Lots of people find elections dull, but there’s nothing boring about the political manoeuvres that take place in the animal kingdom. In the natural world, jockeying for advantage, whether this is conscious or merely mechanical, can be a matter of life or death.
Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, are highly political. They’re smart enough to ealise that in the natural world, brute strength will only get you so far – getting to the top of a social group and remaining there requires political guile.
It’s all about making friends and influencing others. Chimps make friends by grooming each other and forming alliances. This behaviour is especially prominent in males wishing to be group leader. In times of dispute, they call upon their friends for assistance, or when they sense a coup may be successful. And the ruling group either reaffirms its position or a new group grabs control – but having the weight of numbers is normally critical to success.
In the 1980s, the leading Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal spent six years researching the world’s largest captive colony for his classic book, Chimpanzee Politics. He soon realised that, in addition to forming cliques, chimp politics still involves some degree of aggression.
Humans in modern societies have largely replaced antagonistic takeovers with voting. Chimps do not, however, live in a democratic society. For them, the social structure of the ruling party is usually one based on male hierarchy, where dominant individuals have best access to the resources available – usually food and females.
In many primate species, the ruling party members are relatives. Alternatively, power alliances between individuals are based on reciprocal altruism – more colloquially known as “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. Does some of this sound familiar?
However, social species don’t always need a ruling party or a charismatic leader and, even among the social primates, we have examples of leaderless organisation.
Muriquis (or woolly spider monkeys) from south-eastern Brazil live in large social groups and yet there are no leaders. Males do not boss other males or females and there is no dominance hierarchy – a truly egalitarian society. They are very peaceful primates. Males will even wait in line for their opportunity to mate with a receptive female.
Relative to many primate species, muriquis don’t spend much time grooming each other or socialising, which may suggest a poorly developed political system. But this would be an over-simplification, as individuals socialise through group hugs – and social network analyses confirm the important roles of certain individuals. For example, the longer a male hangs out with his mother, the more “introductions” to unrelated females he will get and more offspring he may sire.
While we might expect our fellow primates to display some degree of recognisable “politics”, it is more surprising to discover that this behaviour extends right through the animal kingdom – and beyond.
Bacteria are simple microscopic organisms and yet even at this lowly form of existence, individuals try to influence others into following their actions. They, of course, do not have a leader, but instead live in a decentralised system where decisions are made through a system of stimulae and response related to population density, known as quorum sensing.
Bacteria vote by releasing signalling chemicals and they are able to count the number of chemicals released (votes made). For example, pathogenic bacteria must vote on when to become virulent (exploit their host); that is, to jointly release virulence factors (chemicals). By acting together, they overwhelm the host’s immune system and can therefore colonise it.
More famous decentralised “political” systems exist in social insects such as bees and ants. Bees sometimes need to find a new nest site and they, too, use quorum sensing to decide on the location. Individuals will go and search for potential sites and upon returning to the nest they will do their famous waggle dance indicating the location of the site they have found.
However, if the site the bee has found is of poor quality, it will quickly stop dancing. Those individuals who are the most persistent – who shout loudest and longest from their soap boxes – will gain the greatest number of followers to their proposed new nest site. These followers, having returned from the potential new nest site, become political activists and add their dance/vote to the cause until there is a landslide victory for one particular new nest site.
What these examples show us is that politics are everywhere, from the bacteria in our bodies to the animals in the world around us. Like it or not, there is no escaping politics.
Robert John Young is professor of wildlife conservation at University of Salford