We like to think we are a very special species. We base this claim not just on our intelligence, but on the richness of our emotional and social lives — yet it is a claim that is increasingly hard to sustain. Just as science has revealed new depths of animal intelligence and emotional capacity, it is learning that animal social behavior is far more complex than we once thought.
Ashley Ward is a British-born animal behaviorist, now a professor at the University of Sydney. In a forthcoming book, he charts what scientists now know about the social lives of animals, from swarming krill and flocks of birds all the way up the scale of relatability to elephants and, our closest relatives, chimpanzees. By understanding social behavior in animals, he suggests, we can learn about ourselves.
Some parallels are certainly suggestive. Take the 1947 rat experiment that encouraged city-like rat societies, complete with overcrowding. As the population density rose above a critical limit, social behavior broke down. Violence erupted. Mothers abandoned their young. Sex became weaponized.
The parallels drawn here are mostly cheerier, though (and drawn from newer research). Social behavior is cooperative, after all. Antarctic krill — of which there are 10,000 for every person alive — help to keep each other afloat by creating upwelling currents. Migrating birds eliminate error by pooling information, and birds flying in V formations follow precisely in the path of the bird ahead — riding the upwash like children following an adult’s footprints in the snow. Except the trail is invisible, and turbulent, and in three dimensions.
Some animal behavior seems almost democratic. African buffalo wake up and gaze toward where they want to go; the herd heads off in the direction chosen by the majority. Tonkean macaques line up behind candidates for a leader, like MPs voting in the Commons. Army ants even elect their queens: when founding a new colony, they form two columns down which the contenders march with their attendants; when a queen is accepted by each line, it sets off.
Antarctic krill help to keep each other afloat by creating upwelling currents.
Such “quorum responses” benefit survival. So, more directly, does cooperative hunting. We know about this from wildlife documentaries, but the scale and depth of team organization is extraordinary. Groups of sperm whales form cordons more than half a mile long when searching for squid. Female orcas will babysit youngsters for their relatives while they deep-dive in search of prey. Chimps work together to hunt — one Senegalese troop even uses makeshift spears — and, intriguingly, will share out the meat of a kill, even though the fruit that makes up most of their diet is usually consumed alone.
Grieving behavior in animals is peculiarly suggestive of qualities such as empathy and individuality. Elephant graveyards are a myth, but elephants do respond distinctively when they come across the bones of one of their own. And when a female elephant dies, the others may gather round, stroking her body and covering it in leaves and earth. Sometimes they return to the site weeks later, with a certain stillness.
Chimps mourn too. They have been seen approaching dead members of the community, whimpering, hugging each other and lingering quietly. And when a baby chimp is born, the mother will receive up to 100 visits a day from chimps wanting to touch the youngster — which they will do even if the mother is unwilling, in the case of high-ranking visitors. Baboon females, meanwhile, bully subordinates to such a degree that the stress makes it difficult for them to conceive.
Language, of course, is still regarded as distinctively human — but it is looking wobbly as a unique species identifier. Vervet monkeys, for instance, have a different alarm call for each of their main predators. (The males, fascinatingly, are more likely to sound the alarm when they are with females; it seems that they want the credit for watchfulness.) Dolphins and sperm whales have signature tunes that they give to announce themselves; it would not be a stretch to call it a name. Young dolphins, endearingly, take a year or two to settle on what to call themselves.
Language is still regarded as distinctively human — but it is looking wobbly as a unique species identifier.
Ward has a good eye for details of that sort, and he writes vividly. He describes how Antarctic nauplii — baby krill — graze on the underside of the ice “like herds of tiny, upside-down wildebeest”. How, before coral reef fish decide as a group to move from one coral patch to another, their activity builds up “like a pan of water coming to the boil” — individual fish making solo feints until one recruits enough followers to launch a mass exodus. How the change from the solitarious to the gregarious phase of the desert locust is like the “Mogwai-to-Gremlin switch”; as they start to swarm, they transform in color from a mottled camouflage effect to a “vivid livery” of yellow, black and orange.
The Social Lives of Animals is a survey, not a memoir, but you catch likable glimpses of the author. He recalls a field trip to Kenya in which a baboon made an aggressive display of a “startlingly pink penis” to an entire minibus, as a warning to keep away from the females in his troop. “I think he overestimated my interest in his women,” Ward comments, “but I couldn’t help but admire the self-assurance of his approach.”
Ward also describes getting so lost as a child in the contemplation of a stream that a stoat came to drink inches from his face. This book does get a little lost in the wonders of animal behavior. There isn’t much of a thesis.
Ward does make one very striking observation, though. He points out that herd behavior does not have a good reputation. We dismiss “groupthink” and deride “sheeple”. Yet the evolution of intelligence depended on emulation and imitation as much as on innovation. Civilization is founded on cooperation — on the social instincts we evolved and share with fellow animals.
The Social Lives of Animals, by Ashley Ward, will be published on March 1
James McConnachie is a U.K.-based journalist and author of several books, including The Book of Love