Socio-biology throws surprises at us, asking us to be appreciative of many other animals and even insects like the honeybee and the cockroach.
We have just gone through a series of successful elections in several states of India. This has once again shown to the world, and particularly to our own ruling politicians, that we take democracy seriously, and believe in consensus-based decisions. And all of us are delighted that the people of several countries in the Arab world (and Myanmar too) have the opportunity to vote and practice democracy.
Is democracy a human invention, thought out by homo sapiens and practiced by us? What do other social animals do? Are there social practices in animal societies that have an evolutionary origin, handed down to us? The field of socio-biology throws not only surprises at us but also teaches us some lessons, asking us to be humble and appreciative of many other animals and even insects like the honeybee we admire and the cockroach we detest.
Professor Raghavendra Gadagkar of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore is a well known “eusociologist” who specializes in insect group behaviour of wasps and bees. He recently described to us how a colony of wasps or bees organizes itself and optimises resources. He points out that while the colony has a queen, workers and drones, this is no monarchy. The queen does not proclaim what the colony should do. (We call her the queen, rather anthropomorphically, since all she does is sit around and lay eggs, and is pampered by a retinue of ‘assistants').
She too is just a worker, a special type of worker whose job is just to keep on laying eggs. There are no palace intrigues, and she too can be, and is, overthrown or displaced by another ‘egg laying machine'. When the colony is divided into two, the second queen-less part makes its own queen.
The “queen” is of course more important than the average worker, but she is not a dictator whose order the colony must obey. It is a group activity, with each member playing its role by common agreement.
Yes, the cockroach, the pest whom we want to smash to death the moment we see it in the kitchen, too forms a congenial society with consensual rules. Dr. Jose Halloy and his group at the Department of Social Ecology at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium has been studying cockroach colonies for over a decade.
He has come to the conclusion that cockroaches practice a simple form of democracy. In its society, each insect has equal standing and decisions made by group override those of individuals, and such group decisions govern what the entire group would do.
How does one devise an experiment to arrive at such an important conclusion? Halloy's experiment was simple and decisive. He placed the group of cockroaches in a large dish that had three shelters.
The cockroaches did much “consultation” among themselves by touching and probing each other through their antennae, and after such consultation, divided themselves into groups and ran towards the shelters, away from the light (recall they like dark and no light).
The surprise was in the result. Each shelter could hold 50 insects. Yet when 50 cockroaches were used in the experiment, they divided themselves into two groups — 25 went off to shelter 1 and 25 to shelter 2, leaving shelter 3 vacant. When the researchers brought far larger shelters, each housing far more than 50, the cockroaches formed a single group and all went into a single shelter.
Halloy explained the results to mean that a balance is struck between cooperation and competition for resources. Group formation optimizes this balance. As he says: “It allows them to increase their reproductive opportunities, promotes sharing of resources like shelter or food, and prevents desiccation by aggregating in dry environments, etc”.
Turning to mammals, we do find democracy, or group decisions that govern the action of the entire colony. Professor Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex, UK, who has been studying colonies of red deer, finds that individuals benefit if they synchronize their activities and movements, and they have to decide such things collectively.
It is in the interests of the group members to stay together, so that they reproduce more, optimize resources, detect and avoid predators better — no different from cockroaches?
More recently, Dr. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University, Georgia, U.S., finds increasing evidence for similar group decisions and behaviour in chimpanzee societies too. In his forthcoming book “chimpanzee politics”, he describes how an “alpha male” spends a lot of time grooming allies, sharing food with them and keeping them on his side. Such consensus builders form more stable social structures and make group consensus decisions. Would this be the beginning of group politics, I wonder!
Conradt and Roper describe, in their paper “Democracy in animals: the evolution of shared group decisions” (Proceedings of the Royal Society; B 2007, 274: 2317), a game theory model of animal group behaviour. They show that a consensus decision is when the members of a group choose, collectively between mutually exclusive actions.
This involves consensus “costs”, but equally shared decisions result in lowered consensus costs than unshared decisions. Is this not what democracy is about? As we study insects, fishes and mammals, we see the evolution of cooperative and consultative behaviour in many such animal colonies and societies, where the members choose to forego some privileges and bear some costs in order to promote harmony, survival and flourishing of the group-democracy in action.