Humans Aren’t the Only Animals That Hold Elections

The state of the universe.
Nov. 2 2012 3:45 PM

How Other Animals Choose Their Leaders

You think our elections are tough? Tell it to the wolves.

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The slightly more palatable model for our political system may be what happens when the population of the colony is much larger. In those cases, a second swarm can fly away from the original location. That second swarm also needs a queen. In this case, when the first potential queen emerges, workers prevent her from killing the other potential queens. Instead, they coax those additional queens out of their cells, one at a time. When a second queen emerges, she faces off against the first in what is called in D.C. a debate. Honeybee biologists call it a duel. It is a fight in which the winner of the duel faces subsequent duels, with the ultimate winner taking over the hive. (Each loser is unceremoniously killed and dropped out of the nest with the garbage.)

These duels are the hive dramas most parallel to our own elections. The question is how (or even if) the workers influence which queen wins the duel. Tarpy recently studied what happens when dueling queens are allowed to fight in isolation—without any influence of the workers, that buzzing electorate. He removed queens from their larval cells at different stages so that some were more mature than others and hence would be able to produce more eggs later on. He staged 66 elections, 27 of which were between two high-quality, high-egg-potential candidates; 16 were between one high-quality and one low-quality queen; and 23 were between two low-quality queens. What happened? The bigger queen—which wasn’t necessarily the more mature one—almost always won, even when she was of less value to the hive than her rival. In other words, the winner of the fight was not the individual who would most benefit the masses, just the toughest one. But the results are different when the workers are allowed into the mix. Inside the hive, the winner tends to be no bigger than the loser. Somehow the workers are influencing the dynamics of the election, preventing it from being a simple cage match in which the bigger, badder fighter wins.

Honeybee elections may be the elections in nature most like our own. The citizens of the hive play some role, but a modest one. The workers prevent the queen from killing the other queens before they even have a chance. The workers also, somehow, keep the result of the election from being purely and brutally the outcome from one-on-one war.

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Other models of democratic elections seem to be rare. Fire ant queens are winnowed among contenders through simple and brutal battles to the death, battles that can last hours. Wolves beat, pummel, and bite their way to the top of the pack hierarchy. Among nonhuman animals, leaders seem to be most likely to win through dominance or minor warfare. As my colleague Ed Vargo has shown, termites sometimes rely on extreme nepotism. In one of the most common termite species in North America, when queens die, they are replaced by their exact clones.

The rarity of democratic elections in other societies may be an issue of getting good information. When bees make democratic decisions about where to move their nest, they do it on the basis of the direct experience of many different bees. Democracy, as the political scientist Christian List puts it, “is good at pooling information from different individuals.” But it doesn’t make sense to pool information unless you have it. Inside the nests of most societies, conditions are tight and few individuals actually touch and assess the candidates. Only the proximate know enough to vote.

What does all of this tell us about what we should do? If we buy the idea that democracy works in animals only when individual citizens provide good information about the subject of the decision, it may mean our democracy is only as good as our journalists, those forager bees. But it also means that when it comes to electing a leader democratically, we as a species are on our own, trying for something that, while great and beautiful, has little precedent in nature. If the bees were able to read, this is where we might urge them to look to us. Go to the humans thou bee, and learn their ways, learn to struggle toward transparency, truth, and participation.

Rob Dunn is the author of The Wild Life of Our Bodies, the story of our changing relationship with predators, parasites, mutualists, commensals, and all the rest. He is a science writer  and scientist  at North Carolina State University, where he studies the stories of the species that have lived alongside humans as we have spread around the world, be they bacteria in your belly button ants in your backyard  or cave crickets in your basement.

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