Human Nature

If they say why, why,
Tell them that it’s human nature.
Why, why does he do me that way?
If they say why, why,
Tell them that it’s human nature.
Why, why, does he do me that way?

— Michael Jackson, “Human Nature” (1982)

Indeed, why do we all do what we do the way we do it? Do we emerge from our mother’s womb as a tabula rasa (blank slate), or are we all “pre-cooked” with certain ingredients that we season with our own secret sauce? As anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, “Remember that you are unique — just like everyone else.”

Human Nature Challenge

From a biological perspective, “human nature is the epigenetic rules, the inherited regularities of mental development. These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which our brains represent the world, the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make….” (E.O. Wilson, 1998)

Image of Human Universals, by Donald BrownIn other words, Human Nature is our birthright as Homo sapiens,regardless when, where, or two whom we’re born. Anthropologist Donald Brown compiled a long list of “universals” — behavioral traits common to all human societies (reprinted below).

The Game of Humanity would not do justice to the “history and herstory of us” if it didn’t address Human Nature in some way. It includes 24 “Human Nature Challenges,” most of which involve interactions with other players (or, in single-player mode, interactions with AI avatars) that draw on players’ notions of generosity, selfishness, gratitude, guile, etc. — any of which may change as the game progresses and history with other players accrues.

These challenges are adaptations of so-called “social games” that sociologists use to study human cooperation and conflict in competitive situations — that is, “game theory.” (Examples include “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and “The Dictator,” all of which will be discussed in a future post.) Game theory can be a powerful tool for understanding history, political interactions, and environmental science. And they’re interesting and fun, too!

Aid or Raid - The Game of Humanity

I encourage you to explore your “triangular awareness” and other aspects of your Human Nature (see below) by trying The Game of Humanity. It’s free, and you can play it alone or with others in an hour or two on any computer or on most mobile devices at


Human Universals:

Language and Cognition

  • Language employed to manipulate others
  • Language employed to misinform or mislead
  • Language is translatable
  • Abstraction in speech and thought
  • Antonyms, synonyms
  • Logical notions of “and,” “not,” “opposite,” “equivalent,” “part/whole,” “general/particular”
  • Binary cognitive distinctions
  • Color terms: black, white
  • Classification of age, behavioral propensities, body parts, colors, fauna, flora, inner states, kin, sex, space, tools, weather conditions
  • Continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)
  • Discrepancies between speech, thought, and action
  • Figurative speech, metaphors
  • Symbolism, symbolic speech
  • Synesthetic metaphors
  • Tabooed utterances
  • Special speech for special occasions
  • Prestige from proficient use of language (e.g., poetry)
  • Planning
  • Units of time


  • Personal names
  • Family or household
  • Kin groups
  • Peer groups not based on family
  • Actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control
  • Affection expressed and felt
  • Age grades
  • Age statuses
  • Age terms
  • Law: rights and obligations, rules of membership
  • Moral sentiments
  • Distinguishing right and wrong, good and bad
  • Promise/oath
  • Prestige inequalities
  • Statuses and roles
  • Leaders
  • De facto oligarchy
  • Property
  • Coalitions
  • Collective identities
  • Conflict
  • Cooperative labor
  • Gender roles
  • Males dominate public/political realm
  • Males more aggressive, more prone to lethal violence, more prone to theft
  • Males engage in more coalitional violence
  • Males on average travel greater distances over lifetime
  • Marriage
  • Husband older than wife on average
  • Copulation normally conducted in privacy
  • Incest prevention or avoidance, incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed
  • Rape, but rape proscribed
  • Collective decision-making
  • Etiquette
  • Inheritance rules
  • Generosity admired, gift-giving
  • Redress of wrongs, sanctions
  • Sexual jealousy
  • Shame
  • Territoriality
  • Triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)
  • Some forms of proscribed violence
  • Visiting
  • Trade

Myth, Ritual and Aesthetics

  • Magical thinking
  • Use of magic to increase life and win love
  • Beliefs about death
  • Beliefs about disease
  • Beliefs about fortune and misfortune
  • Divination
  • Attempts to control weather
  • Dream interpretation
  • Beliefs and narratives
  • Proverbs, sayings
  • Poetry/rhetoric
  • Healing practices, medicine
  • Childbirth customs
  • Rites of passage
  • Music, rhythm, dance
  • Play
  • Toys, playthings
  • Death rituals, mourning
  • Feasting
  • Body adornment
  • Hairstyles
  • Technology
  • Shelter
  • Control of fire
  • Tools, tool making
  • Weapons, spear
  • Containers
  • Cooking
  • Lever
  • Tying material (i.e., something like string), twining (weaving or something similar)

(Donald Brown, Human Universals, 1991)