Select Page
Can Democracy Include a World Beyond Humans?

Can Democracy Include a World Beyond Humans?

There was once an orangutan named Ken Allen at the San Diego Zoo who was notorious for carrying out complex escape plans. He found every nut and bolt in his cage and unscrewed them; in his open enclosure he threw rocks and feces at visitors. On one occasion, he constructed a ladder out of some fallen branches, carefully testing his weight on the rungs. After that, the zoo raised his enclosure walls and smoothed them to remove handholds.

Hoping to distract Ken, the zoo introduced some female orangutans. But Ken enlisted them as accomplices: While he distracted the zookeepers, his fellow inmate Vicki pried open a window. One time, Ken was caught waist-deep in water in the enclosure’s moat, attempting to inch up the sides, despite the fact that orangutans are believed to be intensely hydrophobic. As for the electrified wires on top of the enclosure walls, Ken tested them repeatedly, and one day, during a maintenance break, he tried to hop out.

Animal escape attempts often make novelty news headlines, but these are not mindless acts of sabotage or curiosity; rather, they are forms of active and knowing resistance to the conditions forced upon them by humans. Animal acts of resistance in captivity mirror those of humans: They ignore commands, slow down, refuse to work, break equipment, damage enclosures, fight, and abscond. Their actions are a struggle against exploitation—as such, they constitute political activity.

Politics, at heart, is the science and art of making decisions. We commonly think of politics as the stuff done by politicians and activists within the framework of national and local government—but really it is the mundane, everyday business of communal organization. Any time two or more people make an agreement or come to a decision, politics is at work. For humans, politics plays out in all kinds of ways: in parliaments, at the ballot box, in our daily decisions about how we want to live. Every choice we make that affects others is itself political. This obviously includes voting, but it also includes the things we make and design; our relationships with our partners and neighbors; what we consume, act upon, share, and refuse. Even if we say that we want nothing to do with politics, we don’t really have that option—politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, whether we want it to or not. By definition, it is the process by which almost anything at all gets done. In this sense, politics, when organized, is also a kind of technology: the framework of communication and processing that governs everyday interaction and possibility.

This understanding of politics also means that our decisionmaking processes must extend beyond our own human lives: to nonhuman animals, to the planet, and in the very near future to autonomous AI. I call this a “more-than-human” politics, drawing from ecologist and philosopher David Abram’s concept of a more-than-human world, a way of thinking that fully acknowledges and engages with all living beings and ecological systems. A more-than-human political system can take many forms. Among humans, most political interactions are legislative and judicial, but we have much to learn from the myriad ways animals act politically among themselves.

Animals do politics practically; this is true for individual animals, as in the case of Ken Allen, but it is especially important for animal social groups. Social cohesion is critical to collective survival, and so all social animals practice some kind of consensus decisionmaking, particularly around migration and selecting feeding sites. Just as in human society, this can lead to conflicts of interests between group members. (Most of us are familiar with the horror of getting a group of people to agree on a restaurant.) The answer to this problem in the animal world is rarely, if ever, despotism; far more frequently, it involves democratic process.

A few remarkable examples: Red deer, who live in large herds and frequently stop to rest and ruminate, will start to move off from a rest area once 60 percent of adults stand up; they literally vote with their feet. The same goes for buffalo, although the signs are more subtle: The female members of the herd indicate their preferred direction of travel by standing up, staring in one direction, and lying down again. Birds, too, display complex decisionmaking behavior. By attaching small GPS loggers to pigeons, scientists have learned that decisions about when and where to fly are shared by all members of a flock.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of animal equality is the honeybee. Honeybees have their own distinct history, first as thoughtful pastoralists and pacifists—all bees are descended from one species of wasp that decided to go vegetarian some 100 million years ago—and secondly as highly organized, communicative, and consensus-building communities. Their storied commitment to social life is enshrined in the beekeeper’s proverb, which might double as a political slogan: “Una apis, nulla apis,” meaning “one bee is no bee.”

Honeybees perform one of the greatest spectacles of democracy-in-practice, known as the “waggle dance.” The waggle dance was first described scientifically in 1944, by Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch, as a means by which forager bees share the locations of nearby pollen sources. A few years later, one of Frisch’s graduate students, Martin Lindauer, noticed a swarm of bees hanging from a tree. Their behavior indicated that they were searching for a new home. But he also noticed that some of these bees were performing waggle dances, and that unlike pollen-dusted foragers, these bees were covered in soot and brick dust, earth and flour. These weren’t foragers, Lindauer realized; they were scouts.

When Covid Came for Provincetown

When Covid Came for Provincetown

“At that point I started texting everyone I’d come in contact with over the week,” he says. Realizing how many people visit Provincetown from across the country, he posted about being infected on Twitter and Instagram too. DMs flowed back, from people who thought they’d picked up some summer crud as they traveled. “They thought they were fine,” he says. “Then they tested themselves, and it turned out they also had Covid.”

One of the people Holihan texted was Donnelly. This might seem odd, because Donnelly isn’t an epidemiologist. He is a policy geek who has done macroeconomic forecasting at the Federal Reserve Board and data analysis at Spotify and Facebook. But since early 2020, Donnelly had also been applying his skills to forecasting what Covid might do in the US, a way of making sense for himself of the data flowing from other countries and explaining to others why they ought to be more worried than they were. “Essentially, I wanted to convince my friends it was bad,” he says.

Donnelly’s analyses, which he initially published on Medium, had been solid. He had foreseen that federal action would be needed two days before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. He had warned that New York City would have to shut down six days before Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the whole state would be put “on pause.” That prediction led to a consulting gig with New York state (forecasting possible case counts, bed needs, and ventilator orders) and then to founding a site called CovidOutlook.info, a home for reports and predictions that he spun up with Michael LeVasseur, an epidemiologist at Drexel University.

So by the time the Delta variant began creeping through Provincetown, Donnelly was an informal but thoroughly informed expert in what Covid was doing in the US. “I had been tracking variants over the previous six months and, broadly, thought concerns about them were overblown,” he says. When his friends started testing positive, he was surprised, and nettled. He didn’t like being wrong.

Early in the pandemic Michael Donnelly became an expert in Covid data and a nerd node for his friends.

Early in the pandemic, Michael Donnelly became an expert in Covid data and a nerd node for his friends.

Photograph: VICTOR LLORENTE

Rumors about people testing positive were zipping through group chats: most of this house, everyone in that cottage; the Pennsylvania group, the California group, that couple from DC; 10 people positive, or 15, or 25. Text by text, Donnelly began verifying the stories, asking people about the symptoms they had and the tests they had taken, when they were vaccinated and which shot they got, and all the details of their visits to Provincetown—where they stayed, who they hung out with, which bars and restaurants and shows they went to. He started collecting information on Saturday afternoon, and by Monday he had more than 50 names in a spreadsheet.

The list represented a shocking number of breakthrough infections for a young, healthy, affluent population, a group that should have been at the lowest risk. Donnelly felt an itch to do a study, but LeVasseur persuaded him to turn the project over to a bigger institution than their team of two. Donnelly got in touch with Demetre Daskalakis, the former head of the infectious disease programs in New York City’s health department, who was now at the CDC. On Monday night, Donnelly texted, offering the spreadsheet. Daskalakis asked for it immediately.

Within 24 hours, Daskalakis set up calls between Donnelly, the CDC, and the Massachusetts health department. By the end of the week, the agencies had created a task force, set up a phone number and an email for people to self-report, reached out to other states that visitors had gone home to, and gotten mobile testing units rolling toward Provincetown. “It’s the most accelerated response I’ve ever seen in public health,” Daskalakis says. “And Michael pretty much started that outbreak investigation himself.”

The End of Alcohol

The End of Alcohol

For years, too, there’s been a stampede of self-help books by alcohol skeptics, most of them women, many of whom once had trouble drinking not the third bottle. These books have included My Unfurling, by Lisa May Bennett; Her Best-Kept Secret, by Gabrielle Glaser; This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace; The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, by Catherine Gray; Mindful Drinking, by Rosamund Dean; Drink?, by David Nutt; Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington; and Quit Like a Woman, by Holly Whitaker. The subtitles run together, but they make big promises. If they follow the instructions, readers of these books—and listeners to adjacent and spin-off podcasts, including Recovery Happy Hour and Edit Podcast—will break up with alcohol, emerge from the grip of anxiety, radically defy patriarchy and capitalism, and become happy, healthy, and even wealthy. As 12-steppers will tell you, traditional recovery from alcoholism guarantees none of these marvels.

Some of the intoxication with nonintoxication may be more than a pose. People really do seem to be cutting back on drinking. According to Gallup, in 2019, 65 percent of American adults drank alcohol; in 2021, even after the claustrophobia and worry of the plague years, that number went down to 60 percent. What’s more, Americans went from (an avowed) four alcoholic drinks weekly in 2019 to 3.6 in 2021.

To cater to these newly temperate types—that is, to get those who decline to consume to keep consuming—sober-friendly bars have shot up like crocuses in New York, Denver, Miami, Austin, and San Francisco. Some of these places serve no booze at all. Others feature extravagant mocktails alongside full bars. At these places, someone with a drink the color of rust or algae can generally pass as a habitué. Amid chic decor, mixologists lace soft drinks with sophistication-signifiers and wallet-declutterers like orgeat, tobacco syrup, and chinotto orange.

In the last year, household-name mocktail moguls including Blake Lively, Bella Hadid, and Katy Perry have introduced their nonalcoholic beverages in collectible, high-design containers. The promises made by these drinks, which are largely water and tea plus high style, complement the ones made on the covers of sobriety books. Several available on Amazon, including Tranquini and Recess, come with herbal adaptogens, the latest wide-spectrum panacea for stress, in place of alcohol, the best wide-spectrum panacea for stress. Töst, one sober beverage brand, offers a “grown-up, complex” fake wine, while another called Seedlip distills plants to make a “flavorful, sophisticated, adult option.” Maybe sobers do fear being perceived as babies.

Just the way Big Food engendered Big Diet, Big Alcohol seems well on its way to engendering a new market sector with Big Sobriety. That could mean hefty payouts for opportunists who are more entrepreneurial than sober. Already, an 8-ounce can of Katy Perry’s De Soi Purple Lune drink, a fizzy tea with rose and myrrh that comes with outlandish health claims about balance and stress relief, can be yours for $6. This is nearly five times the price of a can of Bud.

The Internet Is Not as New as You Think

The Internet Is Not as New as You Think

When Kant proclaimed in the Critique of the Power of Judgment that there will never be a “Newton for the blade of grass”—that is, that no one will account for the generation and growth of grass in terms of blind mechanical laws of nature in the way that Newton had managed to do a century earlier for the motions of the planets, the tides, cannonballs, and other objects of interest to mathematical physics—he was not simply reporting on the state of research in the life sciences. Rather, Kant supposed, we will always be cognitively constrained, simply given the way our minds work, to apprehend biological systems in a way that includes, rightly or wrongly, the idea of an end-oriented design, even if we can never have any positive idea—or, as Kant would say, any determinate concept—of what the ends are or of who or what did the designing. In other words, we are constrained to cognize living beings and living systems in a way that involves an analogy to the things that we human beings design for our own ends—the clepsydras and ploughs, the smartphones and fiber-optic networks—even if we can never ultimately determine whether this analogy is only an unjustified carrying-over of explanations from a domain where they do belong into one where they do not.

Kant understood the problem as an intractable one, arising simply from the structure of human cognition. Yet this did not prevent subsequent generations from assuming dogmatic positions on one of the two possible sides of the debate concerning the boundary between the natural on the one hand and the artificial or cultural on the other. “Do male ducks rape female ducks?” is a question that sparked and sustained heated and ultimately futile debates in the late 20th century. The so-called sociobiologists, led by E. O. Wilson, took it as obvious that they do, while their opponents, notably Stephen Jay Gould, insisted that rape is by definition a morally charged category of action and so also by definition a category that pertains only to the human sphere; that it is thus an unjustified anthropomorphization of ducks to attribute the capacity for such an action to them; and that moreover it is dangerous to do so, since to say that ducks rape is to naturalize rape and in turn to open up the possibility of viewing human rape as morally neutral. If rape is so widespread as to be found even among ducks, the worry went, then some might conclude that it is simply a natural feature of the range of human actions and that it is hopeless to try to eliminate it. And the sociobiologists would reply: Perhaps, but just look at what that drake is doing, and how the female struggles to get away, and try to find a word that captures what you are seeing better than “rape.”

The debate is, again, unresolved, for reasons that Kant could probably have anticipated. We can never fully know what it is like to be a duck, and so we cannot know whether what we are seeing in nature is a mere external appearance of what would be rape if it were occurring among humans, or whether it is truly, properly, duck rape. The same goes for ant cannibalism, for gay penguins, and so many other animal behaviors that some people would prefer to think of as distinctly human, either because they are so morally atrocious that extending them to other living beings risks normalizing them by naturalizing them, or because they are so valued that our sense of our own specialness among creatures requires us to see the appearance of these behaviors in other species as mere appearance, as simulation, counterfeit, or aping. And the same holds for the mycorhizal networks that connect groves of trees. Are these “communication networks” in the same sense as the internet is, or is the “wood wide web” only a metaphor?

It is not to be flippant or to give up too easily to say that the determination is ours to make, and that no further empirical inquiry will tell us whether such a comparison or assimilation taps into some real truth about the world. The choice is ours to make, though we would perhaps do better not to make a choice at all, but instead, with Kant, to entertain the evident similarity between the living system and the artifice with an appropriate critical suspension. Our minds will just keep returning to the analogy between nature and artifice, between organism and machine, between living system and network. And the fact that our minds are doing this says something about who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. What we in any case cannot help but notice is that, like a network of roots laced with fungal filaments, like a field of grass, the internet too is a growth, an outgrowth, an excrescence of the species-specific activity of Homo sapiens.

If we were not so attached to the idea that human creations are of an ontologically different character than everything else in nature—that, in other words, human creations are not really in nature at all, but extracted out of nature and then set apart from it—we might be in a better position to see human artifice, including both the mass-scale architecture of our cities and the fine and intricate assembly of our technologies, as a properly natural outgrowth of our species-specific activity. It is not that there are cities and smartphones wherever there are human beings, but cities and smartphones themselves are only the concretions of a certain kind of natural activity in which human beings have been engaging all along.

To see this, or at least to appreciate it or take it seriously, is not to reduce human beings to ants, or to reduce love letters (or indeed sexts) to pheromone signals. We can still love our own species even as we seek to retrain it, at the end of a few millennia of forgetfulness, to feel at home in nature. And part of this must mean seeking to expose the pretense in the idea that our productions have a more exceptional character than they in fact do alongside everything else nature has yielded.

Rain Boots, Turning Tides, and the Search for a Missing Boy

Rain Boots, Turning Tides, and the Search for a Missing Boy

Later that week, in a video now viewed tens of thousands of times, Jada Brooke fanned the flames. She’d spoken to a family member of Dylan’s, she said, who was “on our side and agrees that something’s not right here.” “I had a vision of him being kicked down a set of stairs … That was actually verified to me,” she told viewers, providing no evidence. She said she’d had a vision of a shallow grave between two trees, 5 or 6 feet apart, on a property that also held a red and white truck. That led a Truro resident named Dawn to a field that held a red and white horse trailer. Inspired, a band of residents broke into the trailer. They found a pile of dry hay, which Brooke called suspicious for its lack of mold. Brooke triumphantly pointed out that the trailer, which sat in front of a stand of trees, was proof her vision had been accurate. “If I go quiet or something in the group for a while, just remember, I have six kids of my own, I home-school four. I’m a very involved mother. My kids don’t go missing, you know what I mean?”

The abuse spilled beyond accusations about the couple’s parenting. Jason received scam ransom notes from online trolls; one included a doctored picture of Dylan’s face, battered with bruises over his right eye and a deep gash on his lip. “You must transfer 3 bitcoins,” the message read, “within 72 hours.” The sender, a Facebook account under the name Brad, told Jason he’d release his son once the transfer was made, and if he didn’t, he’d never see him again. “You have 3 days to save Dylan’s life,” he wrote.

After six days, with no new evidence—no footprints or debris or credible sightings—the police called off their search. Nothing but rain boots. But Jason didn’t stop. He walked the creek bed day after day, drawing dozens of locals to help. The GoFundMe page would raise about $12,500 for the family. Ashley and Jason offered it up as a reward for any information.

Jason handed out lapel pins, a blue ribbon and a green ribbon intertwined. He gave away key chains bearing his son’s face. He ordered bumper stickers of Dylan looking upward, mismatched eyes scanning the sky. “Do you want some swag?” he asked me sadly, the first time we met. He handed me a green and blue bracelet and a sticker. Maybe, he said, if I put it on my car back home, two provinces over, someone there would see it and call in a sighting.

In Canada, parents receive a benefit if one of their children goes missing or dies in a likely crime. Because local police didn’t label the incident a crime, Ashley and Jason didn’t qualify. “No one gives you a pamphlet on how to be a missing child’s mother,” Ashley says. By October, with the province’s lockdown lifted and the dealership fully open again, she went back to work.

For months, Facebook group members examined the case’s scant evidence, gnashing details like bolts of hardening chewing gum. It was a dizzying, dystopian fun house of rumor and speculation. Theories raged: To many, the grandmother’s story didn’t track. Others believed she was covering for her daughter. That the family was collecting money on a GoFundMe page meant they’d gotten rid of Dylan because they needed the money—for booze or drugs or both. At one point, the groups’ ranks topped 23,000 people, the same as the entire population of Truro.

By the end of September 2020, the harassment and threats had gotten so bad that one group member began to research the laws that govern cyberbullying in the province and even contacted a local lawyer named Allison Harris. Harris knew about the missing boy—Dylan’s story was in the news for weeks after his disappearance—but she was shocked to learn about the abuse the online sleuthing community had spawned. Just a year and a half out of law school, Harris exudes an air of utter unflappability. She speaks in clipped, exacting sentences, and even her smile seems precise when it reveals a perfectly centered gap between her front teeth. Harris was one of just two lawyers in the province who had argued online personal injury cases in court. She told the group member to have Ashley and Jason get in touch and, after hearing their story, offered her services pro bono.

Together the three of them set to work documenting thousands of abusive screenshots, hundreds of awful messages, dozens of death threats. They wrote letters to the administrators of two of the Facebook groups, asking them to shut down. At first, both refused, though one changed her mind after becoming the target of a harassment campaign within her own group. “This case has surprised me,” Harris says. “Instead of appreciating that they’re doing damage and harm, they seem to feel they have a right to have these groups.” (Still, the groups were like a hydra: When one shut down, Ashley and Jason’s most vocal detractors simply started others under untraceable noms de plume like “Holiday Precious.”)

The administrators of the second group were local Truro residents: a couple named April Moulton and Tom Hurley who lived down the road from the backyard where Dylan was last seen. Moulton, who has dyed red hair and Cheshire-cat eyes, was certain she was doing critical work, her stout hands weighed down with silver rings on almost every finger as she examined the minutiae of the case, parsing rumored fiction from rumored fact, Hurley shuffling back and forth behind her. They didn’t know Jason or Ashley before Dylan’s story hit headlines, but they emerged as two of the most vocal proponents demanding justice for the boy. They knew as well as anyone what it was to lose a child.