, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 383-396

Cultural variation is part of human nature

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In 1966, Laura Bohannan wrote her classic essay challenging the supposition that great literary works speak to universal human concerns and conditions and, by extension, that human nature is the same everywhere. Her evidence: the Tiv of West Africa interpret Hamlet differently from Westerners. While Bohannan’s essay implies that cognitive universality and cultural variation are mutually exclusive phenomena, adaptationist theory suggests otherwise. Adaptive problems ("the human condition") and cognitive adaptations ("human nature") are constant across cultures. What differs between cultures is habitat: owing to environmental variation, the means and information relevant to solving adaptive problems differ from place to place. Thus, we find differences between cultures not because human minds differ in design but largely because human habitats differ in resources and history. On this view, we would expect world literature to express both human universals and cultural particularities. Specifically, we should expect to find literary universality at the macro level (e.g., adaptive problems, cognitive adaptations) and literary variation at the micro level (e.g., local solutions to adaptive problems).

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama is an affiliate of the English Department and the Institute for Cognitive and Decision Sciences at the University of Oregon, Eugene. She studied at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she received her Ph.D. in literature in 1997. Conceptualizing all forms of storytelling—mythology and folklore, literature and film, rumor and gossip—as narrative behavior, her work attempts to understand narrative in terms of the cognitive architecture that underlies it and the adaptive problems to which it is a response.