Falsehoods: Human Universals

There are human universals. There, I said it. Now give me about a half hour to explain why this is both correct and a Falsehood. But first, some background and definition.

Most simply defined, a human universal is a trait, behavior or cultural feature that we find in all human societies. Men are always on average larger than women. All humans see the same exact range of colors because our eyes are the same. The range of emotions experienced by people is the same, and appears in facial expressions and other outward affect, in the same way across all humans.

The term "Human Universal" shows up in Google Ngram (a rather course but very fun data mining tool) as appearing in books in about 1830 but not before, with sporadic occurrences until just after World Word II, when, presumably because of the rise of professionalized anthropology and sociology, it demonstrated a steady increase to the present. This increase is interrupted by what is probably a non-random drop in the mid 1980s followed by a spike I presume to be associated with the publication of Donald Brown's monograph, "Human Universals." in 1991. I'm not sure if Ngram's failure as a data mining tool during the early 2000's, or if the publication of Steven Pinker's pro genetic deterministic book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature caused a sudden drop off in the use of the term over the last few years.

From World War II on, the phrases "genetic determinism" and "human universal" have very similar patterns of appearance in books, according to the Ngram viewer, but with the former having been much more popular. And, I mention that phrase here mainly to point out that the two terms are very different.

Now let's refer back to the aforementioned definition and examples (color vision, male vs. female size, emotions and facial expressions). The first thing to ask is, can exceptions be allowed? Necessarily, yes. Color blindness (or blindness in general) does not obviate the universal biology of eye function. Individuals can be exceptions to any rules. But what about entire cultures or populations of humans that are different? It turns out that the list of emotions one would derive from a careful study of a group of people would be different depending on which culture you look at. Does this mean that emotions are not universals? Well, even though there would be differences, the fact remains that most cultures would be similar, and the few cultures that are different are different in ways that do not overthrow any generalized understanding of emotions, how they work, what they do, and how they function in society. It might be a little like going across the Iron Curtain into the old Soviet Union and looking at cars. The cars would all look just like cars back home and operate in the same way yet none of the models and makes would be familiar to an American from Detroit. Does the relationship between the parts of a hypothetical universal have to be the same everywhere? Hopefully not. On average, men are always larger than women in any sufficiently large and "normal" population, but there is often overlap. However, the absolute size of people in general and the relative size of men vs. women seems to vary across populations, with some having very large difference and others having very small differences.

So, our simple definition of a human universal holds as long as we are willing to allow at least three dimensions of variation or exception: Individuals can be exceptions, there can be some cross cultural variation, and the details can vary in important ways, so long as the universal is defined in a way that allows for it.

But at the same time, even this surfical look at a small number of examples indicates that the concept of a "Human Universal" is not the same as a species-specific genetically determined trait. Such a concept would be like asserting that the way emotions are expressed by humans is as invariant and predictable as the number of bones in an adult human, which we assume is always exactly the same from person to person.

Or is it? Actually, the number of ribs, vertebrae, teeth, and sigmoid bones varies from person to person, even if not counting rare pentadactylism, amputation, or other differences. So if something as basic and "biological" as bone count per person varies, we should be able to handle a widespread human trait as a "human universal" even if East Asian people grin under stress more often than do Englishmen (who scowl when they are happy because they wear hair shirts), or if the number of colors commonly and widely recognized in a given culture varies from three to dozens.

The color example is a classic, and for a good reason. Many groups of people tend to name only a small number of colors, yet they are physically capable of seeing the same colors as anyone else. The Efe Pygmies, for instance, while being experts on their own natural environment and able to identify thousands of species of plants and animals perfectly, only have specific words for red, white or black. They live in the rain forest but don't have a word for green. Of course, on further inspection, they DO have a word for green, it's just not distinct. They call green things "leaf colored." And, they can and do call things "skin colored" or "dirt colored" and so on. In a sense, claiming that they don't have more than a few colors is like saying that Martha Stewart doesn't have neutral pastel color paint because these paints happen to be called "Morning Walk" (not a color, but a adverb/verb or adjective/noun), "Ash Bark" (not a color but a tree part), "Feldspar" (not a color but a kind of rock), "Wampum" (not a color but a form of Native American currency), and "Mink" (not a color but a fur bearing animal).

But still, different cultures do have different distinct color name lists, and you can more or less organize cultures by how many colors they have, and when you do this, you find that the cultures with the smallest number of colors tend to have black and white, then black and white and red, then those three and either green or yellow, then all those including green AND yellow, then they add blue, then they add brown, then purple, pink, orange or gray. Eventually, you get to the cultures with the most colors, and there you find colors named after fur bearing animals and verbs.

Color vision is a human universal, but a trivial one. This is like saying that all humans having a head is a human universal. But color naming is also thought of as a human universal to the extent that all cultures follow the above described pattern, even if cultures are very different from each other in this area. Furthermore, the theory goes, this pattern is followed because of the nature of the rods and cones in our eyes. (Read Brown for a more detailed explanation.) And there probably is something to this.

Color naming could be thought of as a pattern of additive complexity, or complexity on demand, shaped by the nature of the physical environment (the way light works and the way the eye works) in which the phenomenon plays out, but the magnitude of the elaboration determined by culture. If we found a culture in which there were only six named colors and none of them were black, white, or red, would we have to disqualify color naming as a universal? Well, if you don't like the idea of human universals, then you may want to say yes, it's all or nothing. However, most likely such a culture would have such a naming system for some special and interesting reason.

Which brings us to sex. Or at least, a small digression I'd like to make regarding sex. Human Universal: Most sex that is not auto-erotic is between a man and a woman. Exception: The anonymous culture in New Guinea (sometimes called the "Sambia") in which men try their hardest to have sex with women as few times as absolutely necessary to reproduce, but otherwise only have oral sex delivered by boys below a certain age. A tiny minority of sex is between men and women. Now, seriously, would the existence of that culture, and it does exist, obviate generalizations about human sexuality? Or, would it make you ask questions about that one particular culture, and perhaps even question the validity of your cultural relativism to some extent? Seriously.

The relative size of men and women is due to developmental differences between men and women and there is a great deal to say about it (which we'll skip). For our present purposes, it is exemplary of an interesting kind of human universal that demonstrates both the validity of the concept and ways in which the concept becomes unnecessarily constraining in how we think about humans.

Early anthropologists (Mead, Benedict, etc.) made the case that human culture was so flexible that wholesale reversals in sex roles across entire cultures could be found (reversals from the western expected norm, that is). So they found those cultures in the Pacific. However, further study of the cultures in which the women were supposedly doing all the guy stuff and the men were supposedly doing all the girl stuff showed that these early anthropologists were, in the main, wrong: There are no documented sex reversal cultures in the Pacific. Indeed, a close read of Benedict and Mead won't even find clear cut cases, though the derived literature and popularization of it, and Mead in some public appearances, would give that impression.

It is true, however, that if you measure "maleness" and "femaleness" (as gender spectra) of people in a bunch of different cultures, it is not hard to find one culture where the men are more female than the females of some other culture, or women in one culture that are more male then men of some other culture. And, how "male" vs. "female" actual males and females are may be very divergent by genetic sex, or less different, and some traits may demonstrate vast gender differences and others less, depending on the culture.

But no matter what you do, you will always find that the usual lists of male vs. female distinguishing traits fall in relation to each other the same way in every culture, where men are more male and women are more female, by a little or by a lot, but always with the same polarity. Always. Except for the exceptions, of course, which are actually quite rare.

So there is an overall pattern of gender roles found across cultures that is a human universal, but no one culture can be used to predict the exact pattern for any unknown culture. The patterns of gender roles is probably often shaped by certain features. Ocean fishing cultures, vs. forest horticultural cultures, vs grassland pastoral cultures vs. arid country forager cultures ... will probably have internally similar patterns of gender roles (and other social roles). This is because some underlying set of male and female potentials, needs, vulnerabilities, requirements, limitations, etc. plays out in roughly similar ways given similar contexts, economies, externalizes, etc. Add a bit of history and some random chance and you get a complex, mosaic-like mostly post hoc but somewhat predictive pattern of gender role tendencies across the human species. With the usual exceptions.

So the male-female difference demonstrates, messily, the kind of human universal that arises from some pretty basic biological factors (penis or vagina? lactation? paternity anxiety?) when played out across an entire planet of crazy humans.

The emotion example demonstrates something else about human universals. This is the link between some rather well known neurological and endocrine systems, the broader phylogenetic context (humans as mammals, humans as primates, etc.) and the strange tension between the arbitrary nature of human communication (the linguistic) and the non-arbitrary nature of our bodies.

All mammals have limbic systems and endocrine (hormone) systems, and they are pretty similar across the groups that have been studied well. The "emotions" are the output of the limbic systems. Your larynx and pharynx makes your voice, your legs are how you walk, your limbic system does the emotions. At some scale most, perhaps all, mammals have the same basic emotions. There are four of them, and there is a mnemonic to remember what they are: The Four F's. Fleeing, Fighting, Feeding and Sex.

But of course, this is an oversimplification, and there is some neurological and circumstantial evidence that emotions can be very derived, and even entirely new ones present, in some mammals. For instance, in cats the "affective attack" behavior is probably like human rage, but plays out very different. Cats have a "quiet biting" attack emotional state that human hunters and soldiers mimic but that is probably not a separate basic emotion in humans. And when I say "cats have this emotion" what I mean is that you can see them do it in the wild and you can consistent replicate the emotion by inserting a needle in a certain part of the brain and giving it a bit of juice.

So human emotions can be, and should be, understood in the wider pattern of mammalian emotions, though I think a lot of people don't understand that. It is often assume that emotion are entirely constructed from cultural experience. They are not. But the exact set of emotion that are typically experienced and the way in which they play out can be very much affected by cultural experience. Sexual Jealousy is a human universal ... it is widely found and makes biological sense, is linked to visceral effects like other emotions, etc. But how sexual jealousy plays out or even if it is important seems to vary a great deal across cultures. Malu is arguably an emotion that exists only in a certain Indonesian culture, though it is like emotions found elsewhere (overlaps with "shame" and "honor"). And the affective state linked to emotions can vary. The scene in Platoon where a young man is killed because of his smile comes to mind.

Sexual jealousy would be an emotion that in some cases has a very important, adaptive, even central role in culture (in some cultures). The fact that East Asians grin/smile in a way that Westerners may not understand is not a cultural adaptation but rather a product of cultural drive (I assume), and Malu is a highly derived culture-bound form of some more basic emotion that all humans probably experience. But the fact that a genetic analogy works to describe these behaviors, and despite the fact that they are biological (in having their own organ, as it were, the limbic system) does not make these differences genetically determined. Indonesians do not have a gene for malu and French people a gene for sexual jealousy.

Which brings us to the concept of determinism. I used to hang out a lot with a client scientist who was always talking about determinism and how he was amused at the way in which social scientists repelled at the concept. In truth, the social scientists were being repelled at a different concept (that they called determinism) than what my friend Kerry was thinking. But he did make a valid point: When we think about things that matter, there is often a cause, and the structure of cause and effect is a matter of determinism. This is different than predestination. The fact that the overall structure of emotions is determined by genes does not obviate the equally valid fact that the overall structure of emotions is determined by experience. One kind of determinism is not the "correct" one or the more powerful one or the one that matters, though you will hear most people involved in this sort of discussion demanding that it does. And, whether or not something is a human universal is an entirely separate question than the details of what determines it.

Apartment building mice build, when living colonially, a complex warren with a specific engineered pattern of spatial relatioships between individual borrows, looking like tiny apartments in a large housing development. Termintes build incredibly complex systems of air cooled/air heated underground farms and birthing areas. The mice make their apartments by having a single behavior .... just one ... that, when they live in a group makes the aprartments form quite incidentally, but I would argue that the making of apartments when living in a group is a "mouse universal" for that species. No termite or even group of termintes has a blueprint for a complex termitary system, but they manage to always make one anyway. The termitaries are universal to the termites, and each species has a species universal pattern of termitary, yet the termitaries ... how they look and function ... are determined by a handful of very simple (genetically coded) behaviors and context.

Certainly, there are human universals that are entirely non-genetic or that have entirely trivial genetic components. They are difficult to identify because once determinism comes into play in the discussion, everything is viewed by the interlocutors as "obviously genetic" or "clearly constructed." Not helpful.

Human universals are real and they are important. They are important because figuring out how and why they exist at all reveals how individual humans, groups, and "cultures" function. They tell us about common experiences that may not be as obvious if we don't recognize the universals, such as how shame, jealousy, malu, honor, and so on reveal the society shaping of what is considered normal. An understanding of human universals can be an exercise in calibration. The entire anthropological experience, with its relativism and its "outside" perspective is roughly equivalent to the observation of human behavior in relation to things that are universals and things that are not.

Kissing is not a human universal yet is built from parts that are. Homicide and rape are human universals yet they happen (usually) because of highly unusual circumstances. In the former, the actual "universal(s)" are unseen to us. Something about bodily fluids, or a drive for closeness, or some feature of risk or trust come together to cause the mushing of lips to serve as a tool for bonding (of many different kinds) in many but not all culture. Who kills or rapes whom and under what circumstances tends to follow very predictable patterns across cultures and contexts (but with very different incidence) but the specific contextual variables that determine this behavior to actually happen are almost always quirky.

So, human universals are real and the concept is useful, yet they are not what many people assume they are ... they are not generically determined traits. They never were thought of as either simplistic genetically determined features of human culture or utterly invalid, by any camp in anthropology. The phrase "Human Universal" is a dog whistle only in limited contexts, though it is probably seen as one more widely, which is problematic. And here, by complexifying the concept, I'm not trying to weaken it, nor am I trying to slip it past any perceived PC police. Mainly, like with most of the Falsehoods, I have tried to expose some of the interesting inner workings of the topic at hand. In this sense, the concept of "human universal" is a reasonably useful tool functioning in a way somewhere between pick=axe and well placed dynamite.


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Could I ask you to clarify what evidence you have that Mead and Benedict were "making it all up" regarding South Pacific culture? Not even Derek Freeman (whose work is largely discredited) would say such a thing. Can you be more specific as to what you are actually claiming here?

By John Jackson (not verified) on 26 Jan 2011 #permalink

The assertion that there are cultures with sex role reversals is not true. That is specifically what I was referring to, and JD Freeman would agree with that. Perhaps I could rephrase that better to not look like I'm referring to all of their work.

J. Derek Freeman's work has not been largely discredited. His case may have been overstated but not to the degree of Mead's, and that seems to be how it goes with these things for better or worse. I'm not aware of Freeman's criticism of Benedict.

Thanks for the clarification. I don't want to hijack the thread into a discussion of Freeman, but I think very few anthropologists, and even fewer anthropologists who study the South Pacific, think much of his critique of Mead. He is still cited all over the place, but I think I'm right in saying that those who know a lot of about the specific topics he discusses think he got it right.

For example Paul Shankman's book:

got down into the real nitty-gritty of the claims and finds Freeman's case to be very, very misleading and based on little, if any actual evidence.

Ok, I'll shut up about it now.

By John Jackson (not verified) on 26 Jan 2011 #permalink

Not much to say here, except that you've got "fleeing" twice in the four F's. Silly mistake, but it nattered at me through the rest of the article.

Out of curiosity (a cultural universal?), I'd like to know what sources you have on the interesting least-amount-of-coitus-possible-strictly-for-continuity culture in New Guinea.

By Doug Henning (not verified) on 26 Jan 2011 #permalink

John Jackson, could you please clarify your last post? You say "very few anthropologists, and even fewer anthropologists who study the South Pacific, think much of [Freeman's] critique of Mead", then you say "those who know a lot about the specific topics he discusses think he got it right".

By moonkitty (not verified) on 26 Jan 2011 #permalink

John, I don't think that's even remotely a hijacking. Mead et al would have been on a very different side of the issue of human universals than freeman.

What I find most interesting is the timing of everything. Freeman came out with his book not too long after Mead's death. Freeman died in 2001 and Trashing came out in 2009. This debate is going to go on forever if each side has to wait for the other side to die before publishing.

Priam, maybe getting away is just very very important!

moonkitty: Hasty composition and poor proofreading. How about, "FEW OF those who know a lot about the specific topics he discusses think he got it right". Apologies.

Greg: In fairness to Shankman: He and Freeman have plenty of exchanges in the journals so it isn't like Freeman didn't know about Shankman's critique.

For what it is worth, I think the early 20th century anthropologists agreed there were human universals, but that such universals did not play a role in cultural explanations. I think they just pragmatically cut them out in order to focus on cultural particulars. Freeman's claims (and Ev. Psychologists claims now) about them denying human universals are just wrong. There are human universals, they just aren't necessary when trying to explain cultural traits.

By John Jackson (not verified) on 26 Jan 2011 #permalink

As to the Mead case, I see the principle reason for doubting her findings is the same logic we use on other questionable findings in science: the full body of work just does not support it. In a way, it doesn't even really matter if Freeman's book had come out or not.

I think the early 20th century anthropologists agreed there were human universals, but that such universals did not play a role in cultural explanations. I think they just pragmatically cut them out in order to focus on cultural particulars.

And to be fair, I more than once heard "cultural" defined (in a bioanthro dept) as "the stuff that doesn't matter" (or icing on the cake for a more poetic version)!

Let's say I'm a hunter-gatherer, down on his luck, nearly starving, and I come upon a stand of apple trees. I fill my pouch with apples and bite into one. A bear appears and threatens me and I take off running, eating apples even as I flee. I throw the apple cores over my shoulder as I go, and the bear leaves off chasing me to investigate them. I continue to run and soon encounter a group of hunters, hospitable sorts
who offer me protection and food. Do I get to say "No thanks, I already flate?"
Or, down South, 'I already flet."

A couple of points. First, I have also heard culture described as the "froth on the top".
Second, of course the best comparison for human universals is with things that are not shared with other primates. Otherwise they might be "primate universals" but the sorts of folk who write/wrote about human universals tend(ed) not to be in that game.
Third, the most obvious universal is language, and it is not shared with other primates. Language as a symbolic means of communication.
Fourth, language, because it is symbolic, permits the construction of stories about behaviour that are the reasons why Mead got confused. (I met Samoan students who simply laughed when they were required to read Mead at University in Auckland because it was well known that people had told her what she wanted to hear and not what they did not want to tell her).
Fifth, by the same token, I have always been sceptical of accounts of extreme sexuality or lack of sexuality in New Guinea, because I doubt the extent of participant observation of most anthropologists, and doubt the anthropologists even more if they have engaged in too much participant observation.
Sixth, in such accounts of New Guinea men avoiding sexual contact with women, what are the accounts of how women satisfy their sexuality? Or did these male anthropologists not participate in that bit?

What I find interesting is this: If human universals are important in structuring culture, then we may have a good sample of cultures with what we know about. If the constructivists are literally correct, we can not easily ever have a good sampling.

I love that scene from Bones.

I'm still working on my first cup of coffee of the morning so I might have misread you, but you seem to be using sex - the physical differences between males and females - and gender - the cultural values assigned to these differences - interchangeably.

What do you make of so called third genders, which are biologically male but occupy a unique gender role that is neither male nor female - such as the Hijra? (Presumably there are similar gender categories with women, but I haven't read of any).

As Arthur Conan Doyle said through Sherlock Holmes about predicting behaviour:

"One can say what a man in general will do, but one cannot say what a specific man will do."

Unfortunately, that's paraphrased and not directly quoted, nor do I remember which story it was from. Any takers?


I'm actually taking a class on Human Universals at the moment so I found this post quite interesting. We've even discussed Freeman vs. Mead in class!

The main thing I got out of that was that, basically, the core thesis of Coming of Age in Samoa depended on a bunch of lies told by adolescent girls to a biased researcher who barely knew the language over the course of nine months.

The Chambuli also come up every once in a while, primarily in a "the men were what might be considered to be 'womanish' at the time, but they'd essentially just lost the inter-tribal Superbowl and were moping around" sort of way.

It might just be the way it's presented in this course, but I kinda get the impression that Margaret Mead was really really good at seeing what she wanted to see.

Justaguy: Actually, I'm trying to make the point very strongly that something like "biological sex" and "culturally constructed gender" are not distinct. But I'm certainly not saying that they are the same (i.e., that terminology is interchangeable).

I've totally avoided specifics of sexual orientation as well as intersex questions, but not because these topics are not important or interesting. It would just be another 9,000 words!

"You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to."

It is late for me here, so I am not sure I got all that on the first read, but I just wanted to say that this struck me as a very thorough and cogent introduction to a concept I had not been much exposed to. Thank you.

I particularly appreciate your point about determinism. I am a mol biol grad student and so I am constantly surrounded by genetic determinists who can't seem to digest the idea that A) behavior is not determined by solely by genes; but B) everything is still determined, as that is a necessary constituent of cause and effect.


Fourth, language, because it is symbolic, permits the construction of stories about behaviour that are the reasons why Mead got confused.

Language is not symbolic. The anthropologist Dan Sperber wrote a book named "Rethinking Symbolism" back in 1974 that addresses this very issue. Symbolism is part of encyclopedic knowledge, and is not anything much like semantics. If it were related to any branch of linguistics, it would be pragmatics, which is part of the reason Sperber has ended up writing books about linguistics. Language quite fundamentally has no analogy elsewhere in human life. This sounds counter-intuitive, especially after the past century of scholars proclaiming "semiotics" and symbolic interpretation, but it is nonetheless the case. I recommend reading Sperber's work (not just the 1974 piece, but his more recent works), because it is always enlightening, scientific, and truthful.

Here's an example Sperber uses to show the difference between symbolism, which is about evocations and focalisations, and language, which is about semantic meaning.
Take the following statements:
1) The lion roared.
2) The lion emitted its characteristic cry.
3) The lion RRRRrrroaaarred!

Semantically, there's no difference between them. They mean the same thing. But there is a difference of evocation - a symbolic difference - between them. The emphasis on the RRRR in "roared" evokes the idea of the roar more than the simple word "roar" on its own, but the emphasis adds no actual meaning. Semantic meaning, that is.

Unfortunately, this kind of analysis caught on only in linguistics (in pragmatics, under Sperber himself in fact), and a lot of anthropologists still erroneously believe that all of society is meaningful (semantic) communication. I even saw a suggestion that "a culture" could in the future be mathematically modelled entirely with information theory. This is a mistaken notion.

Anyway, thanks Greg, this post was very good. It's very much how anthropologists should be thinking about universals.
I was always suspicious of the Donald Brown list, I'm afraid, simply because the categories aren't that useful analytically. The universals I'm interested in as explanatory devices are much more fundamental than "marriage" (which doesn't have a substantive definition, in any case). "Intention", or the ascribing of intention to objects, is absolutely universal, fundamental, and analytically vital. It is universals of the nature that are most important, and not superficial resemblances in some practices put rather arbitrarily into a single category.

If you look at Evans-Pritchard's work on Azande witchcraft, you can find innumerable societies that have very similar thoughts and identical logic, but with different assumptions. I know of plenty of people in eastern Indonesia who don't have any defined concept of "witches" but believe in the power of the ancestors in the same way and with the same logic as the Azande believing in witchcraft. It's the logic that is most important, and reflective of innate (and likely genetic) predispositions. In this case, it is the ascription of intention.

Thanks again.

It might just be the way it's presented in this course, but I kinda get the impression that Margaret Mead was really really good at seeing what she wanted to see.

Yes! Coming of Age is a controversial thing to discuss, and Freeman's claims are possibly debatable (not done much research on the topic, tbh), but Mead clearly lied in another of her works, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Here's how.

In discussions of kinship, there are a bunch of typologies of the concept of descent, and one I find useful is Rodney Needham's system, based on logical possibilities rather than existing discoveries. He identified six types of logically possible types of descent that could apply to inheritance of group membership, rights, obligations, property, and so on:
1) Patrilineal M --> M
2) Matrilineal F --> F
3) Double unilineal (M --> M) + (F --> F)
4) Alternating (M --> F) // (F --> M)
5) Parallel (M --> M) // (F --> F)
6) Cognatic (M/F --> M/F)

The last one is more differentiated and varying types of cognatic descent can be found, but it's still a useful category. Patriliny and matriliny are pretty uncontroversial; the inheritance of property/group membership/rights &c through the male line or the female line is demonstrable worldwide. Double unilineal descent is controversial only because the definition is disputed, but it seems to be found in plenty of societies - notably by Daryll Forde among the Yako in Nigeria.

Parallel descent was controversial, having been apparently found in the Amazon in the 1930s by the adventurer, and one of Levi-Strauss' main sources, Curt Nimuendaju, born Curt Unckel, who claimed that parallel descent was used in Apinaye society to create exogamous descent groups. Later research showed that he was wrong, and that while parallel descent existed, it determined membership of a dancing/ritual group, a minor social role in comparison to lineage formation. Other than in the Amazon, it hasn't really been shown to exist.

But alternating descent appeared to exist in Mundugumor society. Margaret Mead, who never learned to speak Mundugumor and spent under a month in New Guinea with the tribe, wrote in Sex and Temperament that the Mundugumor had alternating descent. She described it vividly. They called the alternating descent groups "ropes" (as in, cord), according to Mead. She described rivalry over property, talked vividly and in detail about quarrels between husband and wife over the inheritance and passing on of property. She claimed that even weaponry passed from father to daughter and then from daughter to her son.

It was all entirely fictional. Her own fieldnotes showed that the Mundugumor had patrilineal descent groups, and later ethnographic studies of the Mundugumor revealed that the word for "rope" meant... "rope". And nothing more.

So she seems to have either lied or overstated her knowledge of the society. Neither she nor her then-husband, Reo Fortune, mastered the language, and the interviews were conducted in Neo-Melanesian. That was probably the source of her error. It had anthropologists stumped for about fifty years, up to the 1980s, and Mundugumor alternating descent found its way into Robin Fox's classic Kinship and Marriage, still one of the best introductions to kinship.

Anyway, sincere apologies for the spam - but when I see an anthropological topic being discussed, especially on scienceblogs, I have to jump in. It is, after all, quite rare.

Al, I think there may be more than one functional definition of "symbol" or "symbolic" involved here. And when you say "semiotic" what do you mean exactly? Are you distinguishing Pragmatics from Semiotics? Since I personally think Peirce's conception of signs and symbols is very insightful, I tend to think of Semiotics and Pragmatics as two convenient terms for what is more or less the same perspective or at least overlapping set of perspectives. I don't think Sperber eliminates the central role of "symbolic thinking" at all. There is a difference, though, between "symbols" and "symbolic process."

I wonder what Noble has to say about this? Or his co-author? :)

Al: Not defending Mead here, but I'm not sure a logical set of inheritance rules is relevant. Or at least not this one. What about shadow matrilines? What about the Twi system (Paternal all the time then maternal for one generation depending on condition). Where does avuncular fit in here? Is that subsumed under matrilineal, in which case, that category is probably doing too much work.

I second your endorsement of Fox.

Al, I think there may be more than one functional definition of "symbol" or "symbolic" involved here.

Yes indeed, and there's also the problem of the definition of 'meaning', which is more problematic than it appears. Symbols appear to have 'meanings', just not in the same way as words, exactly. The Star of David kind of 'means' Judaism, but then again, it kind of doesn't. It's certainly not replaceable by the word "Judaism" - it doesn't create the same effect. And then there are symbols - not words - that can be replaced by words, like the little indicators on an oven showing which knob turns on which hob. You could write 'FRONT LEFT' or 'BACK RIGHT' and they'd have the same meaning. And then there's the symbolic aspect of words - the distinction between a lion roaring and emitting its characteristic cry. It feels like there's a distinction there, a symbolic one.

I think Sperber would be sympathetic to Peirce. There's nothing in Peirce's work - or in Levi-Strauss', to be honest - that is objectionable to an analysis of abstract symbols as different from words. But symbols work more on a pragmatic basis, and words on a more objective, shared, semantic basis.

Sperber was, I think, reacting against Lacanians and post-structuralist types, at least to some extent. It's certainly not the be-all and end-all, and I don't doubt that archaeology can lead to insights about symbolism and possibly the evolution of language through this, but...

Sperber was, I think, reacting against Lacanians... Always a good thing. Damn Freudians in sheep's clothing. Or may be wolves' clothing.

Ah, I see your point, but it was the point you're raising about typologies of descent that caused Needham to create this typology in the first place. The point wasn't a typology of societies, but a typology of traits within societies. Anthros used to classify, as you know, entire societies as "patrilineal" and so forth, but this was, as Ed Leach put it, as useful as a "category of 'blue butterflies' for the classification of Lepidoptera". The purpose of the typology was to classify bits and pieces that were passed in one way or another. For instance, in our society, names are (in general!) passed patrilineally - that is, we're patronymic. But property is legitimately passed cognatically, as are rights and duties.

So it's about bits of societies, not the societies themselves, although the key 'type' of descent might best be the one that forms exogamous kin groups. Apinaye society had parallel descent, but not for its exogamous groups, which (I think, based on what I can remember from Peter Riviere) are cognatically arranged.

Also, on the topic of language and human evolution, I'm reminded of Steven Mithen's article on ethnobiology and the evolution of the human mind - I think it's 2006, in a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. I'll try to dig it out.

Where does avuncular fit in here? Is that subsumed under matrilineal, in which case, that category is probably doing too much work.

If you mean descent through the mother's brother, then it's a problem, and one of the reasons why I believe Needham's typology, and others like it, to be far from the end of research (Needham proposed it in Rethinking Kinship and Marriage, in the introduction - he's very sceptical of everything in there, including his own proposal). I've been dealing with the problem of descent group formation that has the capacity for membership through the mother's brother in Timor recently. The descent groups are ideologically patrilineal, and they've got asymmetric marriage alliances. If the wife-giving group is not satisfied by the payment of bridewealth by the wife-takers, then they get to keep the progeny and induct them into the wife-giving group. Sounds simple, but explaining it simply in cross-culturally valid (universal) terms is tough.

The same is true for the Yako - I mentioned them above. Forde's analysis shows that while the Yako had double unilineal descent, the patrilineages were considered more important and more prestigious, and work by the Nigerian government was making the matrilineages significantly less important by reducing the economic basis for their existence, so membership of a strong patrilineage became very important. So a lot of Yako were being adopted by their mother's brother into the mother's brother's patrilineage, despite the fact that they were already in the same matrilineage.

Goes to show, a simple typology doesn't go far in explaining everything. But it was useful in showing how limited human descent types are, and both alternating descent and the so-called Apinaye phenomenon are yet to be in evidence...

The sexual role depends on how you view the role definition.

Would you say that since it's generally the male who forces sexual intercourse where force is extant show that the male is dominant, or is that a rejected male would need to force sex on a woman show that it is the woman (who gets to choose mates) who is dominant?

Or the protection of the female offspring (breeding recovery limited by female numbers) and the allowed death of male offspring (because of competition reduction) showing female primacy (they're protected) or female submission (they are kept)?

Maybe the need to compartmentalise and categorise absent any actual validity in the demarcation is a human universal.

Keith, there are reasons that we might have less variation than other mammals (we have gone through genetic bottlenecks) and reasons for more (we have more norm of reaction owing to the diverse environments we live in, and we may be evolving in a way that increases diversity as an incidental effect). This doesn't really affect determining species, though.

Al: I agree, but actually anthros still do pretty much classify/type a whole society, if for no other reason than convenience. And that's OK as long as one understands the limitations of doing that. It is very convenient to pretend that cultures are a structured entities that can be characterized. We seem rather comfortable noting that patterns of descent are best reckoned from within societies yet we are also comfortable using culture labels (several examples in this thread) many of which have major exceptions.

True indeed, although exceptions to descent patterns are generally a product of the overly zealous classificatory impulse that you refer to. We all know, for instance, that the Chinese are patrilineal. That's common knowledge. It also happens to be nonsense. Classic examples, like Evans-Pritchard among the Nuer, who were considered to be 'patrilineal', also recognised cognatic kin, and even this was mitigated by ties through residence. These things are more complex then they seem.

There are a few things that I'd say for sure about descent:
1) It is real. That is to say, it's a real cross-cultural phenomenon that requires explanation rather than a figment of the anthropologist's mind that can be ignored (as seems to be the view in vogue en ce moment).
2) Parallel descent doesn't create exogamous groups, although explanations produced in light of Nimuendaju's work, before it was falsified, showed that it might be feasible.
3) Alternating descent probably isn't possible, although it would be interesting and revolutionary if it were discovered, which it hasn't been.

Other than that, there's plenty to say, but it's a bit more controversial. And then there's the cultural, symbolic notions of kinship - the Schneider stuff, which I'm hesitant to approach, but which can be quite useful. Fredrik Barth uses cultural, cosmological understanding as a key to variation in descent in Mountain Ok communities in New Guinea in Cosmologies in the Making.

But still, an interesting phenomenon, and one Margaret Mead didn't contribute to the understanding of through her essentially false report on the Mundugumor.

Well,thanks for the advert, Greg. Human evolution, language and mind is a bit out of date now, though the central core of the argument is still as strong as ever (which may not be saying very much). There is a chapter on ideas about symbols (which as I look at it is not necessarily where I would go now).
I have a simple question in response to the point about lions. Can you put into this set of utterances a parallel set of utterances indicating the range of meanings that chimpanzees express when they talk about lions (in the presence of or in the absence of lions)? Of course, I expect that your answer will be negative. Some pant hoots which will have little range of possible interpretations. I really do not know. But the point about language being symbolic is this. The very arbitrariness of the utterances creates the different possible meanings that are contained in the three exemplar statements. If you do not want to use the word symbol for that combination of arbitrariness and convention, then you are free to re-define the dictionary as you want. That would be arbitrary, but it would not be conventional. But we could presumably find a way of expressing your meanings in the new set of definitions you come up with. And that is not something that people have been able to do with chimpanzees. Indeed, when I was first introduced to the extraordinary abilities of Kanzi, my question was "Can Pan pun?". I still think that is one of the ways in which we might be able to judge whether an ape has not only found an environment in which language like utterances make sense, but also "got" what language is all about.
So, the problem for an archaeologist is how we identify the consequences of this thinking. The problem for an archaeologist thinking like this is how to persuade other anthropologists that the creativity that flows from this sort of utterance is fundamental to both the communication of many more complex ideas, and the difficulty of interpretation of what those ideas might be. That paradox seems to me to be at the heart of the dilemma of social or cultural anthropology.
Taking kinship, as the last few posts have, there is a wonderful comment in the postscript to the fieldwork edition of Hart and Pilling's book on the Tiwi about how Hart was sent out by Radcliffe Brown to work out the Tiwi kinship system. He achieved this after "a half-hour's discussion with a few Tiwi who happened to be in Darwin at the time." Darwin is the city closest to the Tiwi islands. But Hart's field experience showed that the practice of "kinship" on the ground was very different--an issue that was addressed famously by Les Hiatt (on mainland Australia) in ways which led to his challenge to Levi-Strauss at the "Man the Hunter" conference. One of the things at issue is how people represent their relationships with each other symbolically with sufficient flexibility to appear to be within the rules while straying from them. And you cannot do that without a symbol-based communication system in which meanings are not immutable.
Finally, as an aside, I was always puzzled by the "Witchcraft" literature. It seems to me that it demonstrates the point again about symbols and mutability. I have no doubt that there are similarities between African witchcraft as described by Evans-Pritchard or elsewhere in Africa and witchcraft as it is/was understood by English speaking people, particularly in England (as I suspect we can easily overestimate the extent of interaction between British and North American anthropological scholars before, say, 1970). So "Witchcraft" in the titles of these books does not necessarily mean the same as it does in books about Western England or Salem. You see that it what I meant about stories expressed symbolically.

Good point about witchcraft. I only use the word in reference to Central Africa because I have to by convention.

I don't think the existence of "aberrant" cultures like the New Guinea one you mention are in any more a challenge to the general idea of human universals than the fact of amputations is a challenge to the truth of the statement that "humans are bipedal".

Re gender: sex exists, and socially defined gender roles exist. But I think there are serious problems with the modern sociology concept of "culturally constructed gender" as an *identity* which is ontologically separate from biological sex; or at least with the application of that concept outside the modern West. (Rather like how our own concepts of sexual orientation as identity categories don't apply to, say, ancient Rome; or even very well to the Middle Ages.)

kepsito: I essentially agree with you, but I would add a couple of points. For one thing, yes, sex exists but there really aren't' simply two sexes. Mostly yes, but not entirely. Then, when we get to gender orientation, just as gender is not separate and independently constructed with no attention to sex, "sex" is in part non-binary and non-simple for the same reasons gender is (well, isn't).

By keeping gender separate from sex and making it entirely constructed we lose all power to understand either sex or gender.

Mmmm. In what way is sex non-binary?

In the biological sense ... sure there are things like Klinefelter's and Turner's syndrome; but I'd disagree they actually represent anything like 'extra' sexes; they mostly cause infertility with a few other health defects, but in the common use of language we need have no caveats in describing Turner's syndrome women as women and Klinefelter's men as men.

A better argument for a non-binary idea of biological sex is perhaps provided by certain hormonal disorders, but I think there's extreme problems in deriving generals or rules from such extreme outliers (which are often presented as more distinct than they really are by people with an ideological axe to grind). I think they fall into my "we can still say 'humans are bipedal'" argument above.

As for culturally: I'd agree that third-sex cultural categories exist; I'd disagree that they're anywhere near as common as often portrayed these days [a lot of ritual concepts seem to have been lumped by some into implying an *identity* aspect which they did not seem originally to possess], and they're quite possibly rare enough to fall under the same principle of 'essentially outliers, too rare to have much meaning'.

kepisto, needing or not needing caveats in the langauge is not related to the fact that xx, xy, xxy, xxxy, xyy, xxyy, CAH, AIS, 5-alpha reductase deficiency and a dozen other things that all occur in n/thousands of people produce results that defy the binary label. And those are the easy ones.

With respect to genender, people identify themselves, they identify their ideal partner, etc. and each of these identifications can relate to something that happens developmentally at, perhaps, a half dozen points or stages, some purely chemical, some social, most environment-gene interactive. This would result in only XY people in some n^m possible gender-oriented sorts of individuals, where n is probably two and M is probably between 4 and 8, and some of those options are what we would call physical (i.e measurable with a caliper or qualitatively describable via anatomy) externally but most are physical internally and observable only by slicing up brains.

Male/Female is a real and powerful binary, like sky vs. sea. But have you ever been on the surface of the sea during a hurricane, or have you ever really considered what fog is. And sky/sea is probably a more consistent binary than male/female.

Regarding third sex, if you review the argument I just made, there are 20 "sexes" (genders). Or 60. Or nine. Some number larger than three. What astonishes me is how culture manages to cram everybody into two or three "genders" much of the time.

I avoid the word "disorder."

Non XY with "normative" development is not uncommon. And we haven't even mentioned chimerism!

Regarding the comment:
"It is late for me here, so I am not sure I got all that on the first read, but I just wanted to say that this struck me as a very thorough and cogent introduction to a concept I had not been much exposed to. Thank you."

I echo that.
A lovely peice of science writing (and commenting too). I especially applaud including cleverly funny bits like 'the four F's' of (what is this again, 'Anthropology'?).

I think you meant to write "feeding" when you wrote "fleeding".

I don't believe that there has ever been a single person that has opinioned against the existence of Human Universals. It's just that in some situations it is not meaningful to discuss them, because they are tautologies from that certain perspective of analysis. In other words, some people begin studying the amputees to begin with, and naturally they will not do much with a study that proves that most people are bipedal. A person that studies the development of certain concepts in Roman law in a certain period of the civilization will not do much with, say, de Waal's new study that claims to prove in a novel way that there is common ground in human and primate morality. Because it cannot explain why some concept of law was invented in a certain court during a certain period, for example.

Most of the time I see debate on Universals it has to do with this. Some people are very very interested in generalities of human life, while others are interested in the particularities of human life and culture.

Of course, yet another option, which is mostly only discussed in philosphy, is how and where the idea of universality was invented and to what extent has it been misued, or understood in other eras and so on.

By Tuomas Pylkkö (not verified) on 13 Mar 2011 #permalink

Could you tell me where you found the information about cultural differences in color names? I am currently working on a project that requires heavy research into color cognition, and I found this bit particularly interesting and would love to pursue it further. Appreciate it!