Cultural universal

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A cultural universal (also called an anthropological universal or human universal) is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all known human cultures worldwide. Taken together, the whole body of cultural universals is known as the human condition. Evolutionary psychologists hold that behaviors or traits that occur universally in all cultures are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations.[1] Some anthropological and sociological theorists that take a cultural relativist perspective may deny the existence of cultural universals: the extent to which these universals are "cultural" in the narrow sense, or in fact biologically inherited behavior is an issue of "nature versus nurture". Prominent scholars on the topic include Emile Durkheim, George Murdock, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Donald Brown.

Donald Brown's list in Human Universals[edit]

In his book Human Universals (1991), Donald Brown defines human universals as comprising "those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception", providing a list of hundreds of items he suggests as universal. Among the cultural universals listed by Donald Brown are:[2]

Language and cognition[edit]

  • Language is translatable
  • Abstraction in speech and thought
  • Antonyms, synonyms
  • Logical notions of "and", "not", "opposite", "equivalent", "part/whole", "general/particular"
  • Binary cognitive distinctions
  • Color terms: black, white
  • Classification of: age, behavioral propensities, body parts, colors, fauna, flora, inner states, kin, gender, space, tools, weather conditions
  • Continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)
  • Discrepancies between speech, thought, and action
  • Figurative speech, metaphors
  • Symbolism, symbolic speech
  • Synesthetic metaphors
  • Tabooed utterances
  • Special speech for special occasions
  • Prestige from proficient use of language (e.g. poetry)
  • Planning
  • Units of time
  • Language employed to manipulate others
  • Language employed to misinform or mislead




Nicholas Christakis' innate social univerals[edit]

Based on experiments and studies of accidental and utopian societies, sociologist and evolutionary biologist Nicholas Christakis proposes that humans have evolved to genetically favor societies that have eight universal attributes, including:[5]

Non-nativist explanations[edit]

The observation of the same or similar behavior in different cultures does not prove that they are the results of a common underlying psychological mechanism. One possibility is that they may have been invented independently due to a common practical problem.[6]

Outside influence could be an explanation for some cultural universals.[7] This does not preclude multiple independent inventions of civilization and is therefore not the same thing as hyperdiffusionism; it merely means that cultural universals are not proof of innateness.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schacter, Daniel L, Daniel Wegner and Daniel Gilbert. 2007. Psychology. Worth Publishers. pp. 26–27
  2. ^ Brown, Donald (1991). Human Universals. Template University Press. ISBN 978-0070082090.
  3. ^ Anderson, C.; Kraus, M. W.; Galinsky, A. D.; Keltner, D. (2012). "The Local-Ladder Effect: Social Status and Subjective Well-Being". Psychological Science. 23 (7): 764–71. doi:10.1177/0956797611434537. PMID 22653798. S2CID 8406753.
  4. ^ Anderson, Cameron; Hildreth, John Angus D.; Howland, Laura (May 2015). "Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature". Psychological Bulletin. 141 (3): 574–601. doi:10.1037/a0038781. PMID 25774679. S2CID 17129083.
  5. ^ Nicholas Christakis (2019). Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. Little, Brown Spark.
  6. ^ Language: The cultural tool DL Everett - 2012 - Vintage
  7. ^ Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights, Alan Patten 2014
  8. ^ Cultures and Globalization: Cultural Expression, Creativity and Innovation, Helmut K Anheier, Yudhishthir Raj Isar 2010