once An orangutan named Ken Allen at the San Diego Zoo is notorious for executing complex escape plans. He found every nut and bolt in the cage and unscrewed them. In his open enclosure, he threw rocks and feces at tourists. At one point, he built a ladder out of some fallen branches and carefully tested his weight on the rung. After that, the zoo raised the walls and leveled them, removing the handles.
To distract Ken, the zoo brought in some female orangutans. But Ken lists them as accomplices: while he distracts the zookeeper, his cellmate Vicky pried open a window. At one point, Ken was trapped in waist-deep water in the fence’s moat, trying to get his sides up an inch, despite the orangutan being thought to be strongly hydrophobic. As for the wires at the top of the fence, Ken tested it repeatedly, and one day, during a maintenance break, he tried to jump out.
Attempts by animals to escape often make novel headlines, but these are not acts of unconscious destruction or curiosity; rather, they are forms of active and knowing resistance to the conditions humans impose on them. The resistance behavior of animals in captivity is similar to that of humans: they ignore commands, slow down, refuse to work, destroy equipment, break fences, fight and abscond. Their actions are a struggle against exploitation – and thus, they constitute political activity.
Essentially, politics is the science and art of decision-making. We usually think of politics as what politicians and activists do within the framework of national and local governments – but in reality it is the day-to-day business of public organisations. Politics comes into play whenever two or more people come to an agreement or make a decision. For humans, politics comes into play in a variety of ways: in parliament, in the ballot box, in our day-to-day decisions about how we want to live. Every choice we make that affects others is inherently political. This obviously includes voting, but also what we make and design; our relationships with our partners and neighbors; what we consume, act on, share and reject. Even if we say we don’t want to have anything to do with politics, we don’t have that choice – politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, whether we want to or not. By definition, it is the process of getting almost everything done. In this sense, politics, when organized, is also a technology: the communication and processing frameworks that govern day-to-day interactions and possibilities.
This understanding of politics also means that our decision-making processes must extend beyond our own lives: to non-human animals, to Earth, and, in the near future, to autonomous artificial intelligence. The politics of what I call “beyond humans” draws on ecologist and philosopher David Abram’s concept of a world beyond humans, a way of thinking that fully acknowledges and engages all living things and ecosystems. A transhuman political system can take many forms. In humans, most political interactions are legislative and judicial interactions, but we can learn a lot from the various political behaviors between animals.
animals do politics Almost; this is true for individual animals, as was the case with Ken Allen, but is especially important for social groups of animals. Social cohesion is essential for collective survival, so all social animals make some sort of consensus decision, especially when it comes to migration and choosing where to forage. As in human societies, this can lead to conflicting interests among group members. (Most of us are familiar with the horrors of getting a group of people to agree on a restaurant.) In the animal world, the answer to this question is rarely, if ever, authoritarian. More commonly, it involves democratic processes.
A few notable examples: Red deer live in herds, often stop to rest and regurgitate, and start to leave the rest area once 60% of adults are on their feet; they actually vote with their feet. The same is true for buffaloes, though the signs are more subtle: Female members of the herd indicate their preferred direction of travel by standing up, staring in one direction, and then lying down again. Birds also exhibit complex decision-making behaviors. By attaching small GPS loggers to the pigeons, the scientists learned that decisions about when and where to fly are made jointly by all members of the flock.
Perhaps the greatest representative of animal equality is the bee. Bees have their own unique histories, first as thoughtful pastoralists and pacifists – all bees are descended from a species of wasp that decided to become vegetarian some 100 million years ago – and second as highly organized, communicative and consensus-building Community. Their legendary commitment to social life is embodied in a beekeeper’s proverb, which may double as a political slogan: “pee, nulla apis,” which means “a bee is not a bee. “
The bees perform one of the greatest democratic spectacles in practice, known as the “swing dance.” Swing dancing was first described scientifically by Austrian behaviorist Karl von Frisch in 1944 as a way for foraging bees to share the location of nearby pollen sources. A few years later, one of Frisch’s graduate students, Martin Lindauer, noticed a swarm of bees hanging from a tree. Their behavior suggests they are looking for a new home. But he also noticed that some of the bees were doing waggle dances and, unlike the pollen-sprayed foragers, were covered in soot, brick dust, dirt and flour. Lindauer realized that these were not foragers. They are scouts.