There are human universals. There, I said it. Now give me about a half hour to explain why this is both correct and a Falsehood. But first, some background and definition.
Most simply defined, a human universal is a trait, behavior or cultural feature that we find in all human societies. Men are always on average larger than women. All humans see the same exact range of colors because our eyes are the same. The range of emotions experienced by people is the same, and appears in facial expressions and other outward affect, in the same way across all humans.
The term “Human Universal” shows up in Google Ngram (a rather course but very fun data mining tool) as appearing in books in about 1830 but not before, with sporadic occurrences until just after World Word II, when, presumably because of the rise of professionalized anthropology and sociology, it demonstrated a steady increase to the present. This increase is interrupted by what is probably a non-random drop in the mid 1980s followed by a spike I presume to be associated with the publication of Donald Brown’s monograph, “Human Universals.” in 1991. I’m not sure if Ngram’s failure as a data mining tool during the early 2000’s, or if the publication of Steven Pinker’s pro genetic deterministic book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature caused a sudden drop off in the use of the term over the last few years.
From World War II on, the phrases “genetic determinism” and “human universal” have very similar patterns of appearance in books, according to the Ngram viewer, but with the former having been much more popular. And, I mention that phrase here mainly to point out that the two terms are very different.
Now let’s refer back to the aforementioned definition and examples (color vision, male vs. female size, emotions and facial expressions). The first thing to ask is, can exceptions be allowed? Necessarily, yes. Color blindness (or blindness in general) does not obviate the universal biology of eye function. Individuals can be exceptions to any rules. But what about entire cultures or populations of humans that are different? It turns out that the list of emotions one would derive from a careful study of a group of people would be different depending on which culture you look at. Does this mean that emotions are not universals? Well, even though there would be differences, the fact remains that most cultures would be similar, and the few cultures that are different are different in ways that do not overthrow any generalized understanding of emotions, how they work, what they do, and how they function in society. It might be a little like going across the Iron Curtain into the old Soviet Union and looking at cars. The cars would all look just like cars back home and operate in the same way yet none of the models and makes would be familiar to an American from Detroit. Does the relationship between the parts of a hypothetical universal have to be the same everywhere? Hopefully not. On average, men are always larger than women in any sufficiently large and “normal” population, but there is often overlap. However, the absolute size of people in general and the relative size of men vs. women seems to vary across populations, with some having very large difference and others having very small differences.
So, our simple definition of a human universal holds as long as we are willing to allow at least three dimensions of variation or exception: Individuals can be exceptions, there can be some cross cultural variation, and the details can vary in important ways, so long as the universal is defined in a way that allows for it.
But at the same time, even this surfical look at a small number of examples indicates that the concept of a “Human Universal” is not the same as a species-specific genetically determined trait. Such a concept would be like asserting that the way emotions are expressed by humans is as invariant and predictable as the number of bones in an adult human, which we assume is always exactly the same from person to person.
Or is it? Actually, the number of ribs, vertebrae, teeth, and sigmoid bones varies from person to person, even if not counting rare pentadactylism, amputation, or other differences. So if something as basic and “biological” as bone count per person varies, we should be able to handle a widespread human trait as a “human universal” even if East Asian people grin under stress more often than do Englishmen (who scowl when they are happy because they wear hair shirts), or if the number of colors commonly and widely recognized in a given culture varies from three to dozens.
The color example is a classic, and for a good reason. Many groups of people tend to name only a small number of colors, yet they are physically capable of seeing the same colors as anyone else. The Efe Pygmies, for instance, while being experts on their own natural environment and able to identify thousands of species of plants and animals perfectly, only have specific words for red, white or black. They live in the rain forest but don’t have a word for green. Of course, on further inspection, they DO have a word for green, it’s just not distinct. They call green things “leaf colored.” And, they can and do call things “skin colored” or “dirt colored” and so on. In a sense, claiming that they don’t have more than a few colors is like saying that Martha Stewart doesn’t have neutral pastel color paint because these paints happen to be called “Morning Walk” (not a color, but a adverb/verb or adjective/noun), “Ash Bark” (not a color but a tree part), “Feldspar” (not a color but a kind of rock), “Wampum” (not a color but a form of Native American currency), and “Mink” (not a color but a fur bearing animal).
But still, different cultures do have different distinct color name lists, and you can more or less organize cultures by how many colors they have, and when you do this, you find that the cultures with the smallest number of colors tend to have black and white, then black and white and red, then those three and either green or yellow, then all those including green AND yellow, then they add blue, then they add brown, then purple, pink, orange or gray. Eventually, you get to the cultures with the most colors, and there you find colors named after fur bearing animals and verbs.
Color vision is a human universal, but a trivial one. This is like saying that all humans having a head is a human universal. But color naming is also thought of as a human universal to the extent that all cultures follow the above described pattern, even if cultures are very different from each other in this area. Furthermore, the theory goes, this pattern is followed because of the nature of the rods and cones in our eyes. (Read Brown for a more detailed explanation.) And there probably is something to this.
Color naming could be thought of as a pattern of additive complexity, or complexity on demand, shaped by the nature of the physical environment (the way light works and the way the eye works) in which the phenomenon plays out, but the magnitude of the elaboration determined by culture. If we found a culture in which there were only six named colors and none of them were black, white, or red, would we have to disqualify color naming as a universal? Well, if you don’t like the idea of human universals, then you may want to say yes, it’s all or nothing. However, most likely such a culture would have such a naming system for some special and interesting reason.
Which brings us to sex. Or at least, a small digression I’d like to make regarding sex. Human Universal: Most sex that is not auto-erotic is between a man and a woman. Exception: The anonymous culture in New Guinea (sometimes called the “Sambia”) in which men try their hardest to have sex with women as few times as absolutely necessary to reproduce, but otherwise only have oral sex delivered by boys below a certain age. A tiny minority of sex is between men and women. Now, seriously, would the existence of that culture, and it does exist, obviate generalizations about human sexuality? Or, would it make you ask questions about that one particular culture, and perhaps even question the validity of your cultural relativism to some extent? Seriously.
The relative size of men and women is due to developmental differences between men and women and there is a great deal to say about it (which we’ll skip). For our present purposes, it is exemplary of an interesting kind of human universal that demonstrates both the validity of the concept and ways in which the concept becomes unnecessarily constraining in how we think about humans.
Early anthropologists (Mead, Benedict, etc.) made the case that human culture was so flexible that wholesale reversals in sex roles across entire cultures could be found (reversals from the western expected norm, that is). So they found those cultures in the Pacific. However, further study of the cultures in which the women were supposedly doing all the guy stuff and the men were supposedly doing all the girl stuff showed that these early anthropologists were, in the main, wrong: There are no documented sex reversal cultures in the Pacific. Indeed, a close read of Benedict and Mead won’t even find clear cut cases, though the derived literature and popularization of it, and Mead in some public appearances, would give that impression.
It is true, however, that if you measure “maleness” and “femaleness” (as gender spectra) of people in a bunch of different cultures, it is not hard to find one culture where the men are more female than the females of some other culture, or women in one culture that are more male then men of some other culture. And, how “male” vs. “female” actual males and females are may be very divergent by genetic sex, or less different, and some traits may demonstrate vast gender differences and others less, depending on the culture.
But no matter what you do, you will always find that the usual lists of male vs. female distinguishing traits fall in relation to each other the same way in every culture, where men are more male and women are more female, by a little or by a lot, but always with the same polarity. Always. Except for the exceptions, of course, which are actually quite rare.
So there is an overall pattern of gender roles found across cultures that is a human universal, but no one culture can be used to predict the exact pattern for any unknown culture. The patterns of gender roles is probably often shaped by certain features. Ocean fishing cultures, vs. forest horticultural cultures, vs grassland pastoral cultures vs. arid country forager cultures … will probably have internally similar patterns of gender roles (and other social roles). This is because some underlying set of male and female potentials, needs, vulnerabilities, requirements, limitations, etc. plays out in roughly similar ways given similar contexts, economies, externalizes, etc. Add a bit of history and some random chance and you get a complex, mosaic-like mostly post hoc but somewhat predictive pattern of gender role tendencies across the human species. With the usual exceptions.
So the male-female difference demonstrates, messily, the kind of human universal that arises from some pretty basic biological factors (penis or vagina? lactation? paternity anxiety?) when played out across an entire planet of crazy humans.
The emotion example demonstrates something else about human universals. This is the link between some rather well known neurological and endocrine systems, the broader phylogenetic context (humans as mammals, humans as primates, etc.) and the strange tension between the arbitrary nature of human communication (the linguistic) and the non-arbitrary nature of our bodies.
All mammals have limbic systems and endocrine (hormone) systems, and they are pretty similar across the groups that have been studied well. The “emotions” are the output of the limbic systems. Your larynx and pharynx makes your voice, your legs are how you walk, your limbic system does the emotions. At some scale most, perhaps all, mammals have the same basic emotions. There are four of them, and there is a mnemonic to remember what they are: The Four F‘s. Fleeing, Fighting, Feeding and Sex.
But of course, this is an oversimplification, and there is some neurological and circumstantial evidence that emotions can be very derived, and even entirely new ones present, in some mammals. For instance, in cats the “affective attack” behavior is probably like human rage, but plays out very different. Cats have a “quiet biting” attack emotional state that human hunters and soldiers mimic but that is probably not a separate basic emotion in humans. And when I say “cats have this emotion” what I mean is that you can see them do it in the wild and you can consistent replicate the emotion by inserting a needle in a certain part of the brain and giving it a bit of juice.
So human emotions can be, and should be, understood in the wider pattern of mammalian emotions, though I think a lot of people don’t understand that. It is often assume that emotion are entirely constructed from cultural experience. They are not. But the exact set of emotion that are typically experienced and the way in which they play out can be very much affected by cultural experience. Sexual Jealousy is a human universal … it is widely found and makes biological sense, is linked to visceral effects like other emotions, etc. But how sexual jealousy plays out or even if it is important seems to vary a great deal across cultures. Malu is arguably an emotion that exists only in a certain Indonesian culture, though it is like emotions found elsewhere (overlaps with “shame” and “honor”). And the affective state linked to emotions can vary. The scene in Platoon where a young man is killed because of his smile comes to mind.
Sexual jealousy would be an emotion that in some cases has a very important, adaptive, even central role in culture (in some cultures). The fact that East Asians grin/smile in a way that Westerners may not understand is not a cultural adaptation but rather a product of cultural drive (I assume), and Malu is a highly derived culture-bound form of some more basic emotion that all humans probably experience. But the fact that a genetic analogy works to describe these behaviors, and despite the fact that they are biological (in having their own organ, as it were, the limbic system) does not make these differences genetically determined. Indonesians do not have a gene for malu and French people a gene for sexual jealousy.
Which brings us to the concept of determinism. I used to hang out a lot with a client scientist who was always talking about determinism and how he was amused at the way in which social scientists repelled at the concept. In truth, the social scientists were being repelled at a different concept (that they called determinism) than what my friend Kerry was thinking. But he did make a valid point: When we think about things that matter, there is often a cause, and the structure of cause and effect is a matter of determinism. This is different than predestination. The fact that the overall structure of emotions is determined by genes does not obviate the equally valid fact that the overall structure of emotions is determined by experience. One kind of determinism is not the “correct” one or the more powerful one or the one that matters, though you will hear most people involved in this sort of discussion demanding that it does. And, whether or not something is a human universal is an entirely separate question than the details of what determines it.
Apartment building mice build, when living colonially, a complex warren with a specific engineered pattern of spatial relatioships between individual borrows, looking like tiny apartments in a large housing development. Termintes build incredibly complex systems of air cooled/air heated underground farms and birthing areas. The mice make their apartments by having a single behavior …. just one … that, when they live in a group makes the aprartments form quite incidentally, but I would argue that the making of apartments when living in a group is a “mouse universal” for that species. No termite or even group of termintes has a blueprint for a complex termitary system, but they manage to always make one anyway. The termitaries are universal to the termites, and each species has a species universal pattern of termitary, yet the termitaries … how they look and function … are determined by a handful of very simple (genetically coded) behaviors and context.
Certainly, there are human universals that are entirely non-genetic or that have entirely trivial genetic components. They are difficult to identify because once determinism comes into play in the discussion, everything is viewed by the interlocutors as “obviously genetic” or “clearly constructed.” Not helpful.
Human universals are real and they are important. They are important because figuring out how and why they exist at all reveals how individual humans, groups, and “cultures” function. They tell us about common experiences that may not be as obvious if we don’t recognize the universals, such as how shame, jealousy, malu, honor, and so on reveal the society shaping of what is considered normal. An understanding of human universals can be an exercise in calibration. The entire anthropological experience, with its relativism and its “outside” perspective is roughly equivalent to the observation of human behavior in relation to things that are universals and things that are not.
Kissing is not a human universal yet is built from parts that are. Homicide and rape are human universals yet they happen (usually) because of highly unusual circumstances. In the former, the actual “universal(s)” are unseen to us. Something about bodily fluids, or a drive for closeness, or some feature of risk or trust come together to cause the mushing of lips to serve as a tool for bonding (of many different kinds) in many but not all culture. Who kills or rapes whom and under what circumstances tends to follow very predictable patterns across cultures and contexts (but with very different incidence) but the specific contextual variables that determine this behavior to actually happen are almost always quirky.
So, human universals are real and the concept is useful, yet they are not what many people assume they are … they are not generically determined traits. They never were thought of as either simplistic genetically determined features of human culture or utterly invalid, by any camp in anthropology. The phrase “Human Universal” is a dog whistle only in limited contexts, though it is probably seen as one more widely, which is problematic. And here, by complexifying the concept, I’m not trying to weaken it, nor am I trying to slip it past any perceived PC police. Mainly, like with most of the Falsehoods, I have tried to expose some of the interesting inner workings of the topic at hand. In this sense, the concept of “human universal” is a reasonably useful tool functioning in a way somewhere between pick=axe and well placed dynamite.