Non-human Democracy: In the Anthropocene, It cannot be All About Us

This is part two of a three-part essay. Part one asks why democratic research has all but ignored non-human species, and considers how much we might gain from them in thinking about the problems of human democracy.

Welcome to the Anthropocene.

With these words, we can greet the birth of our children today. Unlike their parents, today’s newborns will not know the previous geologic epoch, the Holocene, defined by interglacial climes that were vital to the development of human societies. They will instead grow into and come to know a world disturbed by our own, our parents’ and our grandparents’ habitat destruction.

The point carries over to democracy: it too is tied to specific geologic epochs, or what political theorist John Dryzek calls earth systems.

While the formal status of the new epoch is still to be decided, democracy in the Anthropocene is forced into a new iteration of itself by the threats we pose to the environment and, through that, to ourselves as a species. But it’s also because people today consider the democracy of the late Holocene, tied as it is to territories and elected representatives, to be impotent in the face of these global challenges.

Can democracy keep us from a future of nightmares or will it simply take place in them?
flickr/Jef Safi, CC BY-NC-ND

What is required of the democracy to come?

With our existence and that of other species in the supranational balance, democracy in the Anthropocene – the democracy to come – has two requirements:

  • that it works on the macro-scale, which means for all humans, not just for those in some states; and
  • that it is premised on: the mass, direct, digital, effective, legitimate and everyday participation of capable democrats living across multiple layers of government and governance, inside and outside of states.

Both requirements exist and are justifiable because climate change is forcing our hand.

We need to make high-quality, swift, enforceable and democratically legitimate decisions for the survival of our own species, let alone others. These planet-wide decisions will only mean something if most humans use them, enforce them, make them better.

This democracy to come builds on the more hands-off democracies of the late Holocene – those representative regimes of the last few centuries that oversaw the rise of densely populated industrial states.

Under the setting sun of representative democracy, its sometimes frustratingly simple ballots and abundance of sleepy if not ignorant or ill-prepared democrats, we realise non-humans are in a state of suffering. They are at risk of irreversible change or total effacement – all because of the way most of us live, and lived, our lives.

Democracies in the late Holocene are dangerous, destructive polluters. That realisation leads people to reconsider how supposedly clever we are, as a species of wishful democrats.

The self-celebration of being Homo sapiens (“wise person”), where we congratulate ourselves for being human, stems from the Enlightenment. To look in an admittedly Eurocentric mirror during the 18th century was to see a creature unbowed by the gods. To look in that same mirror today provokes thought of why the gods allowed our anthropocentric avarice, our single-species arrogance, to push risk this far.

Humanity’s footfalls (carbon and water footprints), that shame of our industrial success at the expense of other life, is a defining problem for the democrats now straddling the Holocene-Anthropocene divide.

We have adapted non-human species’ behaviour in many other ways, so why not draw on whatever elements of democratic organisation they display?
flickr/Lamerle, CC BY-NC


A story that’s blind to all but the human

There’s a subtler point to late Holocene democracy’s anthropocentrism. Grasping it helps unfurl the logic behind drawing inspirations, lessons and analogies for our democracies from non-humans.

Late Holocene democracy’s story, widely taught in the few centuries past, is always human – too human. It was supposedly created in the womb of ancient Greek culture (usually Athens), lost somewhere for 1000 or so years, and (normally starting with the Magna Carta) revived from the dead by rebellious western Europeans.

Democracy, many still believe, came to maturity in the US with the end of the Cold War – or perhaps 50 years earlier, when the Allies defeated the Axis.

To borrow lingo from various moments when some nations felt they were better than others, democracy, as just defined, is the family heirloom of the more human – the civilised, the chosen, the righteous, the holy, the entitled, the powerful.

This is what I mean by saying democracy is always too human. The claim to ownership excludes others. It defines or implies who has or who is fit for democracy and, consequently, who doesn’t have it and is less fit for it, less human.

For a number of thinkers, especially those who do not believe in stories shorn of time and space, or in the importance of who invented what first, this ownership of democracy by certain nations, at moments in time and through individual actions, is a lie.

This story is, at best, an incomplete retelling of only certain types of democracy – its direct, representative and Western variants.

It’s due mostly to colonialism that the democracies of the late Holocene are commonly taken to mean “democracy itself”. It’s an unintentional hoodwinking made possible by power-deciding knowledge or, differently put, through the repetition of some knowledge by influential experts over time.

The Quaternary Period: an age of glacial cycles and the rise of Homo sapiens.
Tracey Magno (2015), used with permission, Author provided


What’s in a name, or 546 names?

What, I wonder, about democracy’s many names? How, or where, do all of its 546 or more different names find themselves in the Holocene?

We must ask these questions to create the language we need to discuss democracy in terms of species (ours), space (Earth’s) and time – broadly, across the grand time of the Quaternary in which we evolved for roughly the last 2.5 million years.

To think in this way ties the beginning of democracy with the beginning of humanity. And it leads us to suppose that democracy mightn’t solely belong to humans.

Because where do humans begin? Where do we end?

What makes our species distinct from the other species sharing this planet? Doesn’t life on earth, as geneticists show, have a common origin?

Is the behaviour we evolved over millions of years linked to the finite number of political regimes we have today or that we can see back in time?

Or could iterations of democracy have existed before our species came to be? Might there be types of democracy in other species that co-exist with our own?

And a chilling question: would democracy continue should our species fall into oblivion?

From fresh uncertainty come new possibilities

The point of all of these questions is not to argue which species owns democracy or where democracy comes from. Rather, it’s to cast doubt on the hitherto overly certain claim that democracy is a human affair.

This is not just for the sake of my argument; uncertainty has intrinsic value. It puts democracy into a possibilian state. As neuroscientist David Eagleman, founder of possibilian thinking, might argue: we know too much about some of democracy’s names and too little about the rest of them to commit to any one belief about it.

The only rational position is to find ways forward among, and in recognition of, democracy’s complexity.

Drawing, for instance, on the uncertainty principle that Werner Heisenberg established in the 1920s, physicist Richard Feynman famously said:

I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.

And there’s good in that. If you’d prefer an example from the humanities, Voltaire declared:

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.

And my favourite comes from Canadian poet Margaret Atwood:

When nothing is sure, everything is possible.

Maybe a little more of the possible is what democracy needs.

Don’t worry, there’s value in uncertainty.
‘Tense Uncertainty’, Johan Wahlstrom (2011), used with permission, Author provided

By tying democracy to time, space and species, then realising we don’t have crisp answers for when our species begins or when and where democracy’s origins can be found, we find our only recourse is to look elsewhere. To other species.

We then look to those that came before and alongside Homo sapiens: think other hominini, Australopithecus, ancestral Pan, the order of primates, the mammalian class, the animal and plant kingdoms, all the way back to the soup, brine, or slime from where the common origin of all life is supposed to have sprung.

We rely on decisive, non-human collective action

So, we can look to those that have their own democracy, if you take that word to mean the techniques that individuals use to make collective decisions, solve problems together and survive as a group. It’s when you start justifying how we are meant to achieve these things that you generate democracy’s many names.

You, for instance, are home to trillions of individuals from more than 500 species who do just that: they make collective decisions, solve problems together and survive in groups – all without your consent or control.

The microbiota in your mouth, deep in your guts, or just there on your skin. They are life forms invisible to the naked eye. Some fend off harmful microbes. These living individual units of life also include the cells in your body — like the neurons in your brain.

Think of your immune system. It must be receptive to information to detect an intruder and deal with it. Hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of cells orchestrate this operation. Using intercellular communication, they organise collective responses that keep you alive.

Cells and microbiota found in animals and plants ‘talk’ to each other to make decisions.
flickr/ZEISS Microscopy, CC BY-NC-ND

Our very lives – and all animal and plant life – depend on the communication between cells or microbes in and on our bodies.

Every time I think a thought the neurons in my brain decide which synapses to use to carry out my will. It’s fast majority decision-making; what some biologists call synaptic, dendritic or neuronal democracy.

Another example, this time about tooth decay, concerns Streptococcus mutans. These bacteria live in your mouth. They’re partly responsible for the film that forms on your teeth if you haven’t brushed in a while.

Given that most of us are in the habit of brushing, it’s essential for S. mutans’ genetic fitness to know when the conditions in our mouths are just right for a population boom. The bacteria constantly talk to each other through chemical signalling (chemotaxis). Then, perhaps when the 11pm toothbrush fails to arrive during your night out, they make a majority decision to reproduce. Scientists call this bacterial quorum formation.

It’s fascinating that microbiota and cells do this without a brain or a nervous system instructing them. Their actions are decentralised, driven by the coding in their DNA. As happens in the brainless but not unintelligent jellyfish, slime moulds and plants, the microbiota and cells in our bodies co-exist, work alongside each other, repel invaders, to build and maintain the organism we share.

Seeing things this way means that you are, in your flesh and blood, home to many democracies. You are, in one sense, a product of them.

An evolutionary flowering of democracies

If this is true for humans, it is true for other complex life forms found across animal and plant kingdoms. This is because we all depend on cells and often microbiota to exist. The types of communication they use lead to types of decision-making that keep us and them alive by solving particular problems.

They are the democracies that make us. And so the logic unfurls that if democracies make us, how can we ever have made democracy?

We certainly didn’t create ourselves. We evolved. Through evolution our species created its own democracies over time and space. But so did many other forms of life.

The implication of this statement resonates with the foundation arguments made in the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. It suggests that collective decision-making, solving problems together and surviving as a group – or democracy in this essay – is common to life itself simply because these techniques are effective at passing genes along.

It’s with this perspective of democracy as one of the makers of Homo sapiens life that we return to the question:

Is democracy human?


But then again,


This is because the answer to this question depends on how you explain democracy.

Is there a fleet of questions central to talking about democracy, species, space and time thrown together? Yes.

Are these questions interesting and worth further intellectual pursuit? For me, yes, without doubt.

Do our democracies now, in these days that straddle the Holocene and Anthropocene, have problems? Yes.

And might we learn something about solving some of these problems by looking to the non-humans that exist out there in this wild world? Yes, I think so.

Even if I’m wrong about non-human democracy, we need only consider how much is at stake. The survival of our species could very well depend on us upping our democracy game.

The projects around democracy renewal, saving democracy, reviving democracy or otherwise creating the “democracy to come” need help. So, too, the non-humans facing extinction because of the ways our dangerous polluter democracies operate.

For these reasons we should give non-human democracy a try.

You can read parts one here and three of the essay here.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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