Democracy is In Our Genes

by John M Repp

Many people assume that groups of animals follow the lead of dominant individuals called alphas when the group has to make decisions. For example, when a herd needs to move to another area for feeding, how do they decide? That question had never been examined until two scientists decided to take a closer look. Their subjects were herds of red deer, social animals with dominant individuals.

Obviously, the deer cannot vote and count votes when they make a collective decision. But what the scientists, Conradt and Roper, observed was nevertheless democratic behavior. As the herd was lying down chewing its cud, when more than half the group stood up, the group was ready to move. Conradt and Roper clarified by explaining that sometimes, there is a small group of animals that do follow an alpha. This may happenwhen the difference in information is large, for example, when an older alpha knows the territory better. But in larger groups or herds, democratic collective decisions are the norm.

Other scientists studying African buffalo observed that when fifty percent plus one had pointed their heads in one direction, the group moved in that direction toward the next waterhole in the direction they were pointing.

The research on collective behavior of social insects is more advanced. Anna Dornhaus challenged the popular idea that the natural world is ruled by dominance and violence. She also questioned the assumption that great cognitive ability is needed for democratic behavior.

So, from honeybees to primates, clouds of gnats to flocks of birds, in nature, democracy works better than autocracy. Like Thomas Jefferson wrote in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” requires “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind”. In other words, as we would say today, democratic behavior or following the consent of the governed in large group, tribe or nation is “in our genes”.

Finally, Conradt and Roper found that democratic decisions are more beneficial for the group because less mistakes are made. Oligarchies follow the decisions of the very wealthy and politically active and ignore the needs and desires of the majority. That may be why oligarchies have declined and collapsed so many times in history.