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A cultural universal (also called an anthropological universal or human universal), as discussed by Emile Durkheim, George Murdock, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Donald Brown and others, is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all 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. 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".
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.
The emergence of these universals dates to the Upper Paleolithic, with the first evidence of full behavioral modernity.
Among the cultural universals listed by Brown (1991) are:
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.
Since any culture that have been studied by anthropologists have had contact with at least the anthropologists that studied it, and anthropological research ethics slows the studies down so that other groups unbound by such ethics, often at least locally represented by people of the same skin color as the supposedly isolated tribe but significantly culturally globalized, reach the tribe before the anthropologists do, no truly uncontacted culture has ever been scientifically studied. This allows outside influence to be an explanation for cultural universals as well. 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.
- Language employed to manipulate others
- Language employed to misinform or mislead
- Language is translatable
Abstraction in speech and thought
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, sex, space, tools, weather conditions
- Continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)
- Discrepancies between speech, thought, and action
Figurative speech, metaphors
- Symbolism, symbolic speech
- Special speech for special occasions
- Prestige from proficient use of language (e.g. poetry)
- Units of time
- Personal names
- Family or household
- Kin groups
Peer groups not based on family
- Actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control
- Affection expressed and felt
- Age grades
- Age statuses
- Age terms
Law: rights and obligations, rules of membership
- Moral sentiments
- Distinguishing right and wrong, good and bad
- Prestige inequalities
- Statuses and roles
- De facto oligarchy
- Collective identities
- Cooperative labor
- Gender roles
- Males on average travel greater distances over lifetime
- Husband older than wife on average
- Copulation normally conducted in privacy
Incest prevention or avoidance, incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed
- Collective decision making
- Generosity admired, gift giving
- Redress of wrongs, sanctions
- Sexual jealousy
- Sexual violence
- Triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)
- Some forms of proscribed violence
- Magical thinking
- Use of magic to increase life and win love
- Beliefs about death
- Beliefs about disease
- Beliefs about fortune and misfortune
- Attempts to control weather
- Dream interpretation
- Beliefs and narratives
Healing practices, medicine
- Childbirth customs
- Rites of passage
Music, rhythm, dance
- Toys, playthings
- Death rituals, mourning
Bourguignon, Erika; Greenbaum Ucko, Lenora (1973). Diversity and Homogeneity in World Societies. New Haven, Connecticut: HRAF Press. ISBN .
Brown, Donald (1991). Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN .
Joseph H. Greenberg, et al. (1978) Universals of Human Language, 4 vols. Stanford University Press.
Charles D. Laughlin and Eugene G. d'Aquili (1974) Biogenetic Structuralism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [first published in French in 1962].
George P. Murdock (1945), "The Common Denominator of Culture," in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, Ralph Linton (ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Charles E. Osgood, William S May, and Murray S Miron (1975) Cross-Cultural Universals of Affective Meaning Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Steven Pinker (2002), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, New York: Penguin Putnam.
Rik Pinxten (1976) "Epistemic Universals: A Contribution to Cognitive Anthropology," in Universalism Versus Relativism in Language and Thought, R. Pinxten (ed.). The Hague: Mouton.
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