Social animals are an exception to the Enlightenment separation of humanity from nature. Both political and natural scientists draw on metaphors of animal political organisation and community. In this panel we seek to unpack how this shapes our beliefs about what it means to be human.
What is it about social animals and insects that provides such a rich pool of inspiration for thought about human nature and society? Studies of human-animal relations often focus on the hierarchy drawn up between humans and other species - in which humans are almost inevitably placed in a position of superiority. This is conventionally attributed to the history of Western thought, for example Enlightenment thinkers often viewed animals as inferior because they saw them as machines with no soul or feeling. Social animals provide an interesting exception. Apes, meercats, elephants, even killer whales appeal to us because of their anthropomorphic qualities. Their communities seem familiar - they seem to have family relationships, hierarchies, and social organisation. Some insects - bees or ants - have been held up as exemplars for human utopias: as communists, capitalists, democrats and environmentalists. Social studies of science show that the natural sciences are political discourses, so what does it mean when biologists or ethologists describe animals using political or social metaphors? How have social animals inspired or repulsed us in our ideological formations, how are they embedded into our societies, communities and polities and how are we embedding ourselves into theirs? How do they inspire us to reflect on virtues such as love, cooperation, and social organisation? Or on vice and failings such as aggression, violence, selfishness and theft? In short, how do the stories that we tell about social animals shape our beliefs about what it means to be human?