Wolf Pack

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The following is an excerpt from an essay first published in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s issue Frontiers of Social Inquiry.

Consider the growing ethological evidence of how animal communities themselves do face-to-face politics. Many readers will be familiar with the recent explosion of empirical evidence concerning animal societies and cultures. A century of orthodoxy that viewed animals—from horses to hyenas, from crows to cuckoos—as tightly scripted and instinctive creatures is being overturned. It turns out that many animals are genuinely social and cultural beings—reasoning, norm-complying, and behaviorally flexible individuals who come to be who they are within a particular social and cultural group whose practices are passed down through social learning, not (or not just) instinct. Birds speak in dialects—indeed, animal languages in general are far more complex and variable than humans ever imagined, as is increasingly revealed by new technologies for listening to bats, birds, whales, elephants, and others. Chimpanzees learn to use different tools depending on what community they are born into (or join in late adolescence), orangutans learn different styles of nest construction, some communities of orcas eat salmon while others eat seals, and so on.

These variations within species exist despite similar ecological conditions. By making different discoveries, and different decisions, different groups develop different ways of doing things. Many animals are primed to learn “how we do things around here” (i.e., they are motivated by a desire to learn and conform to local group norms, rather than simply being compelled by instinct) and to put their own spin on song repertoires, or bower-building skills, or hunting roles and techniques. Sometimes individuals innovate entirely new skills—for accessing or cleaning food, for example—skills that others in their community witness and adopt. Indeed, some animals actively share knowledge and ideas beyond their immediate group. Consider how humpback whale song eventually travels around the world, shared from one community to the next. Or how sperm whales learned how to outwit nineteenth-century whaling boats and quickly disseminated this knowledge between different communities (Whitehead, Smith, and Rendell 2021). Also notable are the many animals who develop cooperative arrangements across species boundaries, for hunting, mutual protection, shelter, and so on. Some of these are evolved symbioses that may have a strong instinctive basis; others are minded and deliberate adaptations to new situations and opportunities (Cantor, Farine, and Daura-Jorge 2023).

Animal cultures aren’t just about tools, survival skills, and language. They also concern social and political norms and arrangements. Striking evidence of animal social norms has emerged in the study of play, as in the path-breaking research of Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce on canids (2009). Wolves, coyotes, and dogs develop play-specific rules and norms. Actions (like biting, growling, rolling, mounting) that have one meaning in the context of hunting or sex can be modified and deployed differently in the play context, by mutual agreement of the participants. This means that members of the group need signals to indicate that they are playing (and stopping play). It also requires that participants submit equally to the requirements of play. High-rank individuals need to accept what would be considered insults or failures of deference to their rank in other contexts, for play to succeed. And physically strong individuals need to restrain their power to level the playing field. The normative world of play provides insight into the ways coordination, decision-making, and power work in animal societies more generally.

So, there is growing evidence that many animals exhibit social learning, behavioral flexibility, and innovation, as well as cultural practices and social norms that play an important role in shaping both individuals and communities. But can one talk about animal politics? Do animals have political cultures—that is, norm-governed practices for navigating the complexities of group living? It is important not to reduce the idea of animal politics to standard tropes about the brute exercise of power, such as the idea of “dominance hierarchies” where the strongest or most aggressive animals make all the decisions, exercising power through coercive threat (although this is certainly a dimension of politics in many animal societies, as in the human case). Animal politics is much broader than this, involving myriad practices for navigating the complexities of group living, especially when the group is made up of diverse individuals with both shared and competing interests.

Imagine a herd of wild horses in which some of the mares are expending energy nursing foals and therefore need to eat and drink more than other members of the group. This gives rise to different preferences—some horses might prefer to sleep, while the nursing mothers wish to move to a new grazing spot. What does the herd do? This is not an unusual scenario. Indeed, many kinds of animal communities must make ongoing decisions in the face of diverse interests about when to move, where to go, where to sleep for the night, how best to evade predators and other risks, how to organize eating and mating to avoid conflict, how to play safely, and so on. And it turns out that animal communities have developed a fascinating variety of practices not just for coordinating one-to-one behavior, but also for navigating group-level decisions (Conradt and List 2009; Kerth 2010; Meijer 2019).

One general strategy is fission-fusion. This means that sometimes an animal group in which members have different interests breaks down into smaller subgroups of individuals whose choices are more aligned—for example, the nursing mares who have a common desire to find nutrient-dense pasture, while other members of the herd prefer to rest. At other times, the group comes together and makes decisions for the whole, especially when collective security is concerned. Decisions might be made by leaders (e.g., elders recognized as having special knowledge or skills for avoiding conflict or acting in the best interests of the group) or by voting, to achieve either quorum or majority decision. Such voting is accomplished in various ways. In some cases, animals orient their bodies in the direction they think the group should move. There are African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) who announce their desire to move by a sneezing sound, deploying complicated rules for achieving quorum (with “votes” of high-status individuals given greater weight) (Walker et al. 2017). From a political theory perspective, fission-fusion in animal societies looks something like federalism in human political arrangements—in other words, different levels or scales of decision-making that correspond to different kinds of shared, overlapping, or conflicting interests.

This entire area of research is in its infancy, and we don’t wish to overstate commonalities between human politics and the ways different animal communities resolve the challenges of group living, and the balancing of individual interests and collective flourishing. But the research to date is sufficient to disrupt received ideas of who can do politics and what politics is. Many animals actively, consciously, and purposefully navigate group living. As humans better understand the fascinating and ingenious ways animal societies manage to cooperate and coordinate, despite the inevitable conflicts of group living, it becomes clear that humans are not the only zoon politikon.

If animals have the capacity to act politically, do they also have a right to politics? Glimmers of this idea are emerging within the field of wildlife conservation. It is increasingly recognized that if wild animals are to survive and flourish, they must be able to maintain and adapt their processes of cultural transmission and collective decision-making. This has direct policy implications. Wildlife conservation used to prioritize the protection of young animals with the highest reproductive potential, but it is older animals who are the bearers of cultural knowledge and political authority. The evidence in relation to elephant herds is particularly striking. Where elder elephants have been hunted, disrupting the normal forms of authority, younger elephants turn “rogue” in ways that increase violence among the elephants and between elephants and members of other species (Bradshaw et al. 2005). Forms of conservation that preserve reproductive potential but disrupt cultural transmission and collective authority are therefore self-defeating (Brakes et al. 2021).

Also crucial are the ways animal politics is embedded in ecological and material environments. Consider the case of an elephant matriarch whose authority in the herd is based on her long experience and ability to make good decisions for the group. When a generational drought occurs, the group’s survival depends on her ability to remember the existence of a distant, reliable water source and how to get there. If humans, meanwhile, have obliterated this route (by building a dam or an uncrossable highway), this not only diminishes the chances of survival but also undermines the basis of the matriarch’s leadership (McComb et al. 2011). The flourishing of the group, the integrity of its cultural and social structures, and some level of stability and resilience in its ecological and material situation are interwoven.

The social sciences emerged during the twentieth century at the height of human exceptionalism, but the growing recognition that many animals are also social, cultural, and political beings suggests that core concepts of social and political theory need to be reinterpreted. For example, given that animals’ decision-making processes and collective agency are vital to their flourishing yet highly vulnerable to social, cultural, and ecological disruption, some theorists suggest that wild animals should be viewed as self-determining political communities or “nations,” with rights of self-government, territorial sovereignty, or grounded jurisdiction (e.g., Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011; Papadopoulos 2022; Rizzolo and Bradshaw 2019), and that relations between humans and wild animals should be seen on the model of international diplomacy. This is a radical departure from mainstream Western political theory, which takes for granted human sovereignty over animals, but it is a familiar idea in some Indigenous cultures, which have long understood their relations with wild animals as “nation-to-nation” treaty-based relations (Simpson 2008).

This, then, is a second vision of more-than-human politics, which starts from the idea that wild animals are competent political actors who form their own self-governing communities and who have the right to political autonomy. It offers a strikingly different image of more-than-human politics from the first vision, which emphasizes representing animals as “political patients” within existing human political institutions and decision-making processes. However, they share a gap: neither offers a vision of politics as something humans and animals do together. The first insists humans should take animals’ interests into account while continuing to exercise sovereignty over their lives; the second insists animals have the right to exercise their own forms of collective political agency. But neither offers an account of how humans and animals can exercise political agency together as part of shared political communities, how they can be mutually responsive and accountable and coauthor social norms and ideas of the public good.

Sue Donaldson is a Canadian philosopher, and co-convenor of the Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics research group at Queen’s University, Kingston.

Will Kymlicka is the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy in the Philosophy Department at Queen’s University, Kingston.