For nearly a year, Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, has been adding posts to a blog that is hosted by the popular magazine Psychology Today. On October 1, he began a series of fascinating entries on the value of play to the development of children, and last week he expanded that interest to hunter-gatherer societies—and to the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia in particular. The full title of his blog is “Freedom to Learn: The Roles of Play and Curiosity as Foundations for Learning.”
His post last week was inspired by Kirk and Karen Endicott’s book The Headman Was a Woman, which was published last year. Gray was impressed by the gender equality practiced by the Batek, which the Endicotts discussed in detail in their book. One village chief, Tanyogn, was in fact a woman who was a very effective leader. She was knowledgeable about many subjects, frequently helped people, took responsibility for the welfare of others, participated in community discussions, and voiced opinions that everyone respected—a natural leader.
It is no wonder that Prof. Gray was impressed with the book. “When a job needed to be done [Tanyogn] was the first to dig in, and she encouraged others, by her example, to join her,” he writes approvingly.
Gray explains that the Batek solve problems and make decisions through consensus, a strategy that avoids the divisiveness of the voting process. Often these discussions take days or even weeks, depending on the complexities of the issues to be resolved. While they do not have officially designated leaders, people like Tanyogn assume natural leadership roles, and they are given the title Penghulu, “chief,” by the neighboring Malays.
But Gray takes his analysis beyond that. He wonders how a leader can arise in a society such as the Batek, which does not practice competition, does not recognize status, and values people for virtues such as helpfulness. The Batek cherish their individualism and social equality; they resist attempts by anyone to dominate others. Gray writes that they enjoy play, but never competitively—they can’t handle competition, which repels them. They respect their children from the time they are born, and raise them to be respectful of others in turn.
A fan of scholarly hunter-gatherer literature, Gray indicates he is convinced that playfulness is an important common element of foraging societies. “All such societies, as far as I can tell, optimize the human capacity for play and humor in ways that seem deliberately designed to combat the tendency to dominate,” he writes. Last week’s post is the first in a series of six he is titling, “Play as a Foundation for Freedom and Equality.” They will be based on his reading of hunter-gatherer literature and his knowledge of the psychology of playing.
He indicates that his primary argument in this series will be that the evolutionary basis of play is to promote cooperation and diminish dominance. Foraging societies have developed their playfulness for hundreds of thousands of years in order to foster their cooperation, which has been an essential survival strategy for them. It will be a fascinating series to keep up with.