Human Universals

Here is a long list of human universals from Brown’s Human Universals (1991), as quoted by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Pinker 2002). Arguably though – the full list is not exclusive to humans.

Brown (1991) lists 67 that are exclusive to humans:

age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and, weaving. (Brown 1991)

And – some quotes from Brown’s Human Universals (1991), from a chapter in Evolution, Literature, Film: A Reader (2010).

A face only a mammal could love... stomping on

A face only a mammal could love… stomping on

Brown on human universals:

`A few words or meanings cut across all cultural boundaries and hence form a part of UP [Universal People] language…

The [Universal People] language refers to such semantic categories as motion, speed, location, dimension and other physical properties; to giving (including analogous actions, such as lending); and to affecting things or people… The UP [Universal People] have a concept of the person in the psychological sense. They distinguish self from others, and they can see the self both as subject and object.

They do not see the person as a wholly passive recipient of external action, nor do they see the self as wholly autonomous.

To some degree, they see the person as responsible for his or her actions. They distinguish actions that are under control from those that are not.

They understand the concept of intention. They know that people have a private inner life, have memories, make plans, choose between alternatives, and otherwise make decisions (not without ambivalent feeling sometimes). They know that people can feel pain and other emotions. They distinguish normal from abnormal mental states.

The UP personality theory allows them to think of individuals departing from the pattern of behaviour associated with whatever status(es) they occupy, and the can explain these departures in terms of the individual’s character.

The UP are spontaneously and intuitively able to, so to say, get in the minds of others to imagine how they are thinking and feeling…

The UP react emotionally – generally with fear- to snakes.’

(Brown in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 88)

A consilient biocultural approach to literature (and film) is a good idea. It makes the Arts and Humanities more relevant to knowledge.

`Anthropology has scarcely begun to illuminate the architecture of human universals. It is time to get on with the task.’

(Brown in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 95)

In Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader (2010), EO Wilson also talks about why you (everyone) should read Sociobiology, by EO Wilson (and – he’s probably right):

`In a 1989 poll the officers and fellows of the international Animal Behaviour Society rated Sociobiologyas the most important book on animal behaviour of all time, edging out even Darwin’s 1872 classic The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

By integrating the discoveries of many investigators into a single framework of cause-and-effect theory, it helped to change the study of animal behaviour into a discipline connected broadly to mainstream evolutionary biology… Although the large amount of commotion may suggest otherwise, adverse critics made up only a small minority of those who published reviews of Sociobiology. But they were very vocal and effective at the time. They were scandalized by what they saw as two grievous flaws.

The first is inappropriate reductionism , in this case the proposal that human social behaviour is ultimately reducible to biology.

The second perceived flaw is genetic determinism, the belief that human nature is rooted in our genes.

It made little difference to those who chose to read the book this way that reductionism is the primary cutting tool of science, or that Sociobiology stresses not only reductionism but also synthesis and holism.

It also mattered not at all that sociobiological explanations were never strictly reductionist, but interactionist.

No serious scholar would think that human behaviour is controlled the way animal instinct is, without the intervention of culture.

In the interactionist view held by virtually all who study the subject, genomics biases mental development but cannot abolish culture.

To suggest that I held such views, and it was suggested frequently, was to erect a straw man – to fabricate false testimony for rhetorical purposes. Who were the critics, and why were they so offended?

Their rank included the last of the Marxist intellectuals, most prominently, represented by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C Lewontin. They disliked the idea, to put it mildly, that human nature could have any genetic basis at all. They championed the opposing view that the developing human brain is a tabula rasa. The only human nature, they said, is an indefinitely flexible mind. Theirs was the standard political position taken by Marxists from the late 1920s forward: the ideal political economy is socialism, and the tabula rasa mind of people can be fitted to it. A mind arising from a genetic human nature might not prove conformable. Since socialism is the supreme good to be sought, a tabula rasa it must be…

Among many social scientists and humanities scholars a deeper and less ideological source of skepticism was expressed, and remains. It is based on the belief that culture is the sole artisan of the human mind. This perception is also a tabula rasa hypothesis that denies biology, or at least simply ignores biology.

It too is being replaced by acceptance of the interaction of biology and culture as the determinant of mental development.

Overall, there is a tendency as the century closes to accept that Homo sapiens is an ascendant primate, and that biology matters.

The path is not smooth, however. The slowness with which human sociobiology (nowadays also called evolutionary psychology) has spread is not due merely to ideology and inertia, but also and more fundamentally due to the divide between the great branches of learning.

Since the early nineteenth century it has been generally assumed that the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities are epistemologically disjunct from one another, requiring different vocabularies, modes of analysis, and rules of validation.

The perceived dividing line is essentially the same as that between the scientific and literary cultures defined by CP Snow in 1959.

It still fragments the intellectual landscape.’

(Wilson in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 97-9)

For more on consilience, see this post.

`Sociobiology is a flourishing discipline in zoology, but its ultimately greatest importance will surely be the furtherance of consilience among the great branches of learning.

Why is this conjunction important?

Because it offers the prospect of characterizing human nature with greater objectivity and precision, and exactitude that is the key to self-understanding.

The intuitive grasp of human nature has been the substance of the creative arts. It is the ultimate underpinning of the social sciences and a beckoning mystery to the natural sciences.

To grasp human nature objectively, to explore it to the depths scientifically, and to comprehend its ramifications by cause-and-effect explanations leading from biology into culture, would be to approach if not attain the grail of scholarship, and to fulfil the dreams of the Enlightenment.

The objective meaning of human nature is attainable in the borderland disciplines.

We have come to understand that human nature is not the genes that prescribe it. Nor is it the cultural universals, such as the incest taboos and rites of passage, which are its products. Rather, human nature is the epigenetic rules, the inherited regularities of mental development. These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which our brains represent the world, the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make…

(Wilson in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 101)

This (above) also explains a lot about the top 20 RoI films. The final quote below talks about consilience, the unification of knowledge.


Consilience – the unification of knowledge

Wilson also notes:

`…in the creation of human nature, genetic evolution and cultural evolution have together produced a closely interwoven product. We are only beginning to obtain a glimmer of how the process works.

We know that cultural evolution is biased substantially by biology, and that biological evolution of the brain, especially the neocortex, has occurred in a social context.

But the principles and the details are the great challenge in the emerging borderland disciplines just described.

The exact process of gene-culture coevolution is the central problem of the social sciences and much of the humanities, and it is one of the great remaining problems of the natural sciences.

Solving it is the obvious means by which the great branches of learning can be foundationally united.’

(Wilson in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 102)

Here is a diagram I like to use that illustrates some of these points:

Meme-Gene Co-Evolution

Meme-Gene Co-Evolution

See also:

  1. StoryAlity #78 – On `the war of nature’ (from Origin of Species) by Charles Darwin
  2. StoryAlity #79 – `These instincts are highly complex…’ (The Descent of Man) by Charles Darwin

And for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Brown, D. E. (1991). Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

E O Wilson, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.


4 thoughts on “StoryAlity #81 – `Human Universals’ (Donald Brown) and EO Wilson on sociobiology

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  3. Pingback: StoryAlity #122 – IE2014 – International Interactive Entertainment Conference | StoryAlity

  4. Pingback: StoryAlity#137 – Culturology & the CES (Cultural Evolution Society) | StoryAlity

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