You think our elections are tough? Tell it to the wolves.
It is hard to escape the sensation that our electoral process is broken. Too much money. Too much bullshit. Perhaps we should turn to nature for insight, remedy, or just salve. The Book of Proverbs implored believers to go to the ant and consider her ways when it came to wisdom and industriousness. Can we also turn to the ant for lessons on democracy?
The idea that ants, honeybees, or other social animals might do a thing or two better than we do is ancient. The Bible, Torah, and Quran all invoke insect societies. In the Amazon, Kayapo children were once advised to follow the brave, social ways of the ant (and to eschew the more vulgar ways of the termite).
Most recently, Cornell University entomologist Tom Seeley has written a lovely and compelling book titled Honeybee Democracy which suggests we turn to the bees to see how they make decisions. Thanks to the work of Seeley and his collaborators, it is now clear that honeybee hives really are democratic. When it’s time to look for a new nest, options are weighted by the evaluations of many different bees about a site’s qualities—its size, its humidity, the density of surrounding flowers. Individual bees vote with dances, and when the number of dances in favor of some particular site is high enough, the masses are swayed. Together, citizen bees choose, if not perfection, the best possible option.
In ants, choices about how to nest or feed also seem democratic, though a few experts influence the process. Some ants just know more than others.
Forms of democracy also exist in flocks of birds (who must decide when to fly) and troops of monkeys (who decide when to move). In each of these situations, consensus is necessary, and consensus is reached by some form of voting. Democratic decision-making is common in nature; humans did not invent democracy. But there is more to the story.
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