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Is nature democratic? Not all the votes are in

Nature metaphors speak of top dogs, queen bees and kings of the jungle, but not many senators of the savannah and voter bees. Is democracy unnatural?
Image: Bees
Honey bees walk on a comb hive at the Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., in August 2007.Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Nature metaphors speak of top dogs, queen bees and kings of the jungle, but not many senators of the savannah and voter bees. Is democracy unnatural?

Actually, democracy, in the sense of collective decisions based on the motivations of the majority, guides the social interactions and group behavior of many species from honey bees to chimpanzees.

Though they have a queen, honey bees don't live in a monarchy.

“There is no social hierarchy in a bee colony,” said Brian Johnson, a professor of entomology at the University of California at Davis told Discovery News. “The queen is just an egg-laying machine. She is more important than the average worker to colony survival, but she is not a governor in any sense of the word.”

Though there is no formal voting process, the hive acts according to the information gathered by the majority of hive members.

“This is crucial for bees because they have limited information at the individual level and can make good decisions only when they pool their information-gathering and processing skills,” Johnson said.

Calling bee social behavior “democracy,” or even saying that they make decisions, runs the risk of anthropomorphism, or assigning human qualities to animals, said Norman Gary, professor emeritus in entomology at UC Davis.

“Decision-making requires awareness of options and insects don't have that,” said Gary in an interview. “The bees are programmed to go out and react to stimuli.”

BLOG: The Psychology of Political Flip-Flops
Bees may not have developed a hive republic, but is there a deer democracy governing the forests?

“In red deer, it is in the interest of group members to stay together (e.g., in order to detect predators better),” Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex told Discovery News. “Therefore, individuals benefit if they synchronize their activities and movements, and they have to decide such things collectively.”

Honey bees share the collective goal of hive survival at the expense of the individual, but life is not so simple for red deer groups, said Conradt. Individual deer have different physiological needs, and not every herd movement will benefit each individual.

“In such circumstances, there is a conflict of interest, and individuals pay a 'cost' when synchronizing (they might forgo their own optimal activity in order to stay with the group),” said Conradt.

So, like members of a political party who don't agree with everything their candidate says, yet vote for him anyway, red deer stick with the herd because it's better than being abandoned. Human's closest relative, the chimpanzee, takes decision-making beyond the party politics of the deer-mocracy.

BLOG: Mother Nature Gets Her Day in Court

“I describe in Chimpanzee Politics how the alpha male needs broad support to reach the top spot,” said Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center and psychology professor at Emory University. “He needs some close allies and he needs many group members to be on his side.”

Although chimpanzee strongmen can rise to power, they often become bullies and are eventually deposed and exiled or even killed. Chimp consensus builders form more stable social structures by offering perks to supporters.

“The majority of alpha males seem rather of the supported type, maybe quite small (although not too small or unhealthy), and spends a lot of time grooming allies, sharing meat or females with them, and other ways of keeping them on his side,” de Waal said.

“This sounds democratic to me, as well as the fact that the group puts limits on alpha behavior,” said de Waal. “For example, if the alpha male attacks a juvenile using his canine teeth, the group may revolt, thus showing the limits of alpha's power.”

Human democracy may have analogues in the natural world, but no other animal has taken collective decision-making as far as humans.

“One big difference between collective decision making between humans and animals is deliberation,” said Conradt. “Humans can discuss issues prior to making collective decisions in a sophisticated manner that is not open to animals.”

For all our complexity, humans make decisions using brains evolved through eons of survival in the natural world.

Instinctual reactions to stimuli guide human behavior more than many appreciate, Gary said.

“People are more like insects than insects are like people,” Gary said.

Democracy, as a political system, seems to grow from instincts inherited from our ape ancestors, which were forged by ages of natural selection for optimized group decision making.