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Universal People
[August 19, 2004 4:08 PM ]

One of the most oft-quoted references in Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is the study made by anthropologist, Donald E. Brown that tries to locate ethnographic patterns and tendencies underlying the behaviour of all documented human cultures.

Inspired by Chomsky's Universal Grammar (UG), Brown tries to characterise the Universal People (UP). As Steven Pinker says (in The Language Instinct), according to Brown, Universal People exhibit the following traits:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humour. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses.

Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioural propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at least one, two and more than two), proper names, possession.

Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including "not", "and", "same", "equivalent", "opposite", general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

Non-linguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behaviour. Recognised facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behaviour, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. "Oedipal" feelings (possessiveness of mother, coldness towards her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in signs of health, and in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, leavers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medical and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artefacts.

A standard pattern for time and weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalised marriage, in the sense of publicly recognised right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialisation of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favouring close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social Reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreteness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

Obviously, this is not a list of instincts or innate psychological propensities; it is a list of complex interactions between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in a human body on this planet.


Brown, D.E.: Human Universals. New York, McGraw-Hill (1991)

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

[created: October 12, 2001 10:36 AM, last modified: August 19, 2004 4:08 PM]