Cultural universal

Cultural universal

A cultural universal (also called an anthropological universal or human universal), as discussed by 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.[1] 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 in the "nature versus nurture" controversy.



The emergence of these universals dates to the Upper Paleolithic, with the first evidence of full behavioral modernity.

List of cultural universals

Among the cultural universals listed by Brown (1991) are:

Language and cognition

  • Language employed to manipulate others
  • Language employed to misinform or mislead
  • Language is translatable
  • Abstraction in speech and thought
  • Antonyms, synonyms
  • 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
  • Synesthetic metaphors
  • Tabooed utterances
  • Special speech for special occasions
  • Prestige from proficient use of language (e.g. poetry)
  • Planning
  • 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
  • Promise/oath
  • Property
  • Statuses and roles
  • Leaders
  • De facto oligarchy
  • Coalitions
  • Collective identities
  • Conflict
  • Cooperative labor
  • Gender roles
  • Males dominate public/political realm
  • Males more aggressive, more prone to lethal violence, more prone to theft
  • Males engage in more coalitionist violence through rape
  • Males on average travel greater distances over lifetime
  • Marriage
  • Husband older than wife on average
  • Copulation normally conducted in privacy
  • Incest prevention or avoidance, incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed
  • Rape, but rape proscribed
  • Collective decision making
  • Etiquette
  • Inheritance rules
  • Generosity admired, gift giving
  • Redress of wrongs, sanctions
  • Shame
  • Territoriality
  • Triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)
  • Some forms of proscribed violence
  • Visiting
  • Trade

Myth, ritual and aesthetics

  • Magical thinking
  • Use of magic to increase life or win love
  • Beliefs about death
  • Beliefs about disease
  • Beliefs about fortune and misfortune
  • Divination
  • Attempts to control weather
  • Dream interpretation
  • Beliefs and narratives
  • Proverbs, sayings
  • Poetry/rhetorics
  • Healing practices, medicine
  • Childbirth customs
  • Rites of passage
  • Music, rhythm, dance
  • Play
  • Toys, playthings
  • Death rituals, mourning
  • Feasting
  • Sexual double entendres
  • Body adornment
  • Hairstyles
  • Creation, end times myths


  • Shelter
  • Control of fire
  • Tools, tool making
  • Weapons, spear
  • Containers
  • Cooking
  • Lever
  • Tying material (i.e., something like string), twining (i.e. weaving or similar)


  1. ^ Schacter, Daniel L, Daniel Wegner and Daniel Gilbert. 2007. Psychology. Worth Publishers. pp. 26 - 27


  • Erika Bourginon (1973) Diversity and Homogeneity in World Societies. New Haven, Connecticut: HRAF Press.
  • Donald Brown (1991) Human Universals. Philadelphia, Temple University Press (online summary).
  • 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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