Arguments For Evolutionary Democracy
[This is the third chapter from my book Evolutionary Basic Democracy (Palgrave, 2013). It offers arguments in favor of the theory that forms of democracy have independently evolved many times in this world, especially among non-humans!]
Abstract: I investigate the sciences for their use of the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’. Findings suggest that particles do not behave in democratic ways as they are driven by strict forces. The key is to investigate whether these forces allow for ‘democratic’ things to manifest when unicellular life emerges from the ‘prebiotic soup’. A small selection of eusocial and social nonhumans like gametes, crows and bonobos are described. We see that nonhumans do not practice complex democracy. Rather, nonhumans have perfected specific behaviours that we as humans explain as ‘democratic’
behaviours. A discussion follows arguing that evidence supports the idea of an underlying basic democracy. We should look to nonhuman democratic specialization to see what we can borrow from them to use in our moral systems.
This chapter approaches the argument of democracy’s evolution in the way scientists approach the formation of the earth and the human. We first look at old things: particles, prebiotics, amino acids and cellular life forms like sperm. Our main question is whether any of these things in theory or observation behave in ‘democratic’ ways. If, for example, prebiotics and amino acids are thought to cooperate to form life, all animate matter may then owe its existence to a democratic practice. As far as I can determine the literature on the subject of ‘democracy within the atom’ or its cognates does not exist. That makes it necessary for the first part of this chapter to use interviews with leading minds in the field. It is exploratory work. This chapter then introduces more complex nonhuman democratic practices like those found in slime-moulds, bonobos and crows. There is a substantive literature on the behaviour of these animals but little debate about what these democratic animal cultures mean for democracy.
The ontology of evolutionary basic democracy (EBD) becomes more complex at this juncture. As with our discussion of hybridity earlier in the work, Latour (1994: 795) is also central here.
I [ … ] want to show that the tyranny of the dichotomy between humans
and nonhumans is not inevitable because it is possible to give at least one
other myth in which it plays no role. If I succeed in giving some space for
the imagination, this would mean that we are not forever stuck with the
boring alternation of humans to nonhumans and back. It would be possible to imagine a space, that will later be studied empirically, in which we could observe the swapping of properties without always having to start from a priori definitions of humanity.
The quote above helps to explain my understanding of democracy’s entanglements. It is unlikely that ‘doing democracy’ or ‘being democratic’ is solely for the domain of humans. Many of the animals we think do democratic things exist today. They existed before Homo sapiens evolved into what we are today. This point suggests interspecies learning or morality swapping along the evolutionary road. Democracy entanglement frees our thinking. It promotes the idea of looking to nonhumans that are exceptionally good at one or more democratic things and borrowing those tools for us to use. In short, EBD is not bound to humanity or comparative dichotomies.
EBD understands democracy as something that began rather simply around the dawn of life. Two billion years ago unicellular life forms were in the habit of cooperating, competing and communicating with kin and other species. They were able to act as autonomous agents but to also recognize groups. They could work as a group. Members of the same species were equal. Leadership changed frequently depending on who was releasing the chemical signals and what those signals meant. The only matter that held power over these cells was environmental. It dictated the behaviour of cells as these life forms adapted to survive under specific conditions. Humans can also be put under that condition: we depend on air, water, food and shelter. Without these environmental factors would we, could we, still be democrats?
This is a delicate discussion, and a tricky one too; biologists and physicists have as many doubts about the origins of life as political philosophers do about the origins of democracy. The ensuing discussions about nonhumans and why some species are democratic or anti-democratic, and sometimes both, is a work that operates from grave to grave.1 We make best guesses based on the information available now. We depend on how we make sense out of this kind of information. The key is to be as capacious with our data as we can so as to make the best guesses humans can make at the present time. This is why we begin this chapter with an exploratory discussion.
Once a deeper introduction to the nonhuman evolutionary possibilities of democracy is complete, we will turn to discussing Boehm’s (2012) Ancestral Pan. That discussion offers one story of how types of democracy manifested into the complexity we observe today (a discussion we pick up in Chapter 4). This finally leads to Chapter 3 where we offer arguments against the evolutionary perspective.
Particles, amino acids, microbes and sperm
The Australian theoretical physicist Austin Lund describes the use of ‘democratic’ and ‘democracy’ as terms in the physics literature as a slightly varied body. Although Democritus, 2,400 years ago, was one of the first individuals to discuss atoms there appears to be no explicit focus on democracy in physics. There is however a body of articles that discusses the collective governance of physics by physicists. But that literature is not what we are after. ‘Democratic’ and ‘democracy’ are used in different ways depending on the context of the article. Lund is our guide.
‘Wrapping democracy’ pertains to string theory. String theory is one of the theories used to describe high-energy experiments. It often requires the inclusion of all fundamental forces – things like spin and attraction. For wrapping experiments to be democratic the physicist must allow for the inclusion of all possible wrappings (membranes) and all possible intersections (where membranes meet). By including a wider number of variables in the study it becomes more inclusive; the study is forced to deal with a larger plurality of parameters; and this helps to ensure that there is balanced equality in the study before it is deployed. This is done to ensure that the user can make equally valid choices. The term ‘democracy’ connotes egalitarianism, equality and capaciousness. The same can be said for ‘democratic mass matrix’, ‘democratic superstring field theory’, ‘democratic neutrinos’ and ‘flavor democracy’. Democracy in those works means egalitarianism.
In his explanation of wrapping in string theory, Lund brought up an interesting point. It has special importance for EBD. ‘To match the low
energy results that we have high confidence in, string theory must work in space-time dimensions larger than what we can experimentally see’. This is effectively reflected in what we are doing in this book. To prove the democracy results that we today have confidence in, democratic theory must work in space-time dimensions larger than what we can at this point experimentally see. That is an essential criterion of EBD. It helps to explain why the model I give in the Introduction focuses on time and space.
Itoh et al.’s (2001) use of ‘democratic module PV system’ is interesting. Their experiment ensures that the system has the same conditions for each variable that they are testing. They are looking for the best candidate from an equal field. Lund delivers poignantly with this remark: ‘interestingly from their data there does not appear to be any particular candidate who is best under all conditions. Much like politics I guess’ (in conversation, unpublished). Many of us would, I think, agree with that statement. This case, like the others looked at above, connotes the same starting point for all variables. The best performer is the one to focus on. That is an interesting understanding of democracy. It argues for agents to start under completely equal conditions and postulates that one or more agents will outperform the rest. A moral spin on this would be that agents under equal conditions should support and compete with each other to solve existing problems. That is possibly an ethos and telos for democracy out of physics or one put into physics.
The last and final physics and maths example we look at regards ‘quantum
democracy’. Segre (2010), a physicist who uses those terms, depends on the US-American economist Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem. This theorem, which is popular in voting and electoral studies, lists three criteria for fairness in voting systems. It argues that no rank-order voting system can process communal preferences if there are three or more options given to voters and if the voting system must meet certain criteria. The criteria in this case relates to Arrow’s conception of fairness. Physicists use the paradox because preferences, conditions and ‘voting’ can play a role in the evolution of their theories and experiments.
What Segre did was argue that a broader set of voting processes and a broader set of democratic conditions might resolve Arrow’s paradox. It is one possible way of making quantum democracy. The finding is fascinating because it suggests that the answers to some of our current problems come from embracing complexity and not shying away from it. It argues that physicists, economists and political scientists need to be more capacious with the conditions of their studies when trying to provide answers that will hold true for a vast plurality of agents. We, humans, need to be more inclusive and cleverer. When trying to understand the big picture of the natural world or the phenomena of humanity we need to be able to work with greater complexity – and understand it. Otherwise, answering these big questions becomes improbable if not impossible.
On the one hand this discussion promotes the idea that the natural world, with all of its forces and particles together, make things happen in a big cooperative way. On the other hand it demonstrates that it is the physicist who places his or her own understanding of democratic conditions on the study. And on the third hand (why only have two?), the discussion shows that what we think is democracy or democratic has utility not only for humans but for how we understand the natural world.
The Chinese physicist Zhi-zhong Xing explains that ‘democracy’ and democratic’ are used in relation to neutrinos, leptons and quarks. Physicists do this to manipulate their proofs to ensure that particles are even to each other. The explanation matches with what Lund says. This use of ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ has importance for a number of studies where particles need to be equal. That helps to explain why ‘quantum democracy’ is used as a term: it is possible to make a quantum field of particles identical by placing conditions here or there in the proof.
What Xing’s insight tells us is that physicists understand democracy as a place where agents are made equal. It was in the 1980s that the Swedish
physicist Cecilia Jarlskog first proposed making particles equal. She borrowed the method Sweden used in progressive taxation to try to keep the net income of its citizens equal. The approach to personal income in Sweden, a part of its approach to democracy, is responsible for helping to create a new tool for the sciences. It does not mean that particles of any
sort behave democratically which reinforces Lund’s argument.
But current theory from astrobiology postulates that prebiotics are precursors to amino acids. And amino acids among numerous other types of molecules are central actors in the spontaneous formation of life. Woese (1998) argues that all life might come from a Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) which is a hypothesis supported by the comparative phylogenetic analysis of ribonucleic acid (RNA). This suggests that both prebiotics and amino acids are central to any theory on democracy’s evolution. How did LUCA come alive? What was the process like between prebiotics, aminos and the other building blocks involved? I am curious to know whether molecules communicate with each other, why they form more complex structures, and how they go about doing this. Is a democratic process involved with the formation of life itself?
The German physico–chemist Uwe Meierhenrich (2008), who is one of the individuals responsible for the discovery of amino acids in outer space, offers some answers. His work details the behaviour of molecules as they form into objects of greater complexity. Below I present a short interview that I had with him:
Gagnon: What is a prebiotic in your work and how does it build amino acids? How then do amino acids lead to the creation of life and LUCA?
Meierhenrich: We try to simulate the physico-chemical conditions that are observed in outer space, the so-called interstellar space. From spectroscopic observations we know that simple molecules such as H2O [water], CO [carbon], CO2 [carbon dioxide], MeOH [methanol] and NH3 [ammonia] well occur in the gas phase in interstellar space. It is assumed that these molecules condense under interstellar conditions on dust particles while they are irradiated by interstellar and cosmic radiation. We simulate these processes in our laboratory. Under high vacuum we condense simple molecules on cold surfaces while irradiating with electromagnetic radiation; these conditions are very similar to conditions in interstellar space. Under such conditions we observe – somehow surprisingly – the formation of amino acids. Until today we have been able to identify 26 different amino acids. Some of them occur in proteins; others do not.
We assume that amino acids, once formed under interstellar conditions,
condense to dimers and trimers [molecular building blocks] in suitable
environments. Amino acids will further form oligomers, peptides, and
eventually proteins. For these condensation steps, liquid water is probably
required as well as the support of mineral surfaces. These surfaces are where the amino acids can adsorb and form peptide bonds to other amino acids in their local vicinity. These conditions are not yet established in detail in the laboratory and subject to intense (and fascinating) scientific debates.
Gagnon: I understand that there is a great complexity of molecular agents
during the early stages of life creation: amino acids and sugar molecules
have surprising asymmetrical qualities due to chirality [molecular orientation].How do these different molecules go about working together? More importantly, why do they work together?
Meierhenrich: In the early stages of life creation we assume indeed a great
complexity of molecules. Very different types of molecules occur in what some people call a ‘prebiotic soup’. Also asymmetric (chiral) molecules occur in this soup and these molecules are assumed to occur in their left-handed as well as in their right-handed form. It is remarkable to note that proteins contain exclusively ‘left-handed’ amino acids, whereas ‘right-handed’ amino acids are not used for the biomolecular architecture of proteins. So if we imagine that a helix forms which is just by chance composed of some ‘left-handed’ amino acid molecules, this helix can continue to grow by adding left amino acids. Once a wrong, ‘right-handed’ amino acid is added, the growth of this oligomer immediately stops. In scientific language this phenomenon is called ‘enantiomeric cross inhibition’. The wrong enantiomer inhibits the growth of the amino acid chain. The reason for this phenomenon is that a helix composed of left amino acids stabilizes itself, a helix composed of left and right amino acids is less stable. So the amino acids work together by constructing a stable molecule (the alpha helix). The formation of instable, labile reaction products is not favored.
Gagnon: Given your last answer, is it possible to argue that prebiotics and
amino acids behave in ‘democratic’ ways when they are forming life? Are
they communicating, is there decision-making, social learning, types of
interchangeable leadership, altruistic behaviour by individuals for the common good, or phenomena similar to this?
Meierhenrich: I hesitate to call the behavior of amino acids ‘democratic’.
During the molecular origins of life, the amino acids follow rules that seem
entirely imposed by thermodynamics and chemical kinetics. Stable products are formed; unstable products are less formed. Reactions showing high rate constants are favored over reactions with low rate constants. We should think about the question of whether thermodynamics and kinetics can give rise to molecular behavior that might be called ‘democratic’. The words ‘self-assembled’ or ‘self-organized’ are often used in a scientific context on specific arrangements of molecules. To my point of view these words do well describe the behavior of some molecules in certain environments.
Gagnon: Let us move a little bit out of this world. Given that aminos and prebiotics are found in objects from space and are hypothesized to be present in moon rocks and Martian materials, could we make the argument
that certain ‘democratic’ things are occurring on meteorites, distant planets,
and the universe at large?
Meierhenrich: Again, I agree that self-organizing molecules (such as
amphiphilic molecules) are present in samples of meteorites. These molecules can form larger structures such as vesicles and liposomes. These
amphiphilic molecules arrange themselves under specific conditions, such
as pH values.
This auto-organization is due to the fact that external, mostly electrostatic
interactions force each amphiphilic molecule to orient in space. Please note that it is not the individual molecule that ‘decides’ to orient. There is neither a choice for the molecule nor a decision to make. External physicochemical
forces drive the orientation of molecules. If a set of molecules is concerned, we call this ‘auto-organization’; I do not see a reason to call this comportment ‘democratic’.
The interview reveals important things for democracy. Particles cannot make a decision because there is no decision to make. For life to occur, however, there must be success in how a plurality of particles cooperate
and self-organize under specific conditions. We have to remember that this is an unimaginably gargantuan process of trial and error. As Meierhenrich reveals, particle chains can often form nothing if one molecule happens to go into the wrong place in a helix. It is up to chance then for particles, under the right conditions, to successfully form into chains and continuously build up into a mass capable of coming to life.
The spark between the inanimate and animate which leads to types of behaviour in the most basic forms of life is where the focus of future study should be directed. When does a mass of molecules suddenly become a cell? And when did this cell decide to undergo mitosis, swap genetics, sense chemical signals and all the rest of it? How did this lead to us with our big brains, morals and self-awareness? To me it seems that these things just happened. I think inanimate matter came to life in an unimaginable amount of times over 13 billion years in the known universe. In some places like earth these sparks led to phenomena like mitosis. These hardy cells endured harsh conditions. Or they died and new ones emerged. What this discussion suggests is that democratic ways of existing were most likely created by chance with the many LUCAs during the dawns of life itself. Democratic phenomena have been evolving for billions of years and, just like their numerous antitheses, they are a collection of techniques among many for the propagation of life.
Humans, us moral creatures, and other possibly moral animals, decide to behave as democrats. We do not want to be violent autocrats because we value things we are in the habit of calling democratic ideals. Examples of the tension between both extremes are endemic to the history of humanity. Our conscious decision to focus on democracy, to be democrats, and to democratize is a step in the evolution of our species. We only have to figure out what we mean by it.
Evidence from the sciences continues as we scale to slightly more complicated forms of life. Sperm cells are an interesting case. Millions
of individuals are in development together within the testes and are
released together in the ejaculation. The behaviour of these many gametes
changes depending on the species we look at. Böhmer et al. (2005) shows that chemotaxis (the ability to detect chemical signalling) is used by sperm to find one or more eggs. Kaupp et al. (2008) show that each individual has photoreceptors and olfactory neurons: sperm can ‘see’ and ‘smell’ to some extent. Sperm cooperate and compete with each other. They are thought to be capable of rapidly evolving in response to changes in their environment (Schärer et al., 2011). One type of sperm from deer mice has the capacity to recognize their genetic kin (in the case of multiple mating by a female with several males) and form ‘trains to speed up their passage to the egg’ (Fisher and Hoekstra, 2010: 801).
Among the extraordinary adaptations driven by sperm competition is the
cooperative behaviour of spermatozoa. By forming cooperative groups,
sperm can increase their swimming velocity and thereby gain an advantage in intermale sperm competition.
These cooperating ‘brother’ sperm also have the ability to decide to ‘prematurely trigger the reaction that is used to bore through the egg’s wall.
This speeds the train on its way, but amounts to suicide for the sperm that triggered the reaction’ (Whitman, 2010). Oxford University’s Kevin Foster, professor of evolutionary biology, says that the gametes involved in these trains enter a fair lottery. When triggering the bore reaction, the average payout is greater than the average cost as each gamete has, under current understandings, an equal chance of joining with the egg. In certain systems some sperm have a better chance at fertilizing the egg than others due to slight genetic superiority. Biologists are uncertain over whether sperm have any agency – they could be controlled by the male that released them. It seems, however, that there is a type of fairness between sperm.
Foster continues. Gametes offer another example of cooperation. Individuals enact a process that biologists call meiosis. This is gene recombination that occurs between individual gametes. Current thinking
shows that meiosis happens for gene repair, making new genetic combinations to deal with changing environments (particularly to avoid
parasites), and breaking up self-interested gene combinations. What we
do not know is whether this meiosis is a forced behaviour or whether it
is emblematic of some basic system of autonomous agents.
The study of how gametes interact with each other is a nascent field.
Some observations allow us to argue that gametes behave in certain,
specific democratic ways. We know that there is fierce but non-violent
competition and that there is also cooperation. If gametes can in theory
or observation be argued to have ongoing types of democratic behaviour
this will support the notion that democracy can be based on both competition and cooperation: not simply one or the other.
Just as we saw at the end of Chapter 1 similar arguments are being
made about bacteria.
Microbes have traditionally been thought of as free-living individual
(selfish) organisms that display little group identity and group behavior.
Viruses of microbes are even less thought of in the context of a role in
group identity. However, we have recently come to realize that our world is predominantly prokaryotic, such as seen with the most visible example of life from space: blooms of cyanobacteria … We have also come to realize that this prokaryotic world is itself often communal (living in blooms, mats, biofilms) and that group behaviors are also prevalent. Prokaryotes thus provide the beginnings of molecular systems that regulate group identity. (Villareal, 2009: 27)
This discussion of particles, prebiotics and sperm is a heuristic designed
to shine the light on the possible origins of democracy itself. What it helps to do is establish the possibility of an evolutionary origin to democracy – similar to what has been proposed about the origins of violence and cooperation. It shows that EBD takes a very broad focus on time and space. But the discussion we had in the first half of this chapter represents a body of unknown literature. There is a more established, still little known, body of works about more complex nonhumans. It is to these we now turn to.
Bonobos, mole rats, slime-moulds and crows
The bonobo is an animal sometimes called ‘the forgotten ape’. And we do not know as much about them as we do, for example, about chimpanzees.
Biologists consider bonobos more social and less violent than chimpanzees. Bonobo females frequently interact with each other. For the most part, males do not kill each other over females. And intergroup conflict is moderate (Furuichi, 2011). Certain chimpanzee societies on the other hand tend to suffer from violent males, less social females, cases of infanticide, rape and murder during intergroup relations. Sometimes murder or rape occurs within the group. Both bonobos and chimpanzees behave in their own democratic ways. In the case of chimps, their violent streak suppresses the dimensions of democracy. Still, biologists focus on chimpanzees because of their cooperative hunting, tool use, politics, self-awareness and ability to wage types of war (Waal, 1995). These are human traits but mostly not democratic traits. Humans are suggested to have split from the bonobo/chimpanzee common ancestor some 5 to 8 million years ago (Waal, 1995; Roach, 2011).
Certain chimp societies living in western parts of Africa behave differently to chimps in the east. Where there are no gorillas to compete with for food, and more bountiful resources, chimps tend to behave more like bonobos (Roach, 2011). This suggests that resource scarcity is, at least for chimps, a determiner of their political behaviour. During the tough times, survival depends on being violent. For bonobos survival depends on females sticking together and pushing males to the periphery. Bonobos deal with food scarcity by forming smaller groups to forage until abundance returns. Conflicts for bonobos are frequent but are usually settled through vocalizations and sex – although sometimes through violence. Chimpanzees seem to settle conflicts mostly through violence and male domination although alpha females sometimes act as intermediaries during intragroup conflict.
Bonobos are remarkable because of their peaceful type of existence. This is why we focus on them in this chapter. Waal (1995: 82) shares that bonobos have egalitarian and female-centred societies. Bonobos usually use communication and brief sex instead of violence to settle the many
disputes that arise in their societies. They are also in the habit of soothing
upset individuals until the problem dissipates.
Although selecting the chimpanzee as the touchstone of hominid evolution represented a great improvement [the former focus was on baboons], at least one aspect of the former model did not need to be revised: male superiority remained the natural state of affairs. In both baboons and chimpanzees, males are conspicuously dominant over females; they reign supremely and often brutally. It is highly unusual for a fully grown male chimpanzee to be dominated by any female. (Waal, 1995: 82)
For decades, scenarios of human evolution have depicted our ancestors as ‘killer apes,’ progressing from aggression to hunting and warfare. While work on some monkeys and apes (notably baboons and chimpanzees) supported this view, studies of the most recently recognized ape species, the bonobo, both in the wild and in captivity, certainly do not. (Waal, 1997: 22)
Bonobos challenge previous assumptions that our nearest ancestors were
male-centric and naturally violent or oppressive. They communicate using facial expressions, body-language and various high-pitch sounds. Humans have numerous ways of settling conflicts, and chimpanzees do too. But bonobos are in the habit of using sexual acts to diffuse tension, reaffirm the group’s social fabric and reconcile after disputes. If two males for example happen to fight over mating with a female, they eventually return to hug each other. This, some biologists say, is sometimes accompanied by kissing. Mutual scrotal rubbing and masturbation are observed phenomena. Females also use mutual genital rubbing for reconciliation.
Although the point has some contention to it, the bulk of biologists seem to favour the view that violence and warfare are improbable with bonobos. Aggressive behaviour is still present but restrained. Two males in conflict communicate without interrupting one another (Waal, 1997:25). Individuals, usually females, can leave their natal group when encountering a different group and possibly join them. The apes are today renowned for their achievements in peaceful conflict resolution and sensitivity to others (Waal, 1997).
Just imagine that we had never heard of chimpanzees or baboons and had known bonobos first. We would at present most likely believe that early hominids lived in female-centered societies, in which sex served important social functions and in which warfare was rare or absent. In the end, perhaps the most successful reconstruction of our past will be based not on chimpanzees or even on bonobos but on a three-way comparison of chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. (Waal, 1995: 88).
US-American social anthropologist Christopher Boehm (2012) argues
that comparing humans, bonobos and chimpanzees is useful. It helps
to understand how humans became moral beings. We are able to make
conscious decisions. The bonobos appear morally favourable to democrats
– certain chimpanzees less so. Both species, our cousins, highlight that we were never predestined for anything. The decisions made by certain humans in specific times and places led to more democracy or less democracy. We are a mixture of both with the capacity for acting like both. Today we value peace over violence, sharing over selfishness and altruism over deceit. We are collectively evolving.
We gain further insight by moving down in animal size to more distant relatives. Mole rats, of which there are various kinds, live in underground tunnel systems. Two types (naked mole rats and Damaraland mole rats) are eusocial.2 They labour, digging tunnels in search of tubers, insects and other roots ‘for the good of the colony’ (Milius, 2006). Workers carry food back to a communal repository. These mole rats communicate using more than 16 vocalizations. They have communal toilets which, when full, eventually become blocked by purposefully built walls. New toilet rooms are then dug. They redigest their own faeces for vitamin D and offer faeces to the queen when she is pregnant and cannot redigest her own. There are even ‘couch-potato’ males in the colony who do little work during arid periods and eat the food brought back by others.
Mole rats behave in this eusocial way because of the harsh conditions they live in. They must cooperate for survival (Bennett and Faulkes, 2000). The freeloading males are thought to store fat for the rainy season. After the rains, which soften the soil, these males frantically dig tunnels in the hopes of finding a different colony or female to mate with. This practice is seen in honeybees too. Drones, or male bees, will lounge about begging food off their sisters. They then use this energy to fly around looking for a queen to mate with: drones are essentially flying penises. These ‘lazy’ males are needed to dash off from the family and promote genetic diversity by breeding with a female from a different family, or, in the case of mole rats, get eaten by a snake. This is apparently a common occurrence.
That being said, mole rats are dominated by a queen. Their society is hierarchical. Bigger rats have more status than smaller rats (Yosida and
Okanoya, 2009). Without a queen females will fight violently to murder
each other until one dominant female has emerged triumphant. This type of sororicide is seen in bees and wasps too. For mole rats, the queen walks over other rats (instead of sliding past them which is the usual custom between rats) and at times charges another individual’s nose with her own as if to put that individual in their place. Despite the eusociality of these animals they are not able to make decisions collectively. They are biologically driven to make the colony work which is what bees, ants,
termites, wasps and other insects and mammals do. Can we argue then
that a type of democracy is present in mole rat society?
The only escape for an individual mole rat is to wall themselves off from the colony. The individual does this in the hopes of reaching another lone individual of the opposite sex with which they might begin their own colony and rule over their own offspring. I would say that although the mole rats communicate and work for the greater good, they are not a democracy. They do certain democratic things well but the system they evolved is a form of monarchy or a type of suppressed democracy. The queen does not hold council. Larger mole rats do not act as elites checking centralized power.
Now slime mould, the social amoeba, is another nonhuman entity that has ‘democratic’ traits. There are over one hundred slime mould species, each with different behaviours. This creature is a cross between an animal and a fungus. It thrives in moist, warm, soil covered with dead leaves and other edible things like dung. It feeds on bacteria and other amebae (Waddell and Vogel, 1985). Although slime moulds share more genes with animals than they do with other fungi, they have no central nervous system. Slime moulds reproduce using spores. Once a spore (basically a flying amoeba) lands on a food source it emerges to feed as a unicellular body. For larger species this body travels at about 1 cm per hour in search for more food. Smaller species tend not to travel. Once the food is eaten, this cell communicates with nearby cells which then come together to form a larger multicellular body. This body, which looks like a small slug, travels to the surface of the soil. It reorganizes its cells and becomes a type of mushroom-looking stalk. It induces spore formation. The slime mould eventually releases another round of flying amoeba that float to other places and the process begins once more.
It is important to know that some slime mould biologists argue certain
species to have evolved cheating mechanisms. Certain cells have evolved
a trait that denies other cells from moving past the stalk-forming stage.
Some call this cheating. Others are calling this altruistic behaviour on
the part of the cells that form the stalk. Without those stalk cells that
eventually die the propagation of their species would not be possible.
It is another example of cooperation and competition at the same time.
Both are effective and needed in this case to achieve the telos of the slime
mould: successful propagation.
Slime moulds have a type of intelligence. If cut up into pieces and scattered
in a maze that has food in the middle the creature knows how to unite itself and navigate the maze. It finds the food and begins eating it (Nakagaki, 2001). Slime moulds travel upwards from beneath the soil to the surface. They can recognize light, temperature and types of gas (the difference between oxygen, an attractant, and ammonia, a repellent). When cells unite for migratory purposes we call them ‘slugs’ (Bonner and Lamont, 2005). When they reach the surface and begin their reproductive cycle we call them ‘stalks’. Certain slime moulds practice bacteria husbandry. They effectively farm bacteria and carry them as a portable food source during stalk formation (Boomsma, 2011).
These creatures are capable of coordinated movement and organized
behaviour between different amoebas. That is why I include them in this
chapter. Amoebas work together. During favourable conditions each
individual cell wanders its own way eating its preferred food. But when
conditions worsen, the cells release a type of chemical which signals
others to band together (Nishikawa et al., 2005). It is collective action
with no recognizable ruler. Communal consciousness drives survival.
Evolution in response to the forces of nature might be the ruler in this
sense. This unicellular life form cooperates with others to propagate
their species. Bozzone (1997: 565) tells that certain slime mould species
eat different foods so as not to be direct competitors. This is a type of
inter-species cooperation or niche-sharing.
Crows are the final and briefest example that we look at before moving
onto the next chapter. Izawa (2008) calls these birds ‘feathered primates’ due to their social structures. He argues that Jungle Crows can identify other individuals, what they are doing and then use this social structure which changes throughout the day or activity to the bird’s own advantage (Izawa, 2007). Crows, like other corvids (i.e. magpies and jays), are able to learn from one another. In an experiment that involves trapping several crows and banding them while wearing a specific mask,
researchers documented how those crows captured, and those crows
watching the capture, communicated to others about who the dangerous
human is. Parents taught their juveniles and adults learned from other
adults about the bad mask. Those crows captured were better able to
distinguish between neutral masks and the bad mask. Crows transmitted
this information over approximately 1.2 kilometres. The communal
memory of the crows about this bad mask lasted five years for one test
site (Cornell et al., 2011).
Crows have a habit of foraging for food socially. They sometimes do this
using tools. While migrating to wintering grounds, American crows land
where other crows are foraging as this suggests that food is available (Ward
and Raim, 2011). They can even differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar human and jackdaw voices (Wascher et al. 2012) which aids corvids in identifying potentially useful individuals in multi-species flocks.
The four examples of nonhuman ‘democratic’ societies that I draw on
above establish certain points. Nonhumans have evolved practices and
behaviours that are dependent on their environments. Humans consider
these practices to be ‘democratic’. The list below shows the ‘democratic’
traits that we discuss in this chapter. The list relates well to the more
complex of the nonhumans:
- conflict resolution;
- sensitivity to others;
- social learning;
- communal behaviour;
- self-awareness (this is important for sensing environmental
- awareness of kin and non-kin from the same species;
- and awareness of, if not communication with, individuals from different species.
The items listed above are used by animals to ensure their survival. Biologists argue that these democratic behaviours increase fitness – or
the likelihood of one or more animals surviving. We think the teleology
of social animals is to achieve successful reproduction. In that logic,
democratic behaviours are central for the survival of species. Recalling Table 1.1, that survey of nonhumans demonstrates that these survival
techniques are common. Different basic democratic behaviours are useful
for nonhumans: even certain chimpanzees get out of violent power
politics when the times are good.
What we also learn from these nonhumans is that most cannot decide
how their democracies will manifest. Mole rats, ants and bees are stuck
in evolutionary determinism due to their limited cognitive abilities.
Humans can decide whether they will be peaceful or violent. We decide
whether we will work alone or together. We manipulate the ways in
which we communicate. We can cooperate or dominate. Democratic
behaviours and their antitheses are observable in nature. They are
observable in humans.
The point I make here concerns the list of nonhuman democratic traits. To me it seems that the first seven items are normative desires in human societies across a broad swathe of planetary time and space. This is why Seeley (2011, 2013) argues that humans can learn from the effective
decision-making of bees. Or why Waal states that we can make moral
judgements about our own behaviour by contrasting bonobos and chimpanzees. Humans evolved with democracy and autocracy but I think
there was always the underlying will to work in democratic ways – the
way that many nonhumans do because cooperation brings more benefits
to the individual. No dominant single individual can provide what communal governance gives. The argument that humans are predisposed to
democracy and to the constant resistance to violence and domination is
one that is supported by nonhuman evidence.
Ancestral Pan and the complexity of democracy
Boehm’s concept of the Ancestral Pan species, or the animal that existed
before humans branched off from bonobos and chimpanzees, has basic
behaviour. Ancestral Pan had male and female mediators during conflicts.
They were able to create agreements within the group and with other groups to reduce violence. And they lived in egalitarian bands where leadership rotated frequently – possibly on a moment to moment basis. Our ancestors were careful to deny the type of political escalation that occurs primarily during alpha-male competition: it is injurious to the greater good and should be avoided. But these systems sometimes failed. Some bands were violent, some individuals inconsolable and some alpha-males too strong. Peace between bands sometimes could not happen. Individuals may have murdered each other in fits of rage, jealousy or through similar motives.
I think this helps to explain how and why different democracies
sprang as humans continued to grow in numbers, spread over more
spaces and evolve. Tensions between peace and violence existed for us
over millions of years. Different conditions forced different innovations.
Climate change, population increases, technological innovations, arms
scaling, empire building, ideological domination, kin over community
(Fukuyama, 2011), promoting the self at the expense of others, and different
types of domination forced subalterns, injured peers and moralistic elites to make changes to their societies and to themselves.
Pathos, our emotions, is an interesting indicator for natural inclinations
to democracy. I suspect that there will be an increasingly long list of phenomena across planetary space and time where humans are found to have behaved in democratic ways. More evidence will show where humans worked together to resist domination and where humans made democracies for themselves. These things decayed, were voted into
suicide or were sublimated by irresistible forces. It appears to me as a
pendulum: swinging from one side to another across time, space and
species. Are we today capable of breaking out of this pattern? Can we
hold the pendulum to the democratic side to deny its movements to the
1 This phrase comes from a discussion with the theoretical physicist Omri
2 Eusociality has various definitions. Here, in this chapter, it means a society uses a number of cooperative techniques to propagate its species.
Articulations of democracy
Boundaries of democracy
Breeds of democracy
Characterizations of democracy
Classifications of democracy
Collections of democracy
Conceptions of democracy
Concepts of democracy
Conceptualisations of democracy
Conceptualizations of democracy
Constructions of democracy
Contours of democracy
definitions of democracy
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Demarcations of democracy
descriptions of democracy
Designs of democracy
Details of democracy
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Exemplifications of democracy
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Expositions of democracy
Families of democracy
Figures of democracy
Formalisations of democracy
Formalizations of democracy
forms of democracy
Frames of democracy
Groups of democracy
Ideals of democracy
Ideas of democracy
Ideations of democracy
Interpretations of democracy
kinds of democracy
meanings of democracy
Models of democracy
Modes of democracy
Molds of democracy
Moulds of democracy
Number of democracy
Numbers of democracy
Orders of democracy
Outlines of democracy
Patterns of democracy
Profiles of democracy
Representations of democracy
Schemes of democracy
Sets of democracy
Sorts of democracy
Species of democracy
Structures of democracy
Styles of democracy
theories of democracy
types of democracy
varieties of democracy