Human Universals (Video)

“Human Universals” is a term used in anthropology and evolutionary psychology to refer to behavioral or cognitive traits common to all neurologically normal humans. The notion of human universals was partially formulated as a challenge to cultural relativism, a predominant view of human nature in the late 20th century, which some psychologists and anthropologists see as greatly exaggerating the variance among members of the human species.

In a book of the same name published in 1991, professor of anthropology Donald Brown listed hundreds of human universals in an effort to emphasize the fundamental cognitive commonality between members of the human species. Some of these human universals include incest avoidance, territoriality, fear of death, rituals, childcare, pretend play, mourning, food sharing, kin groups, social structure, collective decision making, etiquette, envy, weapons, aesthetics, and many more. Wider recognition of human universals has led to a sort of mini-revolution in psychology, which has begun to take more input from the harder sciences of anthropology and biology, and less from the ubiquitous pop-psychology of the 20th century.

One of the greatest popularizers of the notion of human universals in recent years has been from Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard and author of four widely read books on the human mind. As a champion of the rising science of evolutionary psychology, Pinker argues that, in the same way we all have ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth, all with the same basic biological features from person to person, we should expect our cognitive features to have similar commonality. The psychological differences between human beings are then differences of degree, not in kind.

The existence of an experimentally verifiable set of human universals has two key consequences. The first is that it makes further psychological experimentation and research more valuable than some may have thought. If we can identify the common cognitive features between us and their characteristics, we learn not only about every human culture and individual on earth today, but of those into the indefinite future, as long as their genomes stay essentially human. The second is that the human species has more in common than conventional psychology would have us think – that conflicts arise in spite of our fundamental cognitive similarities, rather than from them.

Music by Nine Inch Nails.


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