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How Nonhumans Vote

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How Nonhumans Vote

From Earth in Transition
November 2012

Whenever you start talking about recognizing nonhuman animals as legal "persons" who have certain basic rights (like the right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity), some sarcastic wiseass pretends you're trying to give dolphins or chimpanzees the right to vote or to drive a car.

other-than-humans nonhumans(In some cases, these folks are so dumb they believe you're really suggesting this.)

Interestingly, however, this does raise the question of how animals vote in their own social groups, and to what extent the animal "kingdom" is, rather, an animal democracy. The answer is: It's a lot more democratic than most human societies.

NPR's All Things Considered looked into how various animal groups make their decisions. According to Iain Couzin, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, the process is highly democratic:

One common property we see in animal groups from schooling fish to flocking birds to primate groups is that they effectively vote to decide where to go and what to do," Couzin says.

When one fish heads toward a potential source of food, the other fish vote with their fins on whether to follow. And this highly democratic process helps animals make decisions as a group that are better than those of any single member.

Successful animal leaders know they can't get too far ahead of their constituents.

They seem to simply reconcile their own goal-oriented behavior with this tendency to align with others," Cousin says. "Because if you don't tend to be influenced by others, you then leave the group behind, and you may get eaten by predators, or you lose the benefits of group living.

We humans don't operate like a school of fish or a hive of bees. As great apes, we operate more like chimpanzees, where a single individual seeks to gain control of the group – not by being the strongest, but often by being the most deceptive. According to Mark van Vugt, an evolutionary psychologist from the VU University in Amsterdam:

In chimpanzees, it's not necessarily the physically strongest individual who seizes the control over the group," van Vugt says. "It's usually the more cunning individual, someone who forms his coalitions well.

other-than-humans nonhumansWhich is, of course, exactly what we've been seeing in the current election cycle – particularly from Mitt Romney, who, true to his species, has shown one face to one group and then another one altogether to a different group, and then, "etch-a-sketching" his way to yet another new position on almost every issue, has ended up managing to appeal to the greatest – and the most gullible – number of people. That's classic chimpanzee troop behavior.

(And if you're morally offended by this, just get over it and recognize that we all do it – at home, at work, at school, at the club, online, everywhere. We're all great apes.)

Elephants do it differently. Unlike chimpanzees and humans, who, van Vugt says, are both "accomplished liars", there's nothing especially deceptive about the voting process among elephants. The de facto leader is usually, but not always, the oldest female.
"When the group is attacked, it might be one of the dominant male members who takes control," he says. "But when it comes to knowledge problems and particularly where to find water, they turn to the oldest female."

Dr. Phyllis Lee has been studying elephants for more than 20 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, and is part of a group that recently produced a study on elephant personalities. They found that elephants choose their leaders not on the basis of who's the strongest, but who's the wisest:

This is something that is particularly unusual in animals. Normally dominance is the main element in leadership in dogs, macaques, chimpanzees and many more. What we find in elephants is it more about their ability to get agreement.

Leadership is not equal to power or assertion in elephants, but illustrates the respect accorded to individuals as a function of their problem-solving ability and their social permissiveness.

other-than-humans nonhumansBut if you want to see the most honest democratic process of all, van Vugt would recommend you to honeybees:

Their scouts lead by finding a food source and then communicating the location to other bees ...

The interesting thing about it is in the signaling of the scout bees, there is no deception whatsoever, van Vugt says. They want to do what is best for the hive. And I think that is a little bit dissimilar to humans.

The bees' system is not infallible – nor is that of any other animals. But if they get it wrong, they can switch track a lot faster than we humans.

And if the bees, the fish, the migrating birds or any other animal took more than two years out of every four to decide which direction to vote for, they'd all have gone extinct millions of years ago!