Danielle LeVee, Global Animal

All social animals—whether they are packing rats, schooling fish, flocking birds, colonizing bees, herding elephants, or even crowding humans—adhere to the democratic principle of majority rule.

Ian Couzin, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, states, “One common property we see in animal groups from schooling fish to flocking birds to primate groups is that they effectively vote to decide where to go and what to do.”

Couzin recently experimented with golden shiners and found that, when introduced into a tank containing fish who have been previously trained to deviantly swim to the blue-light source over the yellow-light source, the shiners will merge with the (even atypical) trends of the majority. 

When one fish heads toward a potential source of food, the other fish in the school vote with their fins on whether to follow.
Photo credit: Thomas Wiborg via Flickr

Being a part of the majority is evolutionarily advantageous as animals have a much better chance of survival if they are working to find food, shelter, and escape predators as part of a group.

For example, wildebeest, which are highly social animals, often fall prey to lions. The chance of a solitary wildebeest being pursued by a lion is 100% whereas the chance of a 100 wildebeest being hunted is 1%, this chance of survival increasing as the group gets larger.

Similarly, some social animals like bats are known to share their food with other members. So if a bat has an unsuccessful hunting day, (s)he will still be able to get nourishment for survival from another bat and will later reciprocate.

Of course there are costs living in a group, such as fewer feeding sources, but the benefit of predator protection and food acquisition unquestionably outweighs this cost.

Yet within a democracy, there always ascends a leader. Social animals, albeit adhere to the majority, usually follows an individual who heads this majority.

Who becomes the leader of a group depends on the species and the situation. For instance, in elephants, the de facto leader is usually the oldest and largest female known as the matriarch but when the group is attacked the dominant male member usually takes control.

In chimpanzees, males are dominant over females but the dominance hierarchy within males doesn’t generally concern their size or strength. Evolutionary biologist Mark van Vogt states, “In chimpanzees, it’s not necessarily the physically strongest individual who seizes the control over the group. It’s usually the more cunning individual, someone who forms his coalitions well.”

Because we are social animals, it is in our nature to follow the majority. And like our ape ancestors, the established leader is typically whoever is most clever at alluring to the majority.

On the other hand, honey bees vote by “waggle dancing” themselves into a consensus, which is based on what is best for the hive. They also dance to share information about where to find nectar and pollen and sources of water. Bees, having very limited information at the individual level, are able to make much more knowledgable decisions by pooling all their information and skills together.

Perhaps we should look to honey bees as models for our democratic society.

“For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.” – William Shakespeare