Human Universals

Aug 16 2010

Many people today still believe in ghosts. Some people also believe that the mind, and even a soul, exists separately from the brain.  The ‘social sciences’ and humanities often still hold that people are born as ‘blank slates’ ready to be molded by society.  They cling to romantic notions of the “noble savage”, primitive hunter gatherer societies unfettered by violence or sexism.  The truth is that science has over the last ten to twenty years shown much of this to be “poppycock” (senseless nonsense).

Pick up any of the popular psychology magazines today and you will see the influence of evolutionary biology, genetics and neuroscience.  The latest edition of Scientific American Mind’s first article is called, “Born into Debt”; geneticists have shown that genetics play a role in how we handle money. The next article shows the anatomical basis of ambidexterity.  The next one talks about the evolution of distance perception.  Psychology is being grounded in reality and science, rather than superstition.

Indeed in the major spheres of human experience – beauty, motherhood, kinship, morality, cooperation, sexuality and violence, evolutionary psychology provides the only coherent explanation.  The study of humans from an evolutionary perspective has shown that many of our psychological faculties (our hunger for fatty food, social status, or risky sexual liaisons) are better adapted to the demands of our ancestral environment.

Cognitive psychology has built the case that human beings are naturally equipped with a series of cognitive faculties and intuitions.  Our brains seem innately endowed to make certain representations of knowledge.  We intuitively understand the forces that act on objects.  We make and use tools.  We understand that living things house a life force and appreciate that other minds have their own beliefs and desires.  We have an ability to think about quantities, probabilities and logic.  We possess grammatical rules to combine words in the use of language.

Millions of years ago our ancestors appear to have occupied the “cognitive niche”, by evolving mental computations that could model our environments and play out scenarios.  Practical intelligence co-evolved with language (which allows ‘know how’ to be shared at low cost) and with social cognition (which allows us to cooperate without being cheated), yielding a species that literally lives by the power of ideas.

There is also an underlying evolutionary symmetry and logic in our social relationships.  Many creatures cooperate, nurture, and make peace.  The two parents of a brood of children even have their genes tied up in the same package, so what is good for one is usually good for the other.  Their shared interests set the stage for companionate and marital love. Family love the cherishing of children, siblings, parents and so forth, reflect the basis of nepotism.  There are never just two people making love in bed. They are always accompanied in their minds by parents, former lovers, real and imagined rivals.  Every child of a man and woman is also the grandchild of two other men and women.

Altruism also evolved on the basis of reciprocal favors.  One helps another by grooming, feeding, protecting or backing him and is helped when the needs reverse.  Social generosity comes from a complex suite of thoughts and emotions rooted in the logic of reciprocity. We remember each other as individuals.  We have an eagle eye for cheaters.  We feel moralistic emotions – liking, sympathy, guilt, shame and anger.  Contempt, anger and disgust are designed to condemn others.  We have gratitude to prompt ourselves to reward altruists.  Sympathy, compassion and empathy prompt us to help a needy beneficiary.  Self conscious emotions such as guilt, shame and embarrassment prompt us to avoid cheating or to repair its effects.

Our brains, and therefore our minds, evolved fallible yet intelligent ways to keep us in touch with aspects of reality which were relevant to the survival and reproduction of our ancestors.  Our psychology is rooted in our genes.

That is not to say that our brains and minds consciously think about our genes.  Quite the opposite in fact; it seems many of our own motives in all of this our hidden from us in everyday life.  To deceive others it seems our genes have designed our brains to deceive ourselves as well.  We are calibrated to think of ourselves as wiser, abler and nobler than we really are.

Whilst quantitative differences do exist between people, in biological terms they are small; we only recently evolved from a single founder population out of Africa.  Unsurprisingly, anthropological studies have shown that hundreds of universal characteristics cut across the Worlds cultures.  Scientific enquiry is revealing the many universal characteristics which color human nature:

  • A primacy of family ties in all human societies and the consequent appeal of nepotism.
  • Communal sharing is limited; the more common ethos of reciprocity is the basis of altruism.
  • People are naturally endowed with a craving for status.  Their first impulse is to spend money in ways that put themselves ahead of the Joneses (handbags, cars, clothing etc) rather than in ways that only they know about (health care, job safety, retirement savings)
  • We are genetically and neurologically predisposed towards dominance and violence (including supposedly peaceable hunter-gathers …).  Modern states often find themselves at odds with their citizen cravings for revenge or even vigilantism. Many murders result from trivial arguments, where reputation and honor are at stake. Violence is almost a necessity in societies that are beyond the reach of law and where precious assets are easily stolen.
  • Universality of ethnocentrism and other forms of group against group hostility, and the ease with which such hostility can be aroused. One of the benefits of global trade is that we start to expand our moral circle. As Robert Wright said, “Among the many reasons I don’t think we should bomb the Japanese is that they built my minivan”.
  • Strong heritability of intelligence and other personality characteristics (OCEAN – Openness Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism)
  • The prevalence of defense mechanisms and self serving biases (rationalization and cognitive dissonance) by which people deceive themselves about their autonomy, wisdom and integrity.
  • The biases of human moral sense, including a preference for kin and friends, and a tendency to confuse morality with conformity, rank, cleanliness and beauty

If you are interested in discovering more about human universals, try the book itself by  Donald Brown. The book argues against cultural relativism, which was the dominant approach in many social sciences in the late twentieth century. Brown says human universals, “comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception.” A video highlighting the core universals can be found here at, and the full list here,

An example of where evolutionary psychology is throwing new light is in the area of child development.  As a recent father of two I have to admit to feeling rather overwhelmed by all the parenting advice one gets.  It seems that we have to be doing all manner of things to guarantee the optimal mental development of our kids!   But many recent studies show that intelligence and personality development is affected far more by genes than parenting.  It also shows that a child’s peer groups can have a bigger environmental impact than what mum and dad do.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have spent quite as much money on all those ‘Baby Einstein’ DVDs after all…

Consumer research can also benefit from the added illumination that an understanding of human universals brings.   As researchers we are in a position to bring a more cohesive understanding of what motivates all consumers.  As human beings we should aim to recognize our nature and work to expand our moral circle.


Human Universals by Donald Brown (1991)

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker (2003)

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