Human Universals

by Donald E. Brown

What is human nature? What parts of our personalities are fundamental to all humans and what parts are artifacts of our cultures? The pithy phrase expressing this question is “nature versus nurture”: how much are we born with and how much do we learn?

For much of the 20th Century, the answer leaned heavily towards nurture. The works of anthropologists such as Boas, Mead, and Whorf had led anthropologists to conclude that almost all aspects of human behavior were artifacts of culture rather than matters of genetic predisposition. Their answer was almost always “nurture” and very seldom “nature”. This school of thought reached its zenith in the 1960s.

There was, unfortunately, a political repercussion of this thinking: it implied the perfectibility of humanity. If all our behaviors are learned, then education can solve all human problems. If there’s no such thing as human nature, then we can eliminate social evils by socializing people properly. This is the behavioral analogue of Lysenkoism, a darling of Soviet scientists in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Lysenko argued that living creatures evolved by striving for something, in the process changing themselves in ways that they passed on to their descendants. Stalin liked this theory because it implied that Soviet Man could accomplish any goal by striving hard enough for it. So Darwinists were packed off to the gulag and Lysenkoism prevailed. The modern American anthropologists who embraced the “nature over nurture” weren’t as intolerant as the Stalinists, but they shared the hopeful view that the human mind was infinitely malleable.

The “nature” school never went away; it was eclipsed in the 60s, but it continued and began striking back in the 70s. William Shockley got things off to a bad start with an attempt to demonstrate that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. That poisoned the stage for “sociobiology”, the brainchild of E.O.Wilson, which demonstrated that a huge range of social behavior in animals was instinctive, not learned. Clearly, this behavior came from “nature”, not “nurture”. Mr. Wilson’s efforts attracted the scorn and anger of many of the more excitable members of the community; on at least one occasion he was pelted with missiles during a guest lecture. Mr. Wilson, a true gentleman, graciously amended his theories to soften their impact, but his opponents remained adamantly opposed to any suggestions that behavior was encoded in our genes.

Today, sociobiology has been replaced with evolutionary psychology, which continues to attract scorn and derision from some quarters -- but the momentum has turned against the “nurture” school as more and more research has revealed the genetic elements of human behavior. Eminent scholars such as Chomsky and Pinker have championed these ideas; research in evolutionary psychology, linguistics, and child behavior has steadily amassed an irrefutable mountain of evidence supporting the basic notion that human behavior is to some extent influenced by genetic factors.

The turning point seems to have come around 1990, and this book, published in 1991, seems to have been a significant contributor to the change in attitude. Mr. Brown seeks to identify those human behaviors that are found in all human cultures. Given the huge variety of behaviors demonstrated in cultures, anything that is universal is very likely part of human nature, fundamental to all people. Mr. Brown spends four chapters laying the groundwork for his results, reciting the history of the idea and the various academic controversies that raged over the decades. I was impatient with this part of the book; it said far more about anthropologists than human beings. He finally gets down to business in Chapter 5, where he discusses incest avoidance as one of the most salient human universals. But it is in Chapter 6 that he presents his overall results. He uses a pleasant conceit to accomplish his goal: he imagines a “Universal People” whose culture consists only of those behaviors that are universal to all cultures. He then proceeds to describe these Universal People and their culture. This is the meat of the book, and it is only ten pages long -- but the degree of commonality in human cultures is still surprising. Herewith a few paragraphs picked at random:

The Universal People employ such elementary logical notions as ‘not’, ‘and’, ‘same’, ‘equivalent’, and ‘opposite’. They distinguish the general from the particular and parts from wholes. Unfortunately, the UP overestimate the objectivity of their mode of thought.

The UP have a division of labor minimally based on the sex and age statuses already mentioned. For example, their women have more direct child-care duties than their men. Children are not expected to, and typically do not, engage in the same activities in the same way that adults do. Related to this division of labor, men and women, and adults and children, are seen by the UP as having different natures. Their men are in fact on the average more physically aggressive than women, and are more likely to commit lethal violence than women are.

I enjoyed this book and have learned important points about human nature from it.