The tree of life: Universal and cultural features of folkbiological taxonomies and inductions

Alejandro López*, Scott Atran, John D. Coley, Douglas L. Medin, Edward E. Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

210 Scopus citations


Two parallel studies were performed with members of very different cultures - industrialized American and traditional Itzaj-Mayan - to investigate potential universal and cultural features of folkbiological taxonomies and inductions. Specifically, we examined how individuals organize natural categories into taxonomies, and whether they readily use these taxonomies to make inductions about those categories. The results of the first study indicate that there is a cultural consensus both among Americans and the Itzaj in their taxonomies of local mammal species, and that these taxonomies resemble and depart from a corresponding scientific taxonomy in similar ways. However, cultural differences are also shown, such as a greater differentiation and more ecological considerations in Itzaj taxonomies. In a second study, Americans and the Itzaj used their taxonomies to guide similarity- and typicality-based inductions. These inductions converge and diverge crossculturally and regarding scientific inductions where their respective taxonomies do. These findings reveal some universal features of folkbiological inductions, but they also reveal some cultural features such as diversity-based inductions among Americans, and ecologically based inductions among the Itzaj. Overall, these studies suggest that while building folkbiological taxonomies and using them for folkbiological inductions is a universal competence of human cognition there are also important cultural constraints on that competence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)251-295
Number of pages45
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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