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Contrary to Orwell, Democracy Rules on the Big Animal Farm<br><br>
By JAMES GORMAN<br><br><br><br><br><br>
When red deer stand up and honeybees dance, they are not simply stretching their legs or indicating where the nectar is, according to a new study. As bizarre as it may seem, they are voting on whether to move to greener pastures or richer flowers.<br><br><br><br>
The process is unconscious, the researchers say. No deer counts votes or checks ballots; bees do not know the difference between a dimple and a chad. But no one deer or bee or buffalo decides when the group moves. If democracy means that actions are taken based not on a ruler's preference, but the preferences of a majority, then animals have democracy.<br><br><br><br><br><br>
Not surprisingly, decisions based on majority preferences tend to fit in with what most individuals in the group want. But, the researchers say, this is not a mere tautology. An analysis based on some hefty mathematical models that they developed shows that democracy in groups of animals can have a tangible survival edge over despotism.<br><br><br><br>
Dr. Tim Roper, of the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, who did the research with Dr. Larissa Conradt and reported it in the current issue of Nature, said that despite the wording of the paper, "We're very anxious to avoid any extrapolation to the political domain."<br><br><br><br>
The voting habits of baboons and gorillas and buffalo are not meant to be comparable to ward politics, attack ads on television or negative campaigning that ignores the issues.<br><br><br><br>
The parallel to human activity is on a different scale. "There are human cases of decision making to which our model would be relevant," Dr. Roper said, like "small groups making rather simple decisions."<br><br><br><br>
He offered an example: "Suppose you've got a few friends who want to meet in the pub in the evening. In order to all be at the same place in the same time, they've got to talk it over."<br><br><br><br>
Presumably the deer and swans don't whine as much as people do, or threaten to find a new flock if everyone keeps going to the same place with the soggy French fries. But the question how the decision gets made is the same. And although human groups have been well studied, and individual animals, little attention has been paid to decision making by groups of animals.<br><br><br><br>
Dr. Thomas D. Seeley of Cornell, whose research on bees was cited in the paper, but who was not aware of it in advance, said: "I think it's a very important paper. The basic phenomenon that they're looking at group decision making is actually fairly common, but it's not well studied."<br><br><br><br>
He said that most of the study of animal decision making had been at the individual level, and although there seemed to be groups that decided, en masse, to act, "there's really been no theory about why you would expect the decision making to be democratic, or distributed."<br><br><br><br>
Dr. Seeley said he thought the phrasing of the decision making in terms of democracy or despotism was fair, and that the paper was "a good first step" that could lead to other research.<br><br><br><br>
Dr. Conradt and Dr. Roper did their research in two parts. First they reviewed earlier research to determine whether various group decisions were being directed by one individual or seemed to come from the group as a whole.<br><br><br><br>
For example, observations of group behavior showed that red deer moved when more that 60 percent of adults stood up that is, voted with their feet. In African buffalo, he said, adult females made the decisions, voting with the direction of their gaze.<br><br><br><br>
Whooper swans voted with head movements. They would move when a large number made low intensity movements, or when a smaller number made high intensity movements.<br><br><br><br>
Somehow, unconsciously, the animals sense when enough of them get the urge for going. It is certainly a decision by a majority, but what to call it is another question. Dr. Kathreen Ruckstuhl of the University of Cambridge, who studies bighorn sheep and was familiar with some of the studies of African buffalo the paper describes, said, "It all depends on how you define democracy."<br><br><br><br>
If no conscious act is required and democracy simply means that the group acts according to the preference of a majority, then it is democracy. She did question whether anything corresponding to "despotism" could exist, since even in a group that followed a leader, the implication of coercion might be inappropriate.<br><br><br><br>
The more complicated aspect of the research involved mathematical models that Dr. Conradt and Dr. Roper developed to analyze the benefits to animal groups of different ways of decision making that they described as democratic or despotic.<br><br><br><br>
In essence the models compared costs to individuals of not getting to do things when they wanted to. Having to wait or hurry up was considered a cost, and the presumption was that for animals as for people, time is money or food or something important to survival.<br><br><br><br>
These are abstract models, not ways to process the previous research. And what they show is that when majorities decide, more individuals get what they want, and that should translate into better survival. There could, of course, be situations with incredibly smart or sensitive despots that maximize the benefit to the group, but Dr. Conradt and Dr. Roper did not come up with them.<br><br><br><br>
Dr. Roper said the research was meant to suggest a new way of looking at decision making and a new area for research. The models apply only to animals that make group decisions.<br><br><br><br>
It may be that some animals, like domestic cats, for instance, do not vote, do not care to vote and have no interest in any sort of group activity. They were not, however, a subject of the paper. Dr. Roper and Dr. Conradt modeled democracy and despotism. They did not consider anarchy.
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