Humans resemble humans. Each of us shares a long list of intrinsic
similarities to all other humans. These similarities extend across the sexes, races,
and cultures and include many details of anatomy, behavior, and mental
processes. Fish swim, birds fly, horses gallop, and humans walk upright. Ducks
quack, dogs bark, birds sing, and humans speak.
Anthropologists have studied human behavior in many very different cultures
around the world. This has documented a broad range of culturally distinct
behavior. It has also identified behavior that is consistent from one culture to
the next. These human universals, or near universals, form a long
and interesting list of behaviors that range from simple to complex, obvious to
surprising, and include both helpful (constructive) and hurtful (destructive) traits.
Perhaps this commonality is not surprising. The laws of logic, mathematics, physics,
chemistry, and economics hold uniformly true throughout the known universe.
Humans everywhere share a common and complex anatomy, physiology, genome, and brain
structure. Every person alive today descended from the San Bushmen who left
their African village only 60,000 years ago to populate the far reaches of the
globe. Perhaps our
common traits result from the strategies our selfish genes use to survive the
clever and relentless competition they face on our remarkable planet.
Human nature makes up the first layer of the
architecture for interaction. Although human
nature cannot be changed we can certainly make
choices and change how we
The intrinsic similarities shared by all humans.
As anthropologists began to study various cultures around the world, they
were first struck by the diversity of human behaviors, customs, habits, and
traditions. But as the cultural studies continued in more depth, it became clear
that the most fundamental aspects of humanity are more similar than different
throughout the wide variety of world cultures. Some of the similarities shared
by nearly all humans, called human universals,
are described here.
Humans are linguists. Our skills in speaking and listening allow us to
communicate a wide range of both concrete and abstract thoughts about ourselves
and the world around us. People around the world communicate using narratives,
metaphors, gestures, synonyms, antonyms, and figures of speech. Proficiency in
speaking is universally prestigious.
Language is complex. People tell jokes, insult each
other, gossip, and tell lies to mislead and manipulate others. Even people who
do not use language to manipulate are wary of others who can and do. Nouns,
verbs, pronouns, and proper names exist in all languages. Many words have
several meanings. Words are used to describe size, location, motion, body parts,
giving, colors and numbers. Special forms of speech are used for special
occasions. Baby talk, poetry, proverbs, and sayings all have their special
roles. A variety of recurring sounds, called phonemes, make up speech. Shifts in
tone and timing indicate when it is time to take turns in speaking. More
frequently used words are typically shorter. Onomatopoetic words, whose sound
suggests their meaning, exist in all languages.
Smiles express joy. A genuine smile is recognized
around the world as an expression of happiness and a friendly greeting. Humans
are very good at detecting the authentic expression and dismissing the false
Humans study faces. We recognize individuals from their faces. Studies
carried out by
show that specific facial expressions are recognized around the world as
representing the emotions of anger, disgust, fear,
happiness, sadness, surprise, and contempt. Examples of these facial expressions
are shown on the recognizing emotions page. Other forms of non-verbal
communications include crying, coy flirtation, and masking, modifying, and
mimicking facial expressions.
Humans enjoy music. Melody, rhythm, and vocals, either alone or in
combination form music enjoyed by children and adults. This music may be
accompanied by dance or be related to religious activity. Music includes both
variation and repeated sections and is one of several creative art forms. Other
art forms we enjoy include body and non-body decorative art, hair care, and
Humans are sexy. We focus attention on sexuality, notice others we find
sexually attractive, and experience sexual jealousy.
We regulate access to sex, are sexually modest, copulate in private, and avoid
incest. Languages distinguish the sexes by including gender terms that are
primarily binary. We use magic to win love. Men have a clear preference for
women of reproductive age.
Genders behave differently. Labor is often divided by gender, and men, women,
and children are recognized as having different natures. Females do more direct
child care, and males travel greater distances over their lifetime, on average.
The husband is often older that the wife. Insemination is faster and easier than
gestation or lactation. There are gender differences in spatial cognition and
behavior. Men tend to dominate in the public and political realms. Men are more
aggressive than women. They are more prone to theft and lethal violence than
women are. They engage in more group violence, and rape plagues all cultures
People are violent. We are willing to inflict harm
on others to defend ourselves, our kin, community members, or to advance our own
Humans are self-aware. We distinguish ourselves from others, use personal
names, recognize personal property,
and we are aware and concerned about what
others think of us. We know what we like and dislike. We are aware of our
private inner life. We recognize what actions are under our control and which
ones are not. We recognize, at least to some degree, our
responsibility for our own actions, and
Humans are self-centered. We overestimate the
objectivity of our thoughts. We make distinctions between our in-group and the
out-groups, and we are biased in favor of our in-group. We are territorial and
recognize personal property. We seek a positive self-image, and manipulate that
image. We employ psychological defense mechanisms to
protect our self-image.
Humans are social. We live in groups and belong to groups outside the family.
We identify with our in-groups and make decisions as a group. We gossip, visit,
show hospitality, observe etiquette, share food, and sometimes feast. We return
favors and engage in the reciprocal exchange of
good and services. We judge others. We feel empathy. We recognize social structures, recognize
status based on kinship, sex and age, make promises,
and divide our work and trade with others.
Humans wield power. We recognize leaders, form
coalitions, lie to misinform or mislead, insult others, and manipulate social
relations. We fill both dominant and submissive
roles. We recognize status when it is ascribed or
achieved, and can distinguish status ascribed to a role (positional power) from
the individual filling the role. We recognize differences in prestige and
material wealth and attribute status by age. Theft, murder, and rape occur in
Humans are compassionate. We are
empathetic, grow attached to others, and express the
affection we feel. We admire generosity and give gifts.
We distinguish between good and bad, and have a concept of fairness and equity.
We resist abuses of power and deplore rape and murder.
Humans avenge injustice. We disapprove of stinginess, and redress perceived
wrongs. We impose penalties for committing crimes against individuals or the
collected group. These sanctions often include removing offenders from the group
by expulsion, incarceration, ostracism, or even execution. Responses to
injustices are based on reciprocity and often include revenge and retaliation.
Humans are rational. We understand the logical
concepts of equivalence, same, and, not, opposite,
whole, and part. We understand precedence, explain phenomenon,
ascribe cause to effect, intent to action, and offer conjecture. We count and measure.
Humans tolerate conflict. We recognize discrepancies between speech, thought,
and action. We develop means of dealing with internal conflict and social
conflict. We mediate conflict and often consult others in resolving conflict.
Mystery fascinates us. We practice magic, perform rituals, and create myths.
We maintain false beliefs, dream, spread folklore, and attempt to control the
weather. We believe in the supernatural and form superstitions about fortune and
misfortune. Mood or conscious altering substances, such as alcohol, marijuana,
opium, psychedelic mushrooms, and peyote are used in all cultures.
We are mortal. We attempt to heal the sick and we recognize a relationship
between sickness and death. We use medicine and magic to sustain and increase
life. We mourn the dead and honor them with rituals. Our language reflects
lifeís stages according to age groups. We prepare for childbirth and infant
Kin are special. We distinguish close kin from distant kin. Nepotism, showing
favoritism to our own children and close kin, is widely practiced. Languages
include separate terms for mother and father and other kin terms that
distinguish basic ancestry relationships. Marriage is publicly recognized as
providing the right of sexual access to partners. Incest is prevented or
avoided. Older kin contribute to the socialization of younger kin as they grow
up. Incest between a mother and son is tabooed; however the Oedipus complex is
We have fears. Children are afraid of strangers and
loud noises. We fear death and are wary of snakes. Certain foods and utterances
Classification aids thinking. We classify colors, kin, sex, age, body parts,
behavior patterns, space, tools, flora and fauna. We group similar items into
the corresponding taxonomy, and name each group.
We are emotional. In addition to making and
recognizing facial expressions of several emotions, we cry and
envy, pride, and
We use tools. We create and depend on fire, weapons, spears, containers, and
levers. We make tools for cutting, pounding, and even for making other tools. We
depend on a wide variety of tools for our daily life, and reuse many of these
tools often. Tools may last longer than their makerís lifetime. We take shelter
to protect us from the elements.
We enjoy food. We have specific preferences for meal times and food choices.
We prefer sweets, cook food, and attend to personal hygiene.
We create governments. These consist of cooperative activities organized into
institutions along with laws describing rules of membership, rights,
obligations, and rules for succession of the leader. Neither pure democracies
nor pure autocracies prevail. Governments become oligarchies in practice.
Dichotomies simplify judgment and classification. We distinguish true and
false, right and wrong, normal from abnormal, black from white and we think and
speak in terms of many other binary distinctions.
Time moves on. We recognize the passage of time, organize time into the past,
present and future, name units of time, and recognize recurring cycles. We
remember the past, plan for the future, hope for the
best, and take risks. We anticipate future events and attempt to predict the
People are playful. We use toys and other playthings, enjoy playing, use
pretend as a form of play, and use play to perfect useful skills. Even tickling
We are willful. We are not prisoners of human nature. We have
beliefs and intentions; we make choices and decisions.
We are autonomous and motivated to fill our
needs and act on our free will.
We are individuals. Humans have distinct personalities; we
also learn many habits, think, and
- You cannot change the stripes on a tiger
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker
How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
Human Universals, by Donald E Brown
The Selfish Gene,
by Richard Dawkins
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, by Spencer Wells