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 apply ourselves.
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 imitation.
Humans study faces. We recognize individuals from their faces. Studies carried out by Paul Ekman 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 grooming.
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 strong will.
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 exercise self-control.
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 all cultures.
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 life’s stages according to age groups. We prepare for childbirth and infant care.
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 universal.
We have fears. Children are afraid of strangers and loud noises. We fear death and are wary of snakes. Certain foods and utterances are taboo.
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 cope with envy, pride, and shame.
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 maker’s 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 future.
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 is ubiquitous.
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 reason.
- 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