How to Sway a Baboon Despot

What other species can teach us about democracy

Esther Aarts

Early LAST year, more than 70 years after its publication, George Orwell’s Animal Farm appeared on The Washington Post’s best-seller list. A writer for the New York Observer declared the novel—an allegory involving a government run by pigs—a “guidepost” for politics in the age of Donald Trump. A growing body of research, however, suggests that animals may offer political lessons that are more than allegorical: Many make decisions using familiar political systems, from autocracy to democracy. How these systems function, and when they falter, may be telling for Homo sapiens.

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As in human democracies, the types of votes in animal democracies vary. When deciding where to forage, for instance, Tonkean macaques line up behind their preferred leader; the one with the most followers wins. Swans considering when to take flight bob their heads until a “threshold of excitability” is met, at which point they collectively rise into the sky. Honeybee colonies needing a new home vote on where to go: Thomas Seeley, a Cornell biologist, has found that scout bees investigate the options and inform the other bees of potential sites through complex “waggle dances” that convey basic information (distance, direction, overall quality). When a majority is won over by a scout’s campaign, the colony heads for its new home.

Research also shows that animal democracies, like human ones, can go awry. For instance, Seeley found that bees sometimes chose a mediocre—even terrible—site over an objectively better option. When this happened, it was invariably because they had “satisficed”—that is, settled for a plausible choice that came in early, rather than waiting for more options. Seeley told me he once saw several bees return to a hive and perform “unenthusiastic, lethargic” dances. With no great choices, they began coalescing around the best of the middling ones. At the last minute, though, “one bee came back, and she was so excited,” Seeley said. “She danced and danced and danced. She must have found something wonderful. But it was too late.” The bees had picked their candidate; momentum carried the day.

Why do bees take a vote to begin with, though? In 2013, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, the London School of Economics, and the University of Sussex used game theory to show that animals’ willingness to behave democratically redounds to their benefit. Compared with decisions handed down by tyrant leaders, democratic decisions are less likely to be flawed. Moreover, when animals have a chance to register their opinion, the gap between the average individual’s preferred outcome and the actual outcome tends to be smaller than it would be if the decision were made by fiat. In this way, animal democracy is stabilizing; few get their way, but most are relatively content.

Even in despotic animal societies—where leaders dominate social life—the masses sometimes have a say. When an olive baboon wants its group to relocate, it can buck the leadership by walking in its preferred direction until a majority has joined it. During these campaigns, the social hierarchy seems to disappear: Every vote counts, no matter the baboon’s social standing.

Or take Botswana’s wild dogs. Although packs tend to follow the lead of a dominant pair, a lesser dog who’s keen to hunt can make its case through “rapid nasal exhalations”—essentially, sneezing. If other dogs are interested, they join in, holding a vote via sneeze. According to Reena H. Walker, one of the researchers who first wrote about this behavior, a group of 10 or more sneezing dogs can override the top dogs: At that point, Walker says, the dominant dogs “will have to jump on board” with the hunt.

Group decisions need not come easy—in fact, clashing perspectives may lead to superior outcomes. Seeley notes that bees make wiser decisions when they “have different backgrounds, bodies of knowledge, and experiences.” For example, nest-site scouts who have worked as foragers may explore areas where they’ve previously foraged—areas other scouts might not investigate. Variety among scouts thus encourages a wider array of potential sites, and more-thorough vetting of options. As long as animals share the same broader goal, a diversity of viewpoints does not tear their society apart but strengthens it, leading to better results for all.