Can democracy encompass a world outside of humans?

There was once an orangutan named Ken Allen at the San Diego Zoo, who was notorious for carrying out complex escape plans. He found every nut and bolt in his cage and unscrewed them; in his open space he threw stones and excrement at visitors. Once he constructed a ladder from some fallen branches, carefully testing his weight on the rungs. After that, the zoo lifted and smoothed the walls of its enclosure to remove handles.

Hoping to distract Ken, the zoo introduced some female orangutans. But Ken enlisted them as accomplices: While distracting the zookeepers, fellow inmate Vicki pryed open a window. On one occasion, Ken was caught waist-deep in water in the enclosure’s moat, trying to climb up the sides, despite the fact that orangutans are believed to be intensely hydrophobic. As for the electrical wires on top of the enclosure walls, Ken tested them repeatedly, and one day, during a maintenance break, he tried to jump out.

Animal escape attempts often make new headlines, but these aren’t mindless sabotage or curiosity; rather, they are forms of active and conscious resistance to the conditions imposed on them by humans. Resisting animals in captivity mirrors that of humans: they ignore orders, slow down, refuse to work, break equipment, damage fences, fight and duck. Their actions are a fight against exploitation – as such they constitute political activity.

Politics is essentially the science and art of making decisions. In general, we think of politics as the things that are done by politicians and activists within the framework of national and local governments, but in reality it is the mundane, everyday activity of municipal organization. Whenever two or more people come to an agreement or come to a decision, politics is at work. For people, politics plays out in all sorts of ways: in parliaments, at the polls, in our day-to-day decisions about how we want to live. Any choice we make that affects others is itself political. This includes voices, of course, but also the things we make and design; our relationships with our partners and neighbors; what we consume, trade, share and refuse. Even when we say we don’t want anything to do with politics, we don’t really have that option — politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not. It is, by definition, the process where almost everything is done. In this sense, politics, when organized, is also a kind of technology: the framework of communication and processing that governs everyday interaction and possibilities.

This understanding of politics also means that our decision-making processes must go beyond our own human lives: to non-human animals, to the planet and in the very near future to autonomous AI. I call this a “more-than-human” policy, based on ecologist and philosopher David Abram’s concept of a more-than-human world, a way of thinking that fully recognizes and interacts with all living things and ecological systems. A more than human political system can take many forms. Among humans, most political interactions are legislative and judicial, but we can learn a lot from the myriad ways in which animals act politically among themselves.

Animals do politics practical; this is true for individual animals, as in the case of Ken Allen, but it is especially important for social groups of animals. Social cohesion is critical to collective survival, which is why all social animals practice some kind of consensus decision-making, particularly around migration and food site selection. As in human society, this can lead to a conflict of interest between group members. (Most of us are familiar with the horror of getting a group of people to agree on a restaurant.) The answer to this problem in the animal world is rarely, if ever, despotism; much more often it involves a democratic process.

A few notable examples: Red deer, which live in large herds and often stop to rest and ruminate, will run away from a resting place as soon as 60 percent of adults get up; they literally vote with their feet. The same goes for buffalo, although the signs are more subtle: the female members of the herd indicate their preferred direction by standing up, staring in one direction, and lying down again. Birds also display complex decision-making behaviour. By attaching small GPS loggers to pigeons, scientists have learned that decisions about when and where to fly are shared by all members of a flock.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of animal equality is the honey bee. Honeybees have their own distinct histories, first as thoughtful pastoralists and pacifists—all bees descend from one species of wasp that decided to adopt a vegetarian diet some 100 million years ago—and second as highly organized, communicative, and consensus-building communities. Their legendary involvement in social life is enshrined in the beekeeper’s proverb, which could serve as a political slogan: “Una apisnulla apis‘, which means ‘one bee is no bee’.

Honeybees perform one of democracy’s greatest spectacles in action, known as the ‘waggle dance’. The waddle dance was first scientifically described in 1944 by Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch, as a means by which foraging bees share the locations of nearby pollen sources. A few years later, one of Frisch’s graduate students, Martin Lindauer, noticed a swarm of bees hanging from a tree. Their behavior showed that they were looking for a new home. But he also noted that some of these bees performed wag dances, and that, unlike pollen-strewn collectors, these bees were covered with soot and brick dust, earth, and flour. These weren’t collectors, Lindauer realized; they were scouts.

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