerable debate and revision. Claims, arguments, and data to support universals not listed in HU have been numerous. Psychologists, perhaps even more than anthropologists, have been particularly active in both finding universals and offering explanations for them—proximate and ultimate. The former explanations refer primarily to such psycho-physical conditions or entities as the mind, hormones, and sex/age differences. The latter refers to why the particular universals evolved as features of human nature, a key part of the subject matter of Evolutionary Psychology (see e. g. Buss 2005).

While I have not kept an expanding list of newly claimed or demonstrated universals, they surely are numerous. Many, coming out of Evolutionary Psychology or related research orientations, are invariant features of human nature that in themselves are neither readily observable nor commonly named entities. Analogous to the edge-detecting or movement-detecting neurological features of vision, they are revealed through one or another form of research experimentation. Each discharging its specific function, such features operate in combination with other features of human nature—and inputs from the senses—to produce behavioral outputs of potentially infinite gradation (Pietraszewski [2016] gives a concise description).

Important book-length, theoretical treatments of human universals have been produced by the German anthropologist, Christoph Antweiler (2007, 2012, 2016). The first two appeared in German; the third, in English, is a condensed and up-dated version of the former two, with an extensive bibliography that includes more than a few citations that were missed in HU.

Antweiler’s English version (reviewed at greater length in Brown 2017) is a wide-ranging consideration of the concept of universality, touching, for example, on the use of that term in philosophy, where its meaning for millennia has been generally distinct from the meaning of the empirically identified human universals in anthropology. One of Antweiler’s principal arguments is to classify “biotic” universals as a distinct set. Typically or at least often “absolute” universals, they are appropriately studied by evolutionary psychologists. Other universals, which in Antweiler’s terms need only occur in the ethnographic record of unrelated peoples at rates above chance, are more the subject matter of sociocultural anthropology’s comparative studies. And also of Literary Studies: Antweiler specifically cites key papers in this field (e. g. Hogan 1997).

My view is that whether a trait or complex is biotic or not—that is, a feature of human nature or not—widely comparative ethnographic studies, or proxies for them, are the ultimate method for verifying human universals. How to explain or ascertain their kind of universality is the point at which the determination of biotic or not comes into play. Given that the research costs of ethnographic studies in the field are high, and that the extant studies of many peoples commonly omit the relevant details to identify particular universals, a variety of less-than-perfect methods are regularly employed. They may employ cross-cultural samples from existing studies, comparisons of textual materials produced in times and places widely separated, pencil-and-paper experiments conducted in classrooms, comparisons of two or more very distantly related peoples, [4] and so on. Imperfections in the methods for identifying universals are widely discussed (e. g., Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan 2010). That claims of universality are ethnocentrically biased is a very common charge, and surely is to be guarded against.

Also book-length and wide-ranging, but with different aims, is William Gairdner’s The Book of Absolutes: A critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals (2008).  The critique of relativism is the clear aim of the book, but the extensive marshalling of evidence for absolutes stretches from physics to literature and myth. The Literary Universals Project is cited.

One of, if not the most prolific writer on universals, is the linguist Anna Wierzbicka. The study of linguistic universals was already mature and academically “acceptable” before interest in universals began to rise in anthropology in the 1980s. Thus a suitable classification of the formal types of linguistic universals was readily adapted in HU for human universals, e.g., absolute-, near-, and conditional universals. Wierzbicka’s principal concern has been semantic universals—not merely their existence and enumeration but the cross-cultural utility of employing the “65 universal semantic primes” to illuminate a wide range of anthropological issues (2016: 408). The paper just cited provides references to some of her many volumes on semantic universals, which are, of course, an important part of human universals.

 Let me close with the principal regret that I have about HU: that I did not specifically criticize the philosopher Michel Foucault’s denial of the existence of universals, as in his debate with the linguist Noam Chomsky (Chomsky and Foucault 1974). Although associated with human nature in that debate, “universals” were otherwise left wholly undefined. Foucault’s view found an all too ready acceptance in the social sciences and humanities, where it supports suspicions or notions not only that human universals do not exist but, furthermore, that objectivity and truth are to be enclosed in quotation marks as unsupportable and potentially pernicious tools for the post-Enlightenment West’s exploitation of other humans. The thought now that for more than two decades persons searching online for “Foucault” and “universals” might have been able to hit on HU and its argument and evidence—with the educational effect that might have come from that—is a sad thought indeed.



Antweiler, Christoph. 2007. Was ist den Menschen gemeinsam? Über Kultur und Kulturen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. (2nd rev. ed. 2012).

Antweiler, Christoph. 2016. Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited. Trans. Diane Kerns. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Brown, Donald. 1991. Human Universals.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Brown, Donald. 1996. “Human Universals.” In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 2. New York: Henry Holt, 607-12.

Brown, Donald. 1999a. “Human Nature and History.” History and Theory 38: 138-57.  (Reprinted in The Return of Science: Evolution, History, and Theory. Ed. Philip Pomper and David Shaw. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, 73-95.)

Brown, Donald. “Human Universals.” 199b. The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. Robert Wilson and Frank Keil. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 382-4.

Brown, Donald. 2004a.  “Human Universals and Their Implications”. In Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives.  Ed. Neil Roughley.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 156-74.

Brown, Donald. 2004b. “Human Universals, Human Nature & Human Culture.” Daedalus 133.4: 47-54.

Brown, Donald.2012. “Ethnicity and Ethnocentrism: Are They Natural?” (revised). In Race and Ethnicity: The United States and the World, 2nd Edition. Ed. Raymond Scupin. Boston, MA: Pearson, 81-94.

Brown, Donald. 2013. “Human Universals.” In Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. Eds. R. McGee and Richard Warms. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 410-13.

Brown, Donald. 2017. Review of Christoph Antweiler, “Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited.” Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 1: 213-15.

Buss, David. 2005. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Cadwalladr, Carole. 2005. The Family Tree.  New York: Plume.

Carroll, John, ed. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Boston, MA: Technology P of MIT.

Carroll, Joseph. 2004. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. New York: Routledge.

Chapais, Bernard. 2008. Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Chapais, Bernard. 2014. “Complex Kinship Patterns as Evolutionary Constructions, and the Origins of Sociocultural Universals.” Current Anthropology 55.6: 751-83.

Chapais, Bernard. (In Press) “The Nature and Psychological Foundation of Social Universals”. In Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior. Eds. L. Workman, W. Reader, and J. Barkow. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Chomsky, Noam and Michel Foucault. 1974.“Human Nature: Justice versus Power.” In Reflexive Water: The Basic Concerns of Mankind. Ed. Fons Elders. London: Souvenir P, 135-97.

Degler, Carl N. 1991. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford UP.

Dissanayake, Ellen. 1988. What is Art For? Seattle, WA: U of Washington P.

Dissanayake, Ellen. 1992. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why? Seattle, WA: U of Washington P.

Freeman, Derek. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Freeman, Derek. 1999. The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, CO: Westview P.

Gairdner, William D. 2008. The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals. Montreal & Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s UP.

Geertz, Clifford. 1965. “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.” In New Views of the Nature of Man. Ed. John Platt.  Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 93-118.

Gurven, Michael, Christopher von Rueden, Maxim Massenkoff, Hillard Kaplan, and Mariono Lero Vie.  2013. “How Universal Is the Big Five? Testing the Five-Factor Model of Personality Variation among Forager–Farmers in the Bolivian Amazon”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104.2: 354-70.

Hanlon, Gregory. (In press.) “Historians and the Evolutionary Approach to Human Behavior.” In Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Studies on Human Behavior. Eds. Jerome Barkow, Will Reader, Lance Workman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33.2: 61-83.

Hogan, Patrick. 1997. “Literary Universals.” Poetics Today 18.2: 223-29.

Hopkins, Keith. 1980. “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt.” Comparative Studies in Society and History.  22: 303-54.

Le Vine, Robert and Donald Campbell. 1971. Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior. New York: Wiley.

McEwan, Ian. 2005. “Literature, science, and human nature.” In The literary animal: Evolution and the nature of narrative. Eds. Jonathan Gottschall and David Wilson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 5-19.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1935. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow.

Pietraszewski, David. 2016. “How the Mind Sees Coalitional and Group Conflict: The Evolutionary Invariances of N-Person Conflict Dynamics.” Evolution and Human Behavior 37: 470-80.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Scalise Sugiyama, Michelle. 2001. “New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 34.1: 121-36.

Shankman, Paul. 2009. The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. Madison: U of Wisconsin P.

Symons, Donald. 1979. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford UP.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Ed. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. New York: Oxford UP, 19-136.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2016. “Back to ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’: Overcoming the Eurocentrism of Kinship Studies through Eight Lexical Universals.” Current Anthropology 57.4:  408-29.



[1] Freeman’s refutation, along with his other sharp criticisms of Mead’s work on Samoa, set off a firestorm in anthropology, to which he added in a later volume (1999) by arguing that Mead’s Samoan informants had hoaxed her. Paul Shankman (2009) effectively refuted this hoaxing claim. But note that although Freeman appears to have gone off the rails with the hoaxing claim, Shankman’s book did not argue that Freeman’s conclusions in his first book on Mead were wrong.

[2] But see, e. g., Hogan’s (1997) presentation of the formal or generic kinds of universals tailored to the needs of literary analysis and Carroll’s more general essay “Universals in Literary Study” in Carroll (2004).

[3] Rather, I hope soon to finish a book that examines in depth a single universal—ethnocentrism/ingroup bias. A step toward it is Brown (2012).

[4] This method is regularly employed in the “Integrative Anthropological Sciences” program in the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Department of Anthropology ( Its faculty and students produce a wide spectrum of dozens of ongoing field studies among the Tsimane of Bolivia’s Amazonian lowlands. Forager farmers, the Tsimane provide a very different perspective on the humanity so commonly the subjects of psychological research in Western or Westernized classroom settings (for a single example among many studies see Gurven et al. [2013]).