10 Human Universals that Should be Fully Embraced

…Or appreciating the flip side of diversity

Posted Jan 24, 2014

Diversity, in all its incarnations, is awesome and beautiful. It’s the spice of life. And in modern times, educational institutions have become enlightened regarding the importance of embracing, understanding, respecting, and appreciating diversity. And this trend in modern education – and in our broader set of societal institutions – is really a great thing about living now.

We learn to appreciate diversity in so many human domains – and this is an important element of tolerance and respectful living. We are educated in the nature of diversity in cultural phenomena, such as language, religion, and music. And we are educated in the nature of diversity in contexts that extend beyond our own species, learning to appreciate the diversity in such phenomena as dog breeds (think Great Dane versus Miniature Daschund), ecosystems (think high desert versus equatorial tropics), food (think cheeseburger versus sushi), and more. Darwin’s (1859) exposition of natural selection, in fact, presents diversity as a core element of the basic processes that underlie evolution.

This said, the evolutionary approach to human behavior (i.e., evolutionary psychology; see Geher, 2014) has shed important light on the nature of human universals. Human universals are, essentially, qualities that, due to our shared evolutionary history, characterize humans across the globe. As renowned applied psychologist Kalman Glantz (2012) pointed out in a memorable presentation at a conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS) in Plymouth, NH, human beings would be wise to embrace the many basic qualities that we all share in common just as much as we embrace the facets of diversity which highlight our differences.

Maybe educational institutions can develop programs that help students of all ages understand and appreciate the nature of human universals. Maybe curricula from pre-K to the PhD level can help people build tolerance of others by underscoring what we all have in common as a function of our shared evolutionary history.

In this spirit, to put a face to this idea of embracing human universals, here’s a list of 10 qualities of humans that characterize our kind – from Argentina and Alabama to Zimbabwe and Zurich.

10. Across human populations, infants cry to communicate basic needs.

9. The emotional expressions that signal happiness, joy, surprise, and anger, are recognizable and constant in all human populations.

8. Humans form groups based on qualities that cut across kinship lines, such as shared religion, political affiliation, tribe, or favorite sports team.  

7. While the details vary from group to group, human groups have specific traditions regarding such events as marriage, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one.

6. Music truly is a human universal.

5. People dislike, and are often afraid of, stimuli that would have threatened the safety of our ancestors, such as parasitic insects and venomous snakes.

4. Kinship matters – and affects social organization in all human groups that have ever been studied.

3. Humans everywhere have the capacity to learn language.

2. Humans across the globe demonstrate a strong need for connections with other humans.

1. People everywhere have the capacity for laughter and joy.

This list is, of course, remarkably incomplete – but I hope it’s a good start in helping people appreciate the importance of human universals – qualities that characterize people everywhere – near and far.

And for a great example of what this might look like in the classroom, check out the blog on the Similarities Project by renwoned sociologist (and drummer!), Peter Kaufman: http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2011/12/the-similarities-project.html


Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Glantz, K. (2012). Presentation at the 6th annual meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS). Plymouth, NH.

Kaufman, P. (2011). The similarities project. In W.W. Norton's Blog, Everyday Sociology. http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2011/12/the-similarities-project.html