Well it’s obvious that all humans share various and fundamental universals – death and taxes! Quite apart from that famous observation about certainty, we’re all susceptible to diseases like cancer, the flu and the common cold. Also universal are heart disease and heart attacks. We all have at least one phobia and we share common emotions as well as a common anatomy and body plan. We all need to fill what’s empty; empty what’s full; and scratch where it itches. Are there any exceptions for the need to sleep, perchance to dream? Let’s explore several other universals, though this is not meant to be a universally exhaustive list, which are innate to our internal psychology and/or based around external realities.
Afterlife: Humans are probably unique as a species in having a before-the-fact awareness that we are going to kick-the-bucket. I doubt if any other animal has an awareness of the concept of their own death. However, relatively few of us probably want to die, though the alternative, if you stop and think about it, immortality either with or without eternal youth, isn’t very pretty either. Anyway, it’s not surprising that we have come up with the next best security blanket going – an afterlife. Alas, wishing for it doesn’t make it so. You’d really think that if an afterlife was reality then somehow some definite proof would have filtered back to us aging mortals, just to shore up our belief system.
Bigger Is Better; Size Matters: If you ask any child or adult to name several dinosaurs, it’s a sure bet they won’t name the turkey-sized ones! Then there’s the Guinness Book of Records that accents things that are big, bigger, biggest. Men want larger private parts; women bustier busts. And ask any Texan what really matters! We’ve all heard of keeping up with (and surpassing) the Jones family! They’re not called ‘Tiny Macs’ but of course ‘Big Macs’ and we’ve all heard of super-sizing!
Civilization: There are universal mythologies that don’t credit humans with any smarts in our march towards civilization. Important knowledge wasn’t hard won by us; rather it was given to us by the gods. You name it; it was a sort-of from on-high Xmas gift. Fire is one example; agriculture another; weaving yet another. If it wasn’t for the gods, we’d still be in the Stone Age, primitive hunter gatherers.
Clothing: To a greater or lesser extent, the human species now covers itself with clothing. Sometimes this is for protection, for the sake of art (so-called ‘fashion’), for conformity, and because society says so. That wasn’t always the case and in terms of animal life on Earth we’re the lone exception in having that kind of nature of body covering.
Cooking: When you think about it, cooking food is somewhat anomalous. All other life forms are adapted to eat all their nutrition in the raw state, be it the flesh of plants or the flesh of animals. And so too must early humans been so adapted, and even today we do eat a lot of plant flesh uncooked. The central ingredient required for cooking was fire, but whether the use of fire for cooking was obvious to Blind Freddy is doubtful. Fire was useful for light; for heat; for keeping large dangerous wildlife at bay, but cooking? No doubt the first cooking experiences were accidental, but that art has spread through to all societies. Cooking is now one of those universals. And while we think nothing of eating cooked meat now, and usually avoid raw meat, it must have been quite the brave individual to actually try cooked meat, say a dead animal ‘cooked’ in a bushfire after a lifetime of eating nothing but the raw variety.
Creations: This one stumps me, unless we were told by the ‘creators’ or those more in the know that there were creations. I doubt we could figure out that things get created from personal observations and historical records. Consider the Sun. Every day we see the Sun rise and set. We ask our parents and they say that in their lifetime everyday the Sun rose and set. They say that their parents said the same to them, and their parents before them. We consult historical texts from thousands of years ago, and what do we read, well Mr. Sun rose and Mr. Sun set, it rises and sets, rises and sets. There is no person or history we can consult who can suggest anything other than the Sun rising and setting forever and ever and ever no matter how far back you go. If you could ask the dinosaurs their observations, well they too would have to tell you about that rising and setting Sun. Why would you not assume that the Sun has always risen and set? Translated, based on all available evidence you would have to conclude that the Sun had no starting point and based on probability, won’t have an end point either. The Sun is infinite in time. The Sun had no creation. The same argument applies to the ground underneath your feet – Planet Earth is infinite in time. Since you can’t actually question the dinosaurs, you have no reason, no contrary evidence not to believe humans as a species didn’t always exist. So how come you have “In the beginning God created…”? Why does every mythology contain creation stories – for the cosmos, the Sun, Earth, plants and animals, even for humans? – Something’s screwy somewhere.
Deities: We don’t like mysteries. Well actually we do like mysteries as long as we can solve them to our satisfaction. If we can’t explain a mystery, there’s a convenient ‘out’ or explanation at hand. We attribute that unknown to some power higher than our own; a supernatural deity in other words. Unknown forces become ‘acts of god’ or godly miracles or ‘god works in mysterious ways’, etc. And so the unknown is explained. Mystery solved. That satisfies our curiosity, at least in the short term. That doesn’t mean supernatural deities really exist, but since we’ve named so many thousands of them they probably do exist – as extraterrestrial flesh-and-blood ‘deities’ that is. Regardless of their reality, a deity is also very useful as a scapegoat to blame when things go wrong, instead of blaming yourself, which would probably be a better reflection of reality. Deities can in the popular imagination get up close and personal and if you piss one off – not all that hard to do apparently – that explains all your troubles from the insignificant to the minor to the major, even life-threatening. And it’s a very universal human trait to shift the blame and find a scapegoat.
Fiction: When animals communicate with each other they tell the truth. Bees communicate where a new food source is; animals cry out warning/danger sounds and there is no doubting by those in hearing range the truth behind the message; dogs bark for a positive reason and whatever that reason, it’s representing something about the animal’s perception of reality. Humans however universally invent stories; untruths; fictions; lies; which sets us apart from other animals. The purpose of these fictitious inventions are varied – entertainment value; make a moral/ethical point, etc. Some fiction goes under another name – advertising! However, storytelling is a universal human trait; a universally absent one in the rest of the animal kingdom.
Fire: One thing common in major mythologies is that fire was a gift from lesser gods even if they nicked it first from higher authority. Prometheus is the obvious example though there are numerous parallel examples from North American Indians, evenPolynesiaand referenced in the Books of Enoch. However, that’s rather odd. You’d of thought that the ‘discovery’ of fire; the ‘gift’ of fire, was universally a natural event – no gods, no gifts, required. It would be a rare environment that didn’t experience natural forest or bushfires due to lightning strikes, or via lava starting fires from active volcanoes. Such natural sources should have prevented any need of an unnatural source, which is one via a deity.
Future Happenings: Animals have way too much on their plates to concern them in the here and now to worry too much about tomorrow. Even if they do it’s probably a case of ‘whatever will be, will be’. That’s despite some animals squirreling or storing away food in the good times for when times are not so plentiful. That’s just pure instinct on their part, not an original foresight concept thought through and through. Humans on the other hand from all walks of life, then and now, are obsessed with tomorrow and beyond. Maybe that’s because we alone know that our demise looms in that future of tomorrows. And so there’s a flourishing industry in astrology and soothsaying, prophets and oracles, tea leaves and chicken entrails. It’s all nonsense of course except to true believers, and perhaps, for deeply embedded psychological reasons, that includes the majority of us, even if we won’t admit it.
Ghosts: That reports of and beliefs in spirits or phantoms or more commonly ghosts are universal throughout all societies, past and present. They probably have origins in people latching on to any possible evidence that proves there’s an afterlife. If the concept of an afterlife is a security blanket for humans facing inevitable death, ghosts are a security blanket that supports an afterlife. But, how do you then account for phantom trains and buildings or ghost ships or other non-living objects that sometimes appear as ghostly images? Something’s screwy somewhere – yet again! Actually that screwy-ness might be evidence that we’re actually ‘living’ in a simulated universe; we’re just virtual reality not real reality and phantom trains say are just the residue of previously overwritten software.
Humans First: Actually that’s ‘humans first and foremost’ in all things where there’s a conflict between what humans want and what everything else needs. Translated, when it comes to the use of land, humans vs. the environment for biodiversity or endangered species, it is humans first and foremost. A typical case history is theAmazonForestvs. humans – humans 1; forest 0. If humans want to use land that’s home to an endangered species – screw the endangered species. If farmers have crops attacked by wildlife – kill the bastards! Universally, it’s called ‘progress’ and nothing stands in the way of human progress – even other humans as the native Amerindians found out. Ditto that for the Aztecs, Incas, and the Australian Aborigines too. I recall here the Spencer Tracy narration for the film “How the West Was Won”, narration that’s not exactly something that’s politically correct in today’s society: “This land has a name today, and is marked on maps. But, the names and the marks and the land all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man.” [Easterners heading westward would] “Look at a mountain and see a watershed; look at a forest and see timber for houses; look at a stony field and see a farm”. That’s how the west was conquered.
Humour: Humans alone and collectively within the animal kingdom have a sense of humour. We tell and play practical jokes; comedy shows on TV abound as well as feature length comedy films. It’s a rare work of literature that doesn’t contain at least a few lighter moments; ditto most other works of drama. However, the question is why? Humour has no survival value in any Darwinian sense. I mean do your odds of surviving a shark attack just happen to lie in your telling the shark a few dirty jokes thus distracting it while rapidly back-pedalling out of the water? In any event, the transmission of humour usually resides in language, and humans were on the road to civilization way before we had language. So humour and survival do not seem to be linked. So, how do we explain this human trait? It’s universal; it’s yet another example of something’s screwy somewhere.
Isms: We all feel more comfortable with our own kind. We tend to associate with others our own age, our own race, our own sex, our own religion, our own nationality, etc. Those who differ significantly from the standard ‘me’ get isms attached. Racism; sexism; nationalism, etc. are cases in point. It’s all discrimination on the grounds that someone else isn’t virtually your clone physically and/or in terms of worldviews (belief systems).
Music: Music is an art form designed for the ears. There probably hasn’t, isn’t or will be anyone of any race, creed or culture, male or female, old or young, who hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t respond positively to music of one type of another. Exactly why however is a bit mysterious. Music, apart from bird calls and other animal ‘noises’ wasn’t part of our natural primate ancestral background. You could hardly call crashing surf, thunder and howling winds musical. And while bird vocalizations and animal sounds have survival value – species recognition or identification, warning/danger cries, use in mating rituals – ‘humans’ even multi-tens of thousands of years ago didn’t need to sing or strike rocks or blow across reeds to communicate. Though the saying “music sooths the savage beast” must have some significance, music appreciation seems to me to be more by design than by natural evolution. However, if we appreciate music by design, who was the designer and then what was the possible purpose behind that appreciation? If all music vanished from human society overnight, our life and civilization would still go on. Music is peripheral to our survival – then or now.
My (fill in the blank) Right or Wrong: The blank could represent spouse, child, family, town, county, state, country or even planet if faced with an alien presence or threat. That applies equally to other belief systems like religion or sports team. The logic of course is faulty in the extreme, but that is beside the point when you’re engaging in your debate.
Mythical Creatures: There is no human culture on Earth that hasn’t stocked a make-believe zoo with all manner of fantastic creatures. From dragons to thunderbirds, griffins to the hydra, Grendel and Pegasus, unicorns to hellhounds, they’re all there and a whole lot more besides. Modern equivalents like Godzilla are clearly marketed as entertainment and fictional; not so marketed were the ancient beasts of ‘mythology’ according to our ancient ancestors. Why did they have a need to ‘invent’ so many weird beasties? Why did they believe these creatures existed? Perhaps the alternative explanation is that these mythical creatures weren’t quite so mythical.
Rank Has Its Privileges: Are all men (and women) created equal? Not on your Nellie! In very society, past and present, and no doubt future, there, have been, are and will be the haves and have nots. That’s nearly as universal and certain as death and taxes.
Rebellious: All humans tend to be rebellious. It’s just about as universal as it gets, and I don’t mean kids throwing temper tantrums or something confined to teenagers. ‘Thou shall not’ usually gets interpreted as ‘Thou shall’ if I can get away with it! I mean who hasn’t exceeded the speed limit now and again; parked in a ‘no parking’ area or overstayed their parking time limit; dropped that piece of litter when no one was looking; engaged in inappropriate Internet use at work or maybe nicking a few pens and paperclips; failed to return a borrowed library book on time; or told the occasional ‘little white lie’? What about fudging just a little bit on your tax return and declaration?
Resurrection: We’ve all seen the Sun ‘die’ at dusk only to be resurrected at dawn. The Moon ‘dies’ at New Moon, but then comes back gradually growing brighter each night until it’s Full Moon, then starts to slowly ‘die’ again until it does ‘dies’ again – death and resurrection. Some plants ‘die’ in the winter, but are resurrected in the spring. A lawn that’s been killed (mowed) usually survives to grow back again. A lizard can lose its tail but seemingly that tail is resurrected and grows back. So, viewing all these things, it’s not surprising that humans think that they too will be resurrected after death.
Symmetry: Humans love symmetry, which might tend to reflect nature as nature often exhibits symmetrical traits. A sphere has perfect symmetry; symmetry in two-out-of-three dimensions might be a cylinder; human’s exhibit symmetry in only one-out-of-three dimensions; left-right. But symmetry isn’t confined to just geometry though that’s probably the main kind of symmetry that one finds in nature apart from the biological like predator vs. prey or male vs. female. Humans apply symmetry to things that are relative and/or the more abstract – right vs. wrong; tall vs. short; black vs. white; heaven vs. hell; up vs. down; hot vs. cold; yin vs. yang – the list could be extended for quite a few more examples from politics to economics. However, as a general rule-of-thumb, for any concept humans conceive of, they will also conceive of an equal-and-opposite concept. Symmetry seems to be in our genes.
Three ‘R’s’: Humans can be both literate and numerate. My cats couldn’t read the most basic three-year-old primer, no matter how much instruction I gave them. No cat can read and understand the word C A T; their paws aren’t equipped to put pen to paper and ‘typing’ or pawing on a computer keyboard is going to create gibberish. Still, cats specifically, and the rest of the animal kingdom in general, get by thank you very much without any need to read or write or calculate/crunch numbers. In fact, many ancient human societies or cultures never developed writing at all, and therefore reading, though they probably did calculations for various purposes, even if just in their head. Still, the odds are pretty good that the human species would exist today even if none of us or our ancestors ever had developed an ability to read and write. Yet being literate and numerate is one of those universals of the current human condition.
Time: All life forms on this planet, except those companion animals we’ve forced into adapting to our ways, set their biological clocks by natural time, usually the rising and elevation and setting of the Sun; the duration of daylight. To a lesser extent, the rising, setting and phases of the Moon play a role. All life forms on this planet, apart from those who live their entire life in eternal darkness – deep inside caves, deep underground, or in the abyssal depths – probably have the concept, assuming they have IQs high enough to have concepts, otherwise an awareness, of a day – sunrise to sunrise – or more likely half-days – sunrise to sunset, and sunset to sunrise. They certainly have no awareness or concept of, nor requirement to have any awareness or concept of, a second, minute, hour, week, month, year, decade or century. These are all manmade constructions of no use and of no interest to other living things. So, while nearly all living things are aware of ‘time’, only humans, universally, have turned natural time (night and day) into artificial time – like time zones. Every culture has had a go at forming a calendar – how many units per day; how many days per week; how many weeks per month; how many months per year, and finally what to do with the leftover residue. Even in terms of the ‘day, there’s nothing natural about midnight – one could take any point and call that the end of the old day and the start of the new day, as apparently we have some sort of need to label the days that other living things don’t need to do. Ditto that idea when it comes to the end of our labelled year. There’s nothing special about New Years Eve. It’s a totally artificial concept. Only humans attribute some sort of uniqueness to it. To everything else on this planet it’s just another ordinary moment in a lifetime of ordinary moments. And Daylight Savings is as artificially phoney as it gets even if it does have, or at least did have, some practical application. Birthdays are another artificial and phoney concept. If anniversaries have any meaning then your ‘birthday’ should be the anniversary of your conception, not when you were hatched. We may also observe the birthday of companion animals for various reasons, but to them, it’s a non-event that has no real significance to them even if the concept had occurred to them. They require neither birthday card nor birthday presents and don’t feel insulted when they don’t appear.
Trade: Trade is a universal of the human condition. It’s just exchanging what you have (skills, money, goods, crops, etc.) for what you need or want (money, food, sex, other goods and services, etc.). That trait, bartering, buying and selling, exchanging goods and services has gone on seemingly as far back in history as records allow for. There are no parallels that I am aware of existing in the animal kingdom, not even among our closest primate ancestors. Animals often share, but they don’t engage in commerce.
Visual Art: Visual art are art forms designed for the eyes, though they could also be natural like scenery – sunsets, cloud forms, seascapes, etc. Art appreciation is universal, although it’s often a case of different strokes for different folks. Paintings obviously come to mind, even Playboy pinups; eye-catching or pleasing architecture qualifies; 3-D sculptures obviously; dancing, the theatre and in more modern times cinema. The issue here is why art appreciation like music appreciation is appreciated or has a resonance at all since art appreciation has no obvious survival value. There’s little to be gained standing around admiring the striped patterns on a hungry tiger that’s got an eye on you that has nothing to do with its art appreciation. However, it would be interesting to be able to communicate with some of the higher IQ animals (birds and mammals) to find out if they appreciate the beauty in a rainbow, those northern or southern lights (the Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis) or the stalagmites and stalactites that’s in their cave. Do flying birds have an abstract appreciation of their aerial view or is it just so much ho-hum? At least we suspect that pigeons in the park appreciate the statues they sit on!
Worldviews: I’m right; you’re wrong, even if it’s just opinions at stake. Today, there are no doubt a zillion debates that go on, on Internet message boards around the world that X is better than Y or vice versa. At least, despite the vehemence, nobody gets physically hurt! That’s not of necessity in a face-to-face barroom encounter, or High Noon on the highway – road rage. Every day in every way, say over morning tea breaks at the office water cooler, over breakfast or dinner at home, differences of opinions make themselves known in no uncertain terms. The human trait of loving an argument; ever willing to engage in one at the drop of the proverbial hat, is a universal one. It’s perhaps another side to territoriality. You stake out not a physical territory, but a non-physical one, yet defend it just as passionately. It’s even been formalized in debating societies or in public debating forums and political institutions like Congress or parliaments.
In conclusion, many of these human universals are pretty unique relative to our animal kin; many appear to have had little or no role to play in our evolutionary survival. Many are therefore somewhat anomalous. But let’s not forget about all those gifts from our alien ‘gods’. If true, that really would help explain a lot of these anomalies.