Apparently, the lofty principles of our democracy may have a straightforward biological origin, and can emerge without any elaborate design. Simple-majority democracy can safeguard the will of the majority, and, at least judging by the frequency with which its found in nature, seems to be one of the best ways of resolving conflicting interests among individuals who have to stick together—whether it’s a swarm of bees or a band of monkeys. It’s no wonder a motley crew of gregarious species, including humans, have evolved to use this same wisdom in making collective decisions.
This remarkable fact is more than a curiosity—it can also be a useful model. It offers the opportunity to evaluate how robust democracy is against deviations from simple-majority rules.
Not all voters are well-informed. Some may be ignorant, incompetent, or uninterested in the common good. How can a simple majority work in this case? It’s an issue that has concerned thinkers ancient and modern, including Plato, Thomas Hobbes, and John Stuart Mill. Plato was almost paranoid about the prospect of electing fools who are narrowly self-interested and have no philosophical vision. (Today we have plenty of examples.) He decried democracy as nothing more than mob rule, and preferred instead an aristocracy led by a wise “philosopher king.” Concerns like this led to the practice of voter literacy tests, which were only ditched in the United States in 1975.
But will ignorant voters really jeopardize simple-majority democracy? By looking at animals, we get the hint of an answer. Iain Couzin and colleagues at Princeton University used food to train two groups of golden shiners (a small fish) to swim from one end of a tank to either a yellow or a blue target located on the other end.3 They then released the two groups of trained fish into a group of naïve fish. The naïve fish tended to follow whichever informed group had more members—the majority. If there were more informed fish pursuing the yellow (or blue) target, the naïve fish also pursued it. What’s more, the more naïve fish there were, the stronger the trend became. So the presence of the ignorant not only failed to undermine the voting of the informed majority, it actually fortified it.
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Would Twitter Ruin Bee Democracy? – Issue 55: …
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