It is equally hard to know what to make of Fausto-Sterling’s (1992, p. 199) claim that “there is no single undisputed claim about universal human behavior (sexual or otherwise).” Presumably even the most ardent cultural relativist would accept that everywhere; people live in societies; they eat, sleep, and make love; and that women give birth and men do not. The arguments seem to arise when we move from basic universals to their specific behavioral expression. Though everywhere women are the principal caretakers of children, the fact that there may be variation in how that task is fulfilled leads some anthropologists to conclude that mothering is not universal. This is analogous to arguing that because people eat different food in different parts of the world, eating is not universal. Evolutionary psychologists do not argue for cultural invariance in the expression of evolved adaptations. As Tooby and Cosmides (1992, p. 45) put it, “manifest expressions may differ between individuals when different environmental inputs are operated on by the same procedures to produce different manifest outputs.” At a behavioral level, the expression of the mechanism may vary but that does not question the universality of the generative mechanism itself.
Fortunately Donald Brown (1991), trained in the standard ethnographic tradition, has documented the extent of human universals. The list is astoundingly long but here is a taste of the hundreds that he finds: gossip, lying, verbal humor, storytelling, metaphor, distinction between mother and father, kinship categories, logical relations, interpreting intention from behavior and recognition of six basic emotions. Of special interest to the study of gender we find: binary distinctions between men and women, division of labor by sex, more child care by women, more aggression and violence by men, acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures, and domination by men in the public political sphere.
Now this last observation (that men predominate in positions of power) provides a nice example of the extreme reluctance of cultural anthropologists to acknowledge universals. In 1973, Steven Goldberg wrote a book documenting the universality of patriarchy. He was inundated with letters informing him that he was wrong and pointing out counter-examples. (Other feminists were more willing to accept his premise, see Bem, 1993; Millett, 1969; Rich, 1976.) Over the next 20 years, he carefully examined the available ethnographic documentation for each putative counter-example and in 1993 authored a second book in which he was emphatic that no society had yet been found that violated his rule. There are societies that are matrilineal and matrilocal and where women are accorded veneration and respect—but there are no societies which violate the universality of patriarchy defined as “a system of organisation … in which the overwhelming number of upper positions in hierarchies are occupied by males” (Goldberg, 1993, p. 14). Such a state of affairs is deplorable but mere denial of the facts will do nothing to alter it—women’s engagement in the political arena will.