Non-human Democracy: Putting Inspirations, Lessons and Analogies to Work

This is the final part of a three-part essay. Part one asks why democratic research has all but ignored non-human species. Part two argues that our all-too-human conception of democracy must evolve in the Anthropocene, so why not consider the possibilities offered by other species that have evolved key elements of democratic organisation?

Bonobos, sometimes called the “forgotten ape” due to their recent discovery and small numbers, titillate the democrat’s imagination.

Before the 1970s, certain primatologists thought bonobos were strange chimpanzees because females govern in this primate society.

Frans de Waal, the primatologist and popular writer, has done much to explain the fascinating lives of these “peace-loving apes” and how they are changing the story of human evolution.

We can see reflections of ourselves – the good, the bad and the ugly – in bonobos, and in other apes too.

Bonobos are unique among apes for how they settle day-to-day conflicts. Personalities and social standing are evident in their society. Squabbles are frequent within or between groups. Bonobos defuse the potentially violent tension in these conflicts through quick bursts of sex, mutual grooming, hugs and kisses, and mimicking the sounds each other makes.

The trick is to use intimate, gentle, genuine techniques to find common ground with one’s opponent. It’s the bonobos’ way to say “it’s alright” and to repair any emotional sores from the dispute. It doesn’t always happen this way, especially between rival groups, but violence is the exception to the rule.


We value peace today, so the discovery of the bonobo gives us hope that Homo sapiens aren’t naturally sadistic terrors kept in check only by the power of authority or the divine, the fear of the afterlife.

Gorillas, another close relative, offer inspiration too. While a very large male protects most small groups, he’s more bodyguard than despot. Gorillas reach decisions through co-operation between the sexes.

Baboons also offer a counter view to our supposed nasty and brutish inner nature. In a troop of hamadryas or olive baboons you’d soon be able to spot the stronger individuals. And you might assume they simply call the shots: only they don’t.

Baboons have a more delicate form of collective decision-making. This involves sitting in the right place and waiting to see where a majority develops. In this way, more than a few individuals share leadership.

Now we come to chimpanzees, the species that has been most influential in how we picture the earliest human behaviour. They are patriarchal, hierarchical, constantly scheming to get ahead in rank and sometimes shockingly violent. Yet, if the times are good (food’s abundant), they can be consensual, mellow and peaceful.

Like the bonobos, chimps try to repair emotional damage after a fight because the group has to work or else everyone’s survival is at risk.

Bonobos live by the adage ‘make love not war’.
Frank Peters/flickr

That said, bonobos, gorillas, baboons and chimpanzees aren’t a reflection of our past. As Frans de Waal and science journalist Virginia Morell observe, these species have been evolving alongside us since we all split from our common ancestor. Looking at them isn’t the same as looking back.

However, we can relate to the behaviours in these species – we can see ourselves in them. Perhaps, we wonder, we’ve always had the capacity for peace and violence; we’ve always lived in the political spectrum between violent autocracy and peaceful democracy.

Our species is certainly trying to strengthen the latter now. Perhaps the bonobos, or the other apes, can help us do better by inspiring us to think differently.

Imagine if we could stop being violent to one another. The violence that democrats living in democracies commit online or in person, often in public among strangers, limits if not wastes our capacity to be peaceful in our everyday lives.

Let’s say a fight starts over a parking space. You saw it first, had your blinker on to “claim it”, when that omfg no-you-didn’t creature of a moron steals it. I’ve reason to believe that, when slighted in this way, most of us want to punch this stranger in the face or trash their car.

Trying to find common ground with them then and there seems bizarre. Stranger still is to entertain the thought that maybe you and the spot-thief might then give each other a hug or a smooch, mount each other for a while, run your fingers through one another’s hair and say: “You know what, it’s all right, have a nice day”.

I play to the absurd here because I’m not arguing that we should try to perfectly replicate the way bonobos avoid violence. Echoing a point that Laurence Whitehead once made, we shouldn’t confuse inspiration with replication.

We should rather try to draw inspiration from the bonobos to enrich our own practices, to enhance today’s human democracies. We might do equally well to dream about rhesus monkeys and their aversion to inequality, or spider monkeys and their patient if not wondrously just lives.

These primates place emphasis on avoiding violence and inequality because peace keeps them working together. It helps them survive.

And that’s important for us: peace and social cohesion are the legs our democracies strive to stand on.

The opposite, violence and social division, beckons to the Beetlejuice of regimes: benevolent authoritarianism, that hated but necessary stabiliser of states when times are bad.

It’s crucial to remember that avoiding violence builds trust and confidence in the group and between groups. It’s what the bonobos do so well. Yet in our societies we’re still struggling to use words and care instead of fists, guns, mines and bombs.

Political theorist John Keane once alluded: the future if not quality of democracy depends on our ability to exchange violence for peace. For the sake of our democracies, we need to be able to make this exchange, from those everyday moments in the carpark to those times in the lives of nations when diplomacy gives way to conflict.


It’s not simply the normative visions of a democracy changed that the examples of non-human life offer. We can learn from the down-to-earth, concrete and special techniques that non-humans use to make decisions.

The process of evolution creates replicating systems – ones that work. It happens simply through the genes that survive millions of years of trial and error. As a result, the lives of many non-humans may offer more than a few masterclasses in social success.

In Honeybee Democracy, Thomas Seeley explains how bees decide as a group on the best site for a new hive.
Princeton University Press

Take the European honeybee, for example. In his book, Honeybee Democracy, Thomas Seeley explains how bees make the life-or-death decision on where to build their next hive.

Once a hive reaches capacity – no room is left for making more bees or honey – the existing queen and most of the bees move out. They must start a new hive.

It’s down to the oldest forager bees, which usually account for 3% to 5% of the worker bees (talk about representation), to get more than half their family – potentially upwards of 30,000 individuals – out of the hive. Once this massive swarm is out, the elder bees direct it to cluster somewhere around the queen until they find a suitable site for the new hive.

At this point, the 1000 or so elder bees, who’ve swapped from food foragers to house scouts, travel several kilometres in all directions. They’re looking for that perfect site.

Bees are choosy. The hive site must satisfy several criteria. These include the location and diameter of the entrance (it’s important no rain can get in and that there is only one entrance); whether it faces the sun (this keeps the hive warmer in winter); the height above the ground (the higher the better to deter predators); if it’s in a tree (trees are preferred); and the available space. If it’s too big, the bees will freeze in winter. Too small, and they won’t have enough food to last through the cold months.

Choosing the wrong hive site might mean the human equivalent of a small town dying.

Honeybees evolved decision-making techniques because so much is riding on the decision elder bees make on behalf of the whole. Seeley thinks we should be studying and learning from these techniques.

Christian List and Thomas Seeley believe studying how honeybees make decisions together can help us make better decisions.
flickr/US Department of Agriculture, CC BY-NC

When a scout bee returns to the swarm after finding a site that ticks all the boxes she lets the freak out in her waggle dance. Her dance tells other scout bees she’s on to something good.

However, rather than accepting the force of her presentation (charisma you might say), each scout flies off to the site that got the scout dancing with excitement to independently verify her claim.

If it really is the promised land, each scout returns to replicate the dance of the first. If not, the scouts will see who else is dancing, independently verify their claim, and potentially follow their dance.

Once around 70% of the scouts are broadcasting the same site, the other scouts stop advertising alternatives and join the majority.

So the decision’s made. It’s time to rouse the 30,000 into the air and for the scouts to direct the swarm to the agreed site.

The independent verification bees use to make high-quality decisions speaks directly to the problems we face in democratic assemblies. The ability of charismatic speech to sway others without proving the evidence in the speaker’s argument, the entrenchment of factions around shared values and not evidence, the capitulation of younger or less knowledgeable individuals confronted by older experts, and so on, all point to our difficulties in using evidence-based decision-making.

Obviously we’re not bees. We’re value-laden and sometimes irrational primates with our own host of problems specific to our species.

Even if we perfectly executed the bees’ independent verification technique, a person could very well say: “No, regardless of the evidence I’ve just verified which is contrary to my original position, I will maintain that wind mills sour cow’s milk, or that my kids don’t need vaccinating, or that climate change isn’t a threat.”

In fact, majority decision-making is, out of all the available democratic decision-making systems, the least preferable for many of us. People like reaching consensus and they like proportionality because it’s fair. And a lot of the decisions assemblies make aren’t questions of life or death, so we don’t really feel like there’s that much at stake.

That said, seeking to learn from bees, and to reflect on what they do so well and what we don’t do that well, generates space for tinkering with the “how”. It creates an opportunity to alter our democratic procedures for the better. We could do this, for example, by establishing a standard practice of independent verification – one that works for us – before an assembly makes a decision.

“Enrolling in nature’s masterclasses”, provided free to us by evolution, doesn’t put our human democracies to question. Rather, it gives us the chance to strengthen them, refine them, make them better.


Lastly, by drawing comparisons between non-human and human life we can make analogies about democracy’s issues.

Look, for instance, to the parasites found in nature. There are blood-suckers of blood-suckers (a midge that drinks the blood from a mosquito that just drank it from you), wasps that inject their eggs into other insects, body-snatching fungi, mind-altering protozoans and murderously dishonest amoebas. They might remind democrats of the perils of individuals who manipulate and use democracy for their own ends.

The strangleweed, Cuscuta pentagona, is a parasitic plant. From the moment its seed has sprouted, the seedling “feels” around for a different plant. It’s going to live off this plant.

Once in range, the strangleweed takes a gentle hold of its victim and pierces the host’s stem with a haustorium (effectively a pointy green syringe). It does this not only to drink the host’s sugars but also to swap genetic information (RNA) with it.

Researchers think that C. pentagona reads the host’s genetic information to gain an understanding of its victim’s condition. But the strangleweed also sends its own genetic information to the host, like a Trojan horse designed to keep the victim from realising it’s being used.

Remind you of anyone? The parasitic Cuscuta pentagona, or strangleweed (light green), in action.

Since at least the times of usurious monarchs or the entrenchment of transnational capital, democrats have made the point about parasitic elites.

The transnational capitalist class roam this world looking for the best hosts to do their business with. They find their way past barriers to take information from sovereign states, send reassurances to them, and then begin the process of extracting wealth from them to maintain their status as this world’s first global oligarchs.

I think here in particular of the dealings between mining companies and small cash-poor states. Like the strangleweed’s initial wandering tentacle, the company sends its agents to find where it can get a grip on the host.

The company uses charm offensives, lobbyists and sometimes bribes to transfuse information between it and the host. The two become a hybridised one. The company releases public relations information to keep the host satiated if not to massage it into accepting that the company is here to stay – that is, until the sugars run out.

The relationship between a multinational company and a sovereign state can be, like the relationship between the strangleweed and its victim, asymmetrical. On both sides of the analogy the parasite lives at the expense of the host, which is left almost powerless to defend itself.

Now, we should recognise that this baldly polemical interpretation of multinational companies and their governors doesn’t mean they’re no different from a parasitic plant, nor do they function for the same reason as the strangleweed, whose aim is reproduction.

What we get from this analogy is, instead, a reflection from reality’s broken mirror. Looking at the strangleweed and then to the transnational capitalist class creates a snapshot perception, an imperfect but still handy image, for the democrat to use.

Extinction, the death of possibilities

As writer Elizabeth Kolbert says in her own way: with each extinction of a non-human species we see ourselves further ruined.

Earth is home to at least one million species, and likely more. Many species make collective decisions, solve problems together and survive as a group. Losing a living species to extinction also means, from a selfishly human perspective, losing a potential opportunity to improve today’s democracies by the inspirations, lessons and analogies that only the evolution of other life forms can impart to us.

Non-humans evolved their own techniques and behaviours – which we can make sense of using words from the vocabulary of democracy – because they work for them. It’s 100% pragmatic. Nature’s tool chest, you might say.

Admittedly, these tools may not be fit for our purposes. After all, we aren’t bonobos, bees or parasitic plants. But it’s also fair to say that we’d be rash not to try to find help in them, especially if enriching our democratic practices in this way could help solve some of the problems confronting us.

Here we can say that our destruction of non-humans is destroying a part of ourselves, of our democracies’ hope of reaching their fuller potential. Perhaps, out of respect for their existence and our own, it’s time to include non-humans in that all-too-human affair we call democracy.

‘Non-human Democracy’ by Sandra Eterovic (2015), used with permission.
Author provided

You can read parts one here and two of the essay here.

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

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