Monday, May 2, 2011

Cultural Universals

Cultural Universals are traits and institutions that occur in all cultures worldwide. These characteristics, though shared, differ from indigenous people to people. Evolutionary psychologists view these universal behaviors to be evolutionary adaptations. Anthropologist Donald Brown wrote Human Universals, in which he underlines several main types of these traits: language and cognition; society; myth, ritual, and aesthetics; and technology.

Language and Cognition
The universal uses of language are extensive. Whether one is speaking Swahili, Japanese, or Russian, a common thread connects all people through language. Interestingly enough, though we all hail from different geological regions, our use of language is much the same. All language is translatable, contains color terms and antonyms and synonyms, and figurative speech. Every culture even has a formal versus informal language and taboo words. On the cognitive side, Brown found that all cultures use units of time and planning.

Society in this case refers to intimate times inside the home or out in a public forum. In dealings with family, personal names are used and there is a common feeling of kinship between relatives. Also common are peer groups that aren't based on family. All cultures follow some sort of law or rules, and establish private property. Other prevalent themes are marriage and gender roles. Also found to be universal is trade.

Myth, Ritual, and Aesthetics
As a culture ages and becomes more intelligent, there is bound to be mythology and beliefs about the nature of life. Brown found that all cultures are united through magical thinking, and the practice of using magic to acquire love or fortune. Along with these beliefs are thoughts on death and rituals after the death of someone. We are also alike in that all cultures have music and dance, though it varies greatly. We share the use of poetry and proverbs specific to our people. Even things that seem inherent to each culture are shared, like body adornments and hairstyles.

It was probably not long after man's creation that he began to utilize tools to make life easier. The use of technology is also cross-cultural. We all use shelter, weapons, containers, and tend to cook our food using the acquired skill of controlling fire.

Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

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