The Play Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

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Play counters the tendency to dominate, in humans and in other mammals.

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

Anthropologists who have trekked to isolated regions of the world to observe hunter-gatherer societies—whether in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere—have consistently been impressed by the egalitarian nature of those societies (e.g. Ingold, 1999). The people live in small self-governing bands of about 20 to 50 people per band. They are nomadic, moving from place to place to follow the available game and edible vegetation.

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Most remarkably, unlike any other people that have been studied, hunter-gatherers appear to lack hierarchy in social organization. They have no chief or big man, no leaders or followers. They share everything, so nobody owns more than anybody else. They make all group decisions through discussion until a consensus is reached. In fact, another name that anthropologists regularly use to refer to band hunter-gatherer societies is egalitarian societies. As part of their egalitarianism, they have an extraordinary degree of respect for individual autonomy. They don’t tell one another what to do or offer unsolicited advice. Elsewhere I have described how this egalitarian ethos underlies even their interactions with young children (Gray, 2012 and here).

Wherever else we look in the human world, outside of band hunter-gatherers, we see hierarchical structures, in which some people dominate others. Pre-state agrarian tribes are headed by chiefs; modern governments are headed by leaders, elected or not, that have the power to dominate.  We see hierarchy in the workplace, where bosses tell employees what to do. We see it in gangs and in all sorts of formal or informal gatherings, especially of boys and men, who jockey, sometimes violently, for dominance. We see it in schools, where principals tell teachers what to do and teachers tell students what to do. We see it in families where parents dominate children. We also see dominance hierarchies almost everywhere we look in other primates, with alpha individuals (generally males) on top and frequent fighting for status.

It would seem from all this that we humans, or more generally all of us primates, are predisposed genetically to live in dominance hierarchies in which individuals, especially males, more or less continuously strive to move up in the hierarchy. But if that is so, then how do hunter-gatherers manage to live in their egalitarian way? Genes can’t account for that difference. Indeed, people just a generation or so away from being hunter-gatherers, who now live in agricultural societies, often quickly lose their egalitarian tendencies and fall into dominance patterns.

The Reverse Dominance Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

The writings of anthropologists make it clear that hunter-gatherers are not passively egalitarian, but are actively so. They have to work at resisting their own and others’ tendencies to dominate. They do not tolerate anyone acting like they are better than others.

In fact, one anthropologist (Lee, 1988) with long experience living among hunter-gatherers has described them as “fiercely egalitarian.” Apparently, the hunter-gatherer way of life, which requires continual close cooperation and sharing in order to survive, simply requires that the people figure out a way to suppress or counter the drive to try to dominate. That may explain whythey do it; but, now, how do they do it?

The leading theory of how hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian way of life is the reverse dominance theory, developed by anthropologist Christopher Boehm (1993). His theory is that hunter-gatherers have not abolished dominance but have, instead, turned it on its head. According to Boehm, the hunter-gatherer band as a whole acts as a dominating force, to suppress the behavior of any individual who begins to act in a domineering manner. They use ridicule, shunning, and threats of ostracism to counteract anyone who begins to act as if he or she is better than others or has a right to tell others what to do. At the extreme, they might banish a domineering person from the band.

A great deal of evidence supports Boehm’s theory, and I have no doubt that it is correct. Among other things, it fits very well with the repeated observation that hunter-gatherers are “fiercely egalitarian.” I have developed the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism not as a counter to the reverse dominance theory, but as a supplement to it. I think that another way that hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian ways is by deliberately cultivating that aspect of human (and mammalian) nature that most effectively suppresses the drive to dominate—playfulness.

The Play Theory as Applied to Non-Human Animals

In my chapter, I worked toward the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism by beginning with observations about the role of play in suppressing dominance behavior in other animals. [For the details and elaboration, see the original chapter (Gray, 2014), but here is a summary.]

The drive to play came about in mammalian evolution primarily as a means for the young to practice the skills they need to survive (see Gray, 2019). However, in order for two or more young animals to play together, they must suppress the drive to dominate one another. Social play always requires the voluntary participation of both (or all) partners, so play requires that the partners maintain one another’s goodwill. Any attempt to dominate would drive the other away or elicit a fight rather than play. Thus, play involving two or more players is always an egalitarian, cooperative activity.

In order to play, animals that might otherwise attack one another must signal that they will not attack; they will play instead. For wolves and other canids, for example, the play, nonattack signal is the play bow, in which the animal crouches down on forelimbs, elevates on hindlimbs, and may raise its neck in a vulnerable manner. If you have a dog you have probably witnessed this as the dog prepares to play with, rather than fight with, another dog. For primates, the play signal is the relaxed open-mouth display, or play face, which is homologous to playful laughter and smiling in humans.

Among most mammals social play is common only for the young, as a way for them to practice essential skills, but in some mammals social play persists into adulthood and, in at least some, takes on a new function, that of enabling two or more individuals to cooperate with one another rather than struggle for dominance (see Gray, 2019). For example, adult males and females in many species “court” one another by playing together, as a way of suppressing aggression so they can cooperate for mating.

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