Sunday, October 10, 2010

Human Universals

We have, according to E. O. Wilson (actually, George P. Murdock, whom Wilson is quoting), identified at least sixty-seven cultural universals so far:

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. (Wilson, On Human Nature, 22)

Each of these, in various forms, can be found in every culture, throughout history. In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter to the list of sixty-seven. And in The Culture of Hope, and in Beauty, he gives a list of what he calls neurocharms (208-210), many of which could also be considered cultural universals, since they are found in every human culture. Many of these, such as narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and pattern recognition can be found in other animals, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and birds. Others, such as giving meaning to certain color combinations, divination, hypothesis, metaphysical synthesis, collecting, metaphor, syntactical organization, gymnastics, the martial arts, mapping, the capacity for geometry and ideography, poetic meter, cuisine, and massage (which would be a development of mammalian and primate grooming rituals, which humans also engage in, as any couple can tell you), are uniquely human.

The existence of these instincts has some implications for art and literature. When Turner points out that both humans and animals ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (9), it is as though he was equally pointing out all the themes one would expect to find in a great novel, play, or epic poem, and which very well may be a list of the themes of all the great works of literature. Turner himself points out that considering all of the cultural universals make it “tempting to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and thematizes” (26), since “it is the function of [literature] to preserve, integrate and continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon [of cultural universals], while using it to construct coherent world-hypotheses” (26).

In a more directly evolutionary sense we may wonder where these universals came from. How did these specific rules of human actions arise to generate all of the world’s various cultures? And are they universal? And would these universals not restrict human action, giving us less freedom (do they not argue for our behaviors being determined)? Every culture in the world, throughout all of human history, has had religion. Does this restrict the expression of any culture or individual? Hardly. It has led to a very large number of expressions. The forms of religion have varied: various monotheisms, polytheisms, pantheisms, nature religions, the promises of various utopias, earthly and transcendent, not to mention individual interpretations of each religion, showing how much variety one can get in unity.

For the Darwinian literary theorist, what sort of research does this imply? How can we differentiate ourselves from cultural theorists who may take these facts into consideration? But where do these instincts, or deep behaviors, come from? The natural place to look should be in the way the mind works, meaning, how the brain is structured. The deep structures of our brains have given us language, culture, and, as I argue, art and literature. But where does the brain get this tendency to create deep structures? Why would evolution create instincts? Why these particular instincts? And what is the relation of all of this to culture? Why would I consider something called “cultural universals” to be instincts?

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that “human intelligence may depend on our having more innate instincts, not fewer” (243), and the calculations of complex systems supports this idea. One could easily say that anything one could call universal, in that all human cultures in all places at all times have had them, should rightly be understood as an instinct. This gives us quite a long list of human instincts.

Insofar as instincts are behaviors one must do (i.e., we must language, we must narrate, we must experience beauty), meaning instincts are rules, we find we have many more degrees of freedom by having these rules. More freedom of the mind is the same thing as saying there is more intelligence. More instincts develop because

when an environment is stable, there is a selective pressure for learned abilities to become increasingly innate. That is because if an ability is innate, it can be deployed earlier in the lifespan of the creature, and there is less of a chance that an unlucky creature will miss out on the experiences that would have been necessary to teach it. (Pinker, 244)

The creation of more instincts in humans would have made us more adaptive to our environment, since our being able to innately enter into language, for example, makes our learning language much easier (I would argue, possible at all) than it would be if our minds had to literally create everything tabula rasa. One may object that if we learn at all, what we learn cannot be an instinct. But lions, which everyone would agree have the instinct to hunt, must also be taught how to hunt well if they are to survive. The fact that they also have to be taught what they know (that they have to learn to become who they are) does not negate their already knowing it on a certain level. It is the details that have to be taught. All the instincts, as well as Turner’s

charms involve a cooperation between a biogenetic endowment and a cultural tradition that can activate and shape it. We all have neural organs adaptively designed for the purpose of language, but also require the environment of a specific natural language to awaken them. The same applies to the skills of melody and harmony, of poetic meter and visual representation, of theatrical performance and cookery. (Beauty, 67)

So we can see that there is a cooperation between the instincts built into the brain and the environment in which the owner of the brain finds himself. However, one may also wonder why, if as Pinker says, making behaviors innate is beneficial, that all elements of our behavior are not innate. Why should we have to be taught the details? Pinker points out that

evolution, having made the basic computational units of language innate, may have seen no need to replace every bit of learned information [words, surface grammar, syntax] with innate wiring. Computer simulations of evolution show that the pressure to replace learned neural connections with innate ones diminishes as more and more of the network becomes innate, because it becomes less and less likely that learning will fail for the rest. (244)

The question still remains where these cultural universals – these instincts, these universal rules for human behavior within their cultures – came from. Recent research has shown that not only chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), our closest living relatives, but orangutans too, have culture. Different groups have different ways of behaving, which are passed down, not by genetics, but by learning from watching others. If we take the above list of sixty-seven human cultural universals, I can identify in that list twenty-four which chimpanzees share with humans: bodily adornment, cleanliness training (in some), community organization, cooperative labor (i.e., when they hunt), courtship, division of labor, ethics (see Frans de Waals’ Good Natured), family feasting (a true ritual in chimpanzees), games/play, gestures, gift-giving, government (in a primitive form, see de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics), greetings, hygiene (in cleaning each other of parasites), incest taboos (admittedly a questionable one, since it is clear the Westermarck effect is in effect, but not yet clear that it is also socially transmitted), kin groups, medicine (de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master, 254-255), postnatal care, property rights (chimpanzees are very territorial), ritual (see family feasting, above), status differentiation, tool-making, trade, and visiting. And this does not include the cultural differences found among chimpanzee troops (Whiten). I say there are only twenty four, but look at those twenty four. Are we really so much better because we have developed calendars when chimpanzees have developed medicine (albeit far more primitive than human medicine, to say the least, but quite impressive all the same)? Many of those uniquely human cultural traits can be genealogically traced from this pool of twenty four we share with our closest relatives. And I have not even included narrative, which humans also share with chimpanzees – as well as any animal that hunts, particularly with others of its social group. Government too would naturally arise in a species that has status differentiation and the need for rules. We could see religion arising in part from things such as status differentiation and narrative leading to language. The development of religion naturally leads to instincts such as divination and religious ritual (combining religion with feeding rituals could do this – as we see in the Christian Eucharist, eating bread and drinking wine). All of these cultural universals are combinations of those cultural universals we inherited from the common ancestor we held with chimpanzees and bonobos. And many are specifically derived from combinations with language. What implication may that have for literary studies?


  1. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that “human intelligence may depend on our having more innate instincts, not fewer” (243),

    I disagree: "Intelligence" is quite different from instincts and instincts contribute little to intelligence. Sure, there is an innate shrewdness perhaps that allows an instinct for survival to operate, and hunger and sex do activate common behaviors among all humans, but beyond those basic drives, instinct does not provide an individual with any great skills.

    Thus, I suggest that those 68 "cultural instincts" are merely broad generalizations about the many ways that humans have conducted their lives over the past few tens of thousands of years. However, since every one of them has been developed and applied in very different ways, they have little common meaning for us to mine.

    The proof of this dismissal of Murdock and Wilson's work is evidenced by simply looking at the cultural, spiritual, political and economic differences between the various societies on earth. Compare a child born in a Boston suburb with one born in Uganda, the Australian outback, an Eskimo village, or to a Peruvian Indian in South America. We know they all have similar raw intelligence and similar human instincts but their future lives are very different. The first may go to MIT, become a famous doctor or scientists, and will live a long and relatively affluent and peaceful life. The other three will have virtually no chance of rising above the Aboriginal lifestyle of their geographic origins. They may all dance, go through puberty, and develop various rituals, but by all significant measures they will lead totally different lives.

    The common instincts they all share will not empower them to attain equally complete lives. The huge material and personal advanatages found in the Boston suburbs, et. al., did not come from instinctual behaviors. Those advances came from the accumulated learned habits and institutions gradually developed by some societies. Only by selecting and applying past experiments that benefitted a people did we gain our advantages. Wilson's trumped up "cultural instincts" are an intellectual farce that misses the whole point of human progress.

  2. Bill,

    We're talking about completely different things here. I am talking about the intelligence of the species Homo sapiens vs. other species, including chimpanzees. There seems to be a correlation between the number of instincts a species has and the intelligence of the species.

    What you are talking about are the differences in the cultures. Each of our instincts allows for a variety of cultural creations. Some create wealth, others do not. While that is interesting from a comparative cultural economics perspective, that's not quite what we're interested in as far as understanding literary production is concerned -- except for those instincts which directly bear on the production of literature, of course.

  3. Troy,

    Not sure whether you'll see this, as this seems an older post, but I chanced across it and I enjoyed the read. I have written many articles on the literature/evolution intersection and a book, too. It's hard to say whether our debate will get any traction in the academy in the foreseeable future, but sadly, by the time it does, the admin boards will have cut all TT jobs anyway.
    My only issue with your post is that you seem to get the first Wilson quote wrong (where he's quoting Murdock) when you list the page number as 160. In my copy (2004 reprint), it's earlier on in the book on 22, so did you perhaps mean the number 16? I wasn't sure which edition you were using, but it seemed way too off. Also glad to see Turner and Carroll on here. I have a nice exchange with Gottschall last year. Nice fellow.

    Thanks for the reporting here. I will definitely read through the site.



  4. It is in fact on pg. 22. I can't imagine where 160 came from.

    If you have articles and a book, we need links!

    And if you are a fellow traveler, well, any thoughts of joining our little band? Maybe some fresh blood will get us writing on here!