WHAT sort of creature is the human? The obvious answer is a smart, talkative, upright ape with a penchant for material possessions.
But what about the more subtle concept of human nature? That is more controversial. Some deny it exists, preferring to believe that we can be anything we want to be. They cannot be right.
Although we exhibit lots of individual and cultural variations, humans are animals, and like all animals we have idiosyncrasies, quirks and characteristics that distinguish us as a species. An invading alien would have no trouble categorising us but, being so close to our subject matter, we struggle to pin down the essence of humanness.
Nevertheless, the task may not be beyond us. Anthropologists have identified many “human universals” – characteristics shared by all people everywhere, which constitute a sort of parts list of our species. What if we were to use these to examine the human animal in the same way we would study any other?
As the following articles reveal, what emerges is a suite of characteristics that encapsulate our nature – and a rather peculiar one it proves to be. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.