Democracy can be defined as collective decision-making based on the will of the majority. Defined in this manner, chimpanzees appear to behave democratically. The potential ramifications are startling: humanity’s closest living relative is more like us than we ever knew.
Chimpanzee democracy has only recently been studied but recent research is fascinating. In a typical chimp troupe, there is an alpha-male who dominates the social group. However, the legitimacy of the alpha-male is not based on his physical strength alone. He is reliant on broad support from the rest of the members of the troupe not only to maintain power but also to gain it in the first place.
An alpha-male or a potential rival gain and lose support based on a variety of factors. Chimpanzees are social creatures that require empathy and an ability to come together for group problem-solving. Successful hunting in groups relies upon the skill of individuals in the community and leadership in such challenges is closely watched. In a community composed of intelligent creatures with strong social awareness and long memories, the troupe is able to set limits on the behavior of the alpha male, put his actions in check, and minimize his excesses.
Because humans and chimpanzees evolved from a recent common ancestor then it is likely that we can discover more about our social traits from them. Emory University’s Dr. Frans de Waal, one of the world’s best-known primatologists, argues in a recent book, ”Primates and Philosophers”, that human and chimp societies are evolutionarily linked in important ways:
“Chimps as social animals have had to constrain and alter their behavior in various ways, as have humans. It is a part of ape inheritance… and in the case of humans, the basis for morality.”
The democratic nature of any group of individuals is revealed by how the group goes about legitimizing leadership and the existence of collective-decision making mechanisms. The incredibly fascinating social attributes found in chimpanzee troupes are evidence for democracy in nature. A male chimpanzee can only win the right to be leader of his community if he gains popular support. If chimps can be this organized, what is to be said of humans who are supposedly intelligent and rational beings? Are we doing any better?