[This conversation with Thomas Seeley was first published in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]
Citation guide: Seeley, Thomas and Jean-Paul Gagnon. 2014. “Nonhuman Democratic Practice: Democracy Among the Bees”. In Gagnon, JP, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought. Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 148-158.
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Seeley: I do so by referring to the dictionary and noting that democracy is defined as a government or group organization in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly
through representatives. So, to my mind, this means that in the biological world we have democracy in group-living species in which the decisions that pertain to the group as a whole are made by many members of the group rather than one despotic individual.
Gagnon: Your most recent monograph, Honeybee Democracy (2011), describes the democratic typology of Apis mellifera. How is it that honeybees, so far removed from humans, can be said to be democratic?
Seeley: They can be said to be democratic because even though they have a so-called queen bee, the queen is actually not involved in making decisions for the group. She is the focus of the colony genetically but not in terms of decision making. The decisions for the colony are made democratically by the worker bees in the colony. Again, it’s a situation where the power is distributed broadly among the members of the colony and that is why I like to invoke the idea of democracy. I do so partly to emphasize the fact that the queen is not the ‘Royal Decider’ in a honeybee colony, but rather simply a ‘Royal Egg Layer’. One of the key things that I would like people to understand from my book, Honeybee Democracy, is that democracy is not just a human phenomenon that was invented say 4400 years ago in Athens, Greece, but is something that has existed in biological systems for millions of years.
There’s a logic to democracy and it’s been favoured by natural selection. So it’s something that we should appreciate and consider. It really does have its place in our biological past. It’s a good way of making decisions in certain situations.
Gagnon: That is an interesting point – and one that I draw on in my book Evolutionary Basic Democracy (2013). Democracy is a phenomenon not solely limited to the human animal. And, it’s increasingly argued to be something that existed millennia before the rise of civilizations in Hellas, Mesopotamia and North Africa. I would like to stress that democracy is now not considered to have been an invention of the Greeks. We are increasingly teasing out evidence from Egypt and Assyria for example showing that similar institutions and cultural practices existed in those polities before Ancient Athens ingrained its own democracy.
Francis Fukuyama’s arguments are relevant to the point you made above. His latest book, The Origins of Political Order (2011), stresses that humans have most likely always been social creatures. It seems that this opinion is widely shared. Fukuyama traced this argument of sociability back to our shared common ancestor with chimpanzees. That being said, it would have been good to have seen more engagement by Fukuyama with the comparative literature on bonobos, gorillas and Boehm’s (2012) concept of Ancestral Pan. Nevertheless, Fukuyama’s technique was also one used by Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes in their perceptions of the social contract and the rise of the human. The benefit Fukuyama has is the ability to draw on much more developed knowledge from the biological sciences. This gives us insights that were not available, for example, to Rousseau and Locke. It’s highly unlikely that we were ever unitary, anti-social creatures (sorry Hobbes) that only approached each other for protection or for other wants or needs. Rather, I think, we were more like the honeybees. We are social creatures and have been all along. That is why I find the argument you make at the end of your book so convincing. What do you think of that position?
Seeley: The anthropologists tell us that our early human ancestors were hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups and that group membership was critical to their survival. They had to make decisions. We see democratic decision making in the remaining hunter-gatherers today. They have to make decisions of when to move, where to move to, and things like that. These decisions are made on the basis of long discussions among the members of a group.
To the best of my knowledge, these small hunter-gatherer groups function without a strong hierarchy of status hierarchy, so their decisions are made by discussions among all, or nearly all, of the group’s adult members. So the evidence indicates that democratic decision making does go back to the origins of humanity and in both cases, bees and humans, the fundamental logic is that when you have got complicated or important problems to solve, it can be very beneficial to tap into the knowledge and brain power of all the members of your group.
For example, some individuals will have more experience in one location or more experience with a particular task than others. There’s a real logic to using the collective knowledge of your group’s members rather than relying only on the knowledge of a leader.
Gagnon: Do you think humans evolved through democratic organization?
Seeley: Again what the anthropologists tell us about the early human existence was that it was small groups (very cohesive groups) in which individuals have lots of repeated interactions. They had to work together and the studies of them today indicate that their decision making is distributed among the individuals.
Sometimes an older individual with more experience will have more influence, but that individual is not a despot. That person is not calling the shots. It has to get input from the other individuals. That is evidently how humans started and that is much like what we sometimes see in the primates today. But of course when humans evolved city-states we got into these autocratic situations where differences in resources got amplified, could be exaggerated, and we are still working through that today. That is of course where the Greeks, Ancient Indians, pre-State Chinese, indigenous Africans and Amerindians made a big step forward in exploring an alternative. This balance between democratic and autocratic organization is something that is still getting worked out in human society. It’s been played out over millennia.
Gagnon: Humans, bees, chimpanzees and our shared ancestor: it begs whether democratic techniques were being used in the ‘primordial soup’ of planetary life. Considering that bacteria are increasingly argued to be social creatures that often use observable democratic practices, we might be able to argue that yes, we did evolve through democratic living. I think it’s important to point out that we both are not arguing democracy to have been the sole power in evolution. Just as some animals were doing things socially – there were others doing power relations on every shade between democracy and total autocratic despotism. It’s that usually the story we receive is one of the despotic type. We have not in the history of thinking about human evolution given much credence to democracy and its effects on evolution across time and space. This is especially so in regard to nonhumans.
Before asking the next question, I do however need to make a point that came through during a discussion with Ayesha Tulloch, a postdoctoral biologist at the University of Queensland. Tulloch raised an important issue. Many individuals in the world, who do not actively work with social animals, often express amazement at the feats of nonhumans. These ‘feats’ are often sent by amateurs to news media who then publish this content. It’s popular stuff. But why are many of us amazed to see a crow, for example, drop a nut in front of a car so that it can be cracked under the pressure of the car’s tyres? Are we so arrogant to think that nonhumans are incapable of thinking in ways that we can understand? There is the tendency for individuals to anthropomorphocize nonhumans that are observed to be doing things ‘cleverly’ or ‘like people’. Why not the other way around? I agree with Tulloch that we need to drop the anthropocentric arrogance and to understand that nonhumans are, in general, ‘cleverer’ than we most often give them credit for. We are just scratching the surface of nonhumans – we are bound to uncover further nuances of their social relations, intelligence and democratic or autocratic behaviours.
Coming from that humbler perspective, I’m curious to know what insects or animal species have their own democratic typology?
Seeley: There are quite a few. Democratic, or distributed, decision making occurs widely in species where, again, individuals live in groups. These are species in which there are strong benefits to group living, that is, ones in which individuals cannot leave a group without getting into dangerous situations. This could be something like geese (Canada geese) when they are travelling. They have to make a decision. They settle for the night to rest and feed and then in the morning they have to decide when to take off and move: so they make a democratic decision on when to move and where to go.
Democracy has also been studied in troops of baboons, for example, the Hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) that live in the mountains of Ethiopia. A troop will spend the night up on a rocky mountaintop where it’s safe, then, in the morning it will decide where to go for that day to get food or get water or whatever. The members of a troop make a democratically distributed decision about what to do. What’s perhaps most remarkable is that in these animals, be it bees or baboons, they do not do it verbally.
They do not have verbal communication about the issue and yet they are able to vote and express opinions and work things out to come to an agreement. For biologists, that is what (like with the bees) we find so fascinating because the logic is the same as human democracy, but the mechanisms are different.
Gagnon: That reminds me of another example that Fukuyama drew on: it involved the chimpanzees of Burger’s Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands (see the work of Frans De Waal, 1989, for more). A group of wild chimpanzees had been captured and brought to the zoo for study. One elder female chimpanzee, the alpha female called ‘Mama’, was the chimpanzee to which the males would come for conflict resolution. For example, two males had come to some kind of confrontation and they would both go running and screaming to ‘Mama’. And there would ensue some kind of catharsis in her arms. The conflict was resolved without, I suppose, our normal use of language. That being said, for some chimpanzee societies, where no alpha female exists, I think conflicts between males are usually settled violently.
Seeley: Let us go through the baboons because I think it’s actually very revealing. You have got this group of baboons in the morning. They’ve woken up, they are starting to stir. One individual wants to go one direction because it knows that it found some good food there the previous day or that it’s thirsty and wants to go get water.
What does it do? Well, it starts moving off in the direction it wants to go and then it looks back and it sees if anybody is joining it. So it has expressed its view, its opinion and its vote. If others join it they then too express their vote of support for going in that direction. The individual that started will keep going, but if nobody votes with him or her, then he or she comes back and they wait. Then somebody else puts out an option with the process starting anew. You can easily see the parallels to a committee meeting where somebody proposes a solution to a problem.
If it is not an attractive proposal, then it goes down like a lead balloon and dies a natural death. On the other hand, if somebody proposes a good idea, then somebody else might say ‘hmm, that is interesting but how would it work this way or how would it solve that problem?’ and then somebody else would do similar and it gets a life. It attracts interest and it develops support. So that is how it can work in these animal societies and of course that is what’s going on with these bees.
A bee comes back to the swarm cluster [a phenomenon that occurs when tens of thousands of bees are searching for a new hive]: she’s found an attractive candidate home site and she advertises it. She sees if other bees will take interest in her information and go check it out on their own. If they also find it of interest then support will build for that site. If it’s not of interest because the first bee misjudged it or something like that, then it does not rise up in popularity. So this is how this nonverbal system works. It’s a kind of voting with your feet.
It means that something only gets chosen if it passes muster with a sufficient number of members of the group. As we have seen with the bees and also with these baboons the voting system does not have to be unanimous. You do not have to have complete agreement for the group to take action. You might see, for example, in the baboon situation that there are fifteen members of the group and ten of them start moving off in a certain direction; they’ve endorsed the direction the first individual proposed. The other five that have not made a decision yet are likely to just follow those others because they do not want to be left behind. They can see ‘okay, this is where most everybody is interested in going this morning. I’ll go there too, even if I might have wanted to go somewhere else.’ So it’s a quorum process. Enough support, not unanimous support. Things get chosen if they have enough support.
Gagnon: Quorums are tricky in human society. We are not in the habit of happily conceding our positions if our positions do not draw support. We are always reminded that stalwart oppositional minorities are healthy – but there comes a time when this bogs down human decision making. Deliberative democracy scientists are, for example, working on ways to resolve problems related to that issue.
Seeley: That is a really important topic because we have to think about what happens to that small group that didn’t vote for that option. In the case of the baboons, they are living in nature and if they do not stay in the group they are going to be very vulnerable. That is a case where the situation arises differently in human society. We are not as dependent for our survival upon staying in the group.
But then again, often we do depend on staying part of a group. You are a member of the faculty in a department in the university and you know that your department has to make decisions. You do not always agree with the decisions reached by the rest of the members of your department, but you know that okay, ‘I’m in this department, I have to keep functioning as a member of this department. I cannot win this battle, but I’ll go along with this decision and I’ll probably do better on the next decision.’
So that is an interesting point. Sometimes we do have to, depending on our needs, keep up the membership of the group. We sometimes do have to accept that we have been outvoted and have to go along.
Gagnon: And the bees will hopefully help us in this respect.
Seeley: They give us a model. They show us that in certain situations democracy is very, very sensible. The bees show that if you are in a situation where you are a member of a group and the group has to solve a problem and if the members of the group have an alignment of their self-interests, then they will all want the group to do well. I’ll come back to a familiar example to both you and me, that of an academic department, a department within a university.
Everybody in that department wants the department to be strong. They want it to function well. Now the individuals within the group might have different preferences, but the main problem they have in their decision making is getting the information together. No one individual will have all of the pieces of the story. Democracy is a very powerful way of getting those pieces. Letting people provide information and then pooling that information through voting or a popularity contest to summarize what they know about the information is a powerful way to identify the best course of action for the group. So yes, that is where the honeybees do come in. They illustrate that there is the cold logic of natural selection which favours democracy in many situations.
Gagnon: Using that as a springboard, how in effect can these and other investigations into these biological forms of democracy contribute to our understandings of democracy? In other words, what does or can this mean for democratic theorists and practitioners?
Seeley: That is a very large topic. I would say that democratic theorists and practitioners might want to pay attention to the details of how these biological systems actually work because they’ve been shaped by natural selection to make good decisions. Bee colonies that made poor decisions, slow decisions or inaccurate decisions are those that did not get propagated over evolutionary time. So when we look at a swarm of bees we see in it a decision making system where the pieces are working together pretty well, thanks to what I like to call ‘swarm smarts’.
These are things like making sure that the system is open to bringing in information, getting all the options on the table in dealing with a difficult problem, and making sure that if the group has a leader then this person is more of a moderator than a proselytizer. Another swarm smart is to use a system of voting where the individuals are not subject to peer pressure, where they can express their assessment of the options independently from one another. There is also the matter of using quorum processes so that even if you cannot get a complete agreement, you have set a sensible threshold of support for taking action. This ensures that you do not make a quick decision with a low level of support, but that at the same time you can make a decision in a timely fashion without waiting a very long time to reach a complete agreement.
So those are some of the things that I would say are valuable lessons to practitioners of democracy. This is so because those are techniques that have been honed by natural selection, and not just in biological systems. Certain group decision making systems in humans, such as the New England town meeting, have also been honed over some time, as I discuss briefly in my book. This New England system has worked for about 300 years. Like the bees, humans have found over time what works and what does not work.
We have good evidence that how the group is organized really matters. Another person who has developed this idea very nicely is James Surowiecki, author of the book The Wisdom of Crowds (2005). The main point of that whole book is that with the right organization, a group can be smarter than any individual, smarter than even the smartest individual in the group: that really is the heart of democracy. If you pool the knowledge of individuals and use the power of independent voting, you’ll usually end up with the right decision.
You see it all the time on these game shows like ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ The contestant might not know the answer to a question just because his or her information base does not match up with the question. The question is then given to the audience. Almost always (like 98 per cent of the time), the audience nails it because you have got this large pool of people that are voting where there is no peer pressure. It does not matter to them whether they win or lose because they are just part of an audience. Those are the elements of what we are learning about in animal democracies. They really pertain to practitioners of human democracy large group or small.
Gagnon: When I read this argument in Honeybee Democracy (2011) and some of your other works (1997; and 2006, 2008, with Visscher and Passino), you were saying that each bee acts similar to how a neuron acts in the selection of how decisions are made in the brain. Could we consider each human being – that is part of a crowd – to be like a neuron in the brain?
Seeley: Yes, though with the caveat that the analogy applies in situations where individual humans feel like they are very much tied to being a member of a group and the group’s members have similar interests. This is the situation with the neurons in a brain. They are part of a brain and they all sink or swim together depending on whether the organism that they are guiding does well.
It’s precisely the situation of the bees in a swarm. The whole swarm will survive or die depending upon whether the swarm finds a good home site. In human groups, that is not always the case. But sometimes it is in situations of warfare or difficult times such as emergencies. The fates of individuals in times like these do hang together. They are all in the same boat together and in that situation, yes, a human can really function as almost like the bee in the hive. It is a critical conceptual place, that critical alignment of interests, everybody in the boat together.
Gagnon: This relates to the first prescription in chapter 10 of Honeybee Democracy. Choosing your group wisely ensures that everyone has a vested interest in the process.
Seeley: That is right. I think that is something that our national political leaders could do much better. They could remind people more clearly than they have that this [the USA] is one country, that it’s going to work well or not depending on the decisions that we make, and that those decisions affect us all. We are all part of this country. We cannot just pick up and move to some other part of the world. We have got to make these things work.
Gagnon: There is definitely something to be said toward reminding people that ‘yes, we are all in the same boat and Republican or Democrat or Other, we need to work together to get things done’.
Seeley: That is what people expect in the end: getting things done, getting problems solved. And it’s going to require give or take. You are going to win some and lose some, but on the whole you as an individual will do better if the group does better. That is something that is easy to lose sight of, particularly if the groups get larger. In smaller groups, for example if you are a member of a club or a member of a department or even a member of a small town (e.g., a New England town), people realize ‘okay, yeah we want the schools to work well, we want the public library to function, and we want the roads to be taken care of’.
There again humans can function as part of a unit even if they have different preferences. With the right organization, the group can make decisions that are really the best for the group.
Gagnon: With the caveat being that the group is not deciding to commit violent crimes like mass murder or anything like that.
Seeley: Right and sometimes you have got bedrock differences – just fundamental differences and preferences that prevent the group from working as a unit. I do not want to be pollyannaish about democracy. It does depend upon individuals. For it to be an appropriate way of making a decision for the group as a whole it’s going to be most effective if the group’s members have at least some bedrock agreements and not all bedrock disagreements. If they have bedrock disagreements they might as well split up and make two different groups.
Gagnon: This is a good moment to engage with the most enduring counterargument to our discussion. How far can we go on comparing nonhuman species and their democracies to our own? Some would say that bees and baboons and chimpanzees are too different from us. Do you think this is a valid argument and why?
Seeley: Well, for sure there are differences between humans and nonhuman animals and yes, there are some large differences between humans and other species. We have built such very large groups. We are no longer just members of small communities. We are members of states and nations and even of supra-national groups like the EU.
So that is fundamentally different from many animal species and that does make it even more complicated to try to implement democracy. Democracy gets harder and harder as the group gets larger and larger. That said, not all human endeavours are these large group endeavours and to the extent to which humans function in smaller groups, up to the size of maybe twenty or fifty individuals, then we are very much like our primate ancestors. I think it depends on the scale of the political phenomenon you are looking at, whether you are going to see similarities or differences between humans and other animals. And of course the other difference is that we have very sophisticated communication that other animals do not have.
But on the other hand, as we have talked about, animals also have ways of expressing their opinions through motions or actions. So there are similarities as well. It’s certainly not a black and white issue. I think that as we endeavour to make human democracies work better, we should look at what’s going on in the animal world and to try to learn a thing or two from the intriguing forms of democratic decision making that we find out there.
Reference guide: 2014. Seeley, T. and JP Gagnon. “Nonhuman Democratic Practice: Democracy Among the Bees”. In Gagnon, JP, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought (Palgrave Macmillan). 148-158.
Further reading: Have you even wondered why the diverse and worldly field of democratic theory is important? If so you may be interested in this essay, published in the first issue of the academic journal Democratic Theory.
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