Political Brutes

Justin E. H. Smith argues that humans “are not the only political animals”:

There are overwhelming empirical data revealing, to anyone who is willing to look, complex social organization across the animal kingdom, including collective deliberation, division of labor, ritualized conflict resolution, and other forms of behavior that, when identified in human society, are deemed political without hesitation. We know that elephants plan elaborate raids on human settlements to recover the remains of their slaughtered loved ones. We know that in ant colonies the appearance of elaborate systems of task-allocation is related directly to the size of the colony: just as in human society, the more individual members of the society, the more we may expect to find social differentiation. Thanks to the primatologist Frans De Waal’s popular work, we are now slowly warming up to the idea that there is such a thing, at least, as “chimpanzee politics.” …

[T]here is another way of understanding animals as political that even the most defiant human-exceptionalist cannot dispute:

not as separated out into their own discrete political societies, each according to its kind, but rather as part of a single, global political formation that includes, notably but not exclusively, human beings. Some recent political philosophy, in fact, is starting to approach its subject from just such a trans-species perspective. In their groundbreaking 2011 book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue compellingly that animal rights theory has been limited to the extent that it has emphasized only negative rights of animals, a category that is conceived as universal and without any distinctions of moral significance within it. They argue instead that theorists would do well to focus on relational obligations that human beings come to have to animals that figure in different ways in human society. For them, nonhuman animals belong to the polis, too.

Update from a reader:

I came across this item regarding animal politics. Several species seem to make decisions by voting. A couple examples:

Red deer

The red deer of Eurasia live in large herds, spending lots of time either grazing or lying down to ruminate. Some deer are ready to move on before others are, and scientists have noticed that herds only move when 60 percent of the adults stand up — essentially voting with their feet. Even if a dominant individual is more experienced and makes fewer mistakes than its underlings, herds typically favor democratic decisions over autocratic ones.

A major reason for this, according to research by biologists Larissa Conradt and Timothy Roper, is that groups are less impulsive: “Democratic decisions are more beneficial primarily because they tend to produce less extreme decisions, rather than because each individual has an influence on the decision per se.”

African buffalo

Similar to red deer, African buffalo are herd herbivores that often make group decisions about when and where to move. In the 1990s, researchers realized that what initially looked like “mundane stretching” is actually a type of “voting behavior,” in which females indicate their travel preferences by standing up, staring in one direction and then lying back down.

“Only adult females vote, and females participate regardless of their social status within the herd,” biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote in a 1997 study. “When the average direction of gaze is compared with the subsequent movement of the herd, the average deviation is only three degrees, which is well within measurement error. On days in which cows differ sharply in their direction of gaze, the herd tends to split and graze in separate patches for the night.”