Once upon a time an orangutan named Ken Allen at the San Diego Zoo, who was notorious for carrying out complex escape plans. He found every nut and bolt in his cage and unscrewed them; in his open enclosure he threw stones and feces at visitors. On one occasion he built a ladder out of some fallen branches and carefully tested his weight on the steps. Then the zoo raised his fencing walls and smoothed them to remove handles.
Hoping to distract Ken introduced zoo some female orangutans. But Ken inscribed them as accomplices: While distracting the animal keepers, his fellow prisoner Vicki opened a window. Once, Ken was caught waist-deep in water in the enclosure’s moat, in an attempt to go up the sides, despite the fact that orangutans are thought to be intensely hydrophobic. As for the electrified wires on top of the fence walls, Ken tested them repeatedly, and one day, during a maintenance break, he tried to jump out.
Animal escape attempts often create news headlines, but these are not mind-boggling acts of sabotage or curiosity; rather, they are forms of active and knowledgeable resistance to the conditions that humans impose on them. Animal resistance acts in captivity reflect those of humans: they ignore commands, slow down, refuse to work, break equipment, damage enclosures, fight, and disappear. Their actions are a struggle against exploitation – as such they constitute political activity.
Politics is basically the science and art of making decisions. We generally perceive politics as the things carried out by politicians and activists within the framework of national and local authorities – but in reality it is the everyday, everyday business of municipal organization. Every time two or more people make a deal or make a decision, politics is at work. For people, politics plays out in all sorts of ways: in parliaments, at the ballot box, in our daily decisions about how we want to live. Every choice we make that affects others is in itself political. This of course includes voting, but it also includes the things we make and design; our relationships with our partners and neighbors; what we consume, trade on, share and reject. Even though we say we want nothing to do with politics, we do not really have that option – politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, whether we want to or not. By definition, it is the process by which almost everything is done. In this sense, politics, when organized, is also a kind of technology: the framework of communication and processing that governs everyday interaction and opportunities.
This understanding of politics also means that our decision-making processes must extend beyond our own human lives: to non-human animals, to the planet, and in the very near future to autonomous AI. I call this a “more-than-human” policy that draws from ecologist and philosopher David Abram’s concept of a more-than-human world, a way of thinking that fully recognizes and engages in all living beings and ecological systems. A more than human political system can take many forms. Among humans, most political interactions are legislative and judicial, but we have much to learn from the myriad ways in which animals act politically with each other.
Animals make politics practically; this is true for individual animals, as in the case of Ken Allen, but it is especially important for animal social groups. Social cohesion is crucial for collective survival, and therefore all social animals practice some form of consensus decision-making, especially around migration and choice of feeding sites. As in human society, this can lead to conflicts of interest between team members. (Most of us are familiar with the horror of getting a group of people to agree on a restaurant.) The answer to this problem in the animal world is rarely, if ever, despotism; far more often it involves the democratic process.
A few notable examples: Red deer, which live in large herds and often stop to rest and chew, will begin to move from a resting area when 60 percent of the adults get up; they literally toss with their feet. The same goes for buffaloes, though the characters are more subtle: The female members of the herd indicate their preferred direction of travel by getting up, staring in one direction, and lying down again. Birds also exhibit complex decision-making behaviors. By attaching small GPS loggers to pigeons, researchers have learned that decisions about when and where to fly are shared by all members of a herd.
Perhaps the biggest exponent of animal equality is the honey bee. Honeybees have their own distinct history, first as thoughtful pastoralists and pacifists – all bees are descended from one wasp species that decided to become vegetarian about 100 million years ago – and secondly as highly organized, communicative and consensus-building communities. Their great commitment to social life is embodied in the beekeeper’s proverb, which may serve as a political slogan: “And apis, nulla apis“means” one bee is no bee. “
Honeybees perform one of the greatest performances in the field of democracy in practice, known as the “waggle dance”. The Waggle dance was first described scientifically in 1944 by the Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch, as a means by which feed bees 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 indicated that they were looking for a new home. But he also noticed that some of these bees performed wagging dances and that these bees, unlike pollen-dusted feeders, were covered in soot and brick dust, soil and flour. These were not foremen, Lindauer realized; they were scouts.