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Compassion At Her Core

By Peter Gray, PhD

For the Batek people of Malaysia, nurturance equals leadership.

Tanyogn was the kind of person who would be an asset to any community. She was highly intelligent, able to see through specious arguments, able to judge when the traders from outside might be trying to pull a fast one. She was knowledgeable about midwifery, herbal medicines, religious practices, and many other matters crucial to her culture. She had a powerful personality and capacity to persuade. She participated vigorously in the community’s discussions, with a voice of reason that people could not ignore. She had enormous energy and enthusiasm for hard work. When a job needed to be done she was the first to dig in, and her example encouraged others to join her.

A Natural Leader

Perhaps most valuable of all was Tanyogn’s extraordinary sense of responsibility and care for others—not just for relatives, but for all members of the community and even for visiting outsiders. She attended to the sick and comforted crying children, no matter whose children they were. She and her husband took care of two orphaned boys.

When the two young anthropologists—Kirk and Karen Endicott—came to study her community, she took them under her wing and helped to protect them from their own clumsiness. For example, when she saw them slip on a muddy, sloping path near their camp, she shoveled steps into the path—steps that no native would need, but that were helpful to Kirk and Karen.

The Batek people of peninsular Malaysia, like many other hunting and gathering groups throughout the world, are an egalitarian people. They value personal freedom and are repelled by the idea that any person should have authority to control the activities of another. They make all group decisions by consensus, sometimes after days or weeks of discussion and debate. They have no official leaders, but they do have natural leaders—people who, by dint of their personalities, knowledge and abilities, are sought for advice and are listened to more closely than others. For the Batek inhabiting the upper Lebir River valley, Tanyogn was such a leader. In fact, she was such a powerful natural leader that the Batek, and even many of the neighboring Malay (the predominant farming people of Malaysia), referred to her as Penghulu, which is the Malay term for headman, or chief.

Leadership Without Dominance

The story of Tanyogn and the Batek is told beautifully in a recent book by the Endicotts, entitled The Headman Was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia (Waveland Press, 2008). The book is more than a documentation of gender equality in a longstanding human society. As you read it, you discover that the most remarkable fact is not that the headman was a woman, but that the headman was a person, regardless of gender, with Tanyogn’s qualities. In what kind of society can a person who is not competitive, not interested in status, and not the slightest bit threatening, but simply helpful, become the most widely recognized leader? The book is about the social conditions that can give rise to such a leader.

The Batek are a people who resist all attempts—by anyone, male or female—to act in a domineering manner. Their highest values include individual autonomy, social equality, cooperation, and the sharing of all material wealth. They love to play, but they never play competitively, because the idea of beating another person is repugnant to them. They raise their children to be both self-directed and respectful of others by trusting them to make their own choices and by treating them respectfully from birth on. In many ways the Batek violate the stereotypes about human nature that evolutionary psychologists often promulgate.

And yet, for people who read the anthropological literature, the story of the Batek is not unique. It is in many ways similar to stories that other anthropologists have told about other hunting and gathering people. The Endicotts’ book has many of the same themes and messages found, for example, in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Old Way (2006), about the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, and in Colin Turnbull’s classic The Forest People (1968), about the Mbutu hunter- gatherers of the Congo’s Ituri Forest.

The Possibilities of Play

What is it about these and other hunting and gathering societies that allowed them, perhaps for hundreds of thousands of years, to resist the temptations of status, dominance and violence that have dictated the course of history for the rest of us over the last 10 thousand years? What secret did they have about how to live peacefully and cooperatively? What can we learn from them that might help save us from our own worst instincts?

I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the hunter-gatherer literature— not just the popular books about them, but also the articles in academic journals. I’ve found that a common denominator of all of these societies is a high degree of playfulness. 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.

A major evolutionary function of play is to combat dominance and promote cooperation. For hundreds of thousands of years, hunting and gathering people maximized their playfulness in ways that enabled the high degree of cooperation that was essential to their survival.

Perhaps it will be essential to ours, as well.