Featured Article: “Sneezing Dogs, Dancing Bees: How Animals Vote” by Elizabeth Preston.
What comparative political lessons can we learn from the animal kingdom? While they may not conduct continent-spanning electoral contests like the ones on Super Tuesday, all sorts of different animals and insects have methods for finding agreement that are surprisingly democratic.
In this lesson, you will learn how some animals make group decisions and consider ways we can apply their strategies to our own lives.
Imagine your class received a mysterious gift of money to travel anywhere in the country. Disneyland. The Grand Canyon. New York City. Wherever your class wants to go.
How would the group decide where to go?
Should your teacher decide? The most popular student? Would students prepare presentations on possible destinations? How would students persuade one another? Would you have a secret ballot vote? Would there be a show of hands? Would you go with a majority vote? Or would you seek consensus?
Take several minutes to describe the decision-making process that you think the class should use to determine your dream trip. Be as detailed and specific as possible — and consider the efficiency (would the process be too messy or take too long?), fairness (did everyone have a say?) and quality of the result (would it lead to the wisest choice?) for your method.
Afterward, if you are in a classroom setting, share and discuss your plan with a partner.
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. How do groups of meerkats decide which direction to move? Have you ever used a “quorum response” in your own life? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?
2. How do honeybees decide which hole or hollow to start a new home in? What lessons about the role of conflict in a democracy can we learn from honeybees, according to Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell University biologist?
3. How do African wild dogs decide when to hunt? What is the role of dominant and subordinate dogs in the process?
4. What can we learn about consensus building from baboons?
5. Describe the caucus-like method by which rock ants decide to relocate their colonies. How is their decision-making approach different from that of honeybees?
6. What did you learn from the article? What was most interesting, memorable or surprising? What can we learn from the animal kingdom that can offer lessons to our own decision-making process?
Choose one of the following activities:
1) Engage in further research.
Fascinated by the animals discussed in the article? The Times has more intriguing and provocative takes on meerkats, honeybees, African wild dogs, baboons and rock ants. Type your favorite animal in the Science search page to find an archive of articles.
If you’d like to find out more about decision making in the animal kingdom, you might investigate how flocks of birds decide which bird will lead and which direction to go; cooperative hunting in wolves, eagles, hawks and osprey; or female-led animal groups like killer whales, elephants and bonobos.
2) Revise your decision making plan.
Return to your decision-making plan from the warm-up activity. Draw upon methods from the animal kingdom described in the article to revise your original plan. How might you incorporate features such as quorum response, consensus building, caucusing or dominant-versus-subordinate leadership roles?
If you are in a classroom setting, share your revised plan with the whole class. Then, vote to determine which student plan is the best. (Of course, it’s up to the class to decide which voting method to use — which could take a while!)