Animals Give Leadership Lesson to Humans

Margherita Olivo
December 18th 2015

For a long time science has wondered what were the characteristics of the perfect leader, those who really make a difference and can face various and difficult decisions. The answer could be found looking at nature, and more specifically at animals.

Researchers from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis at the Mills College in Oakland, California, have just added an important element to this puzzle: in a study published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution they analyzed the social dynamics of different animal species (including primates, elephants and humans), concerning the nature of leadership trying to identify the particular traits.

"While previous work has typically started with the premise that leadership is somehow intrinsically different or more complex in humans than in other mammals, we started without a perceived notion about whether this should be the case" said Jennifer Smith of Mills College in Oakland. "By approaching this problem with an open mind and by developing comparable measures to compare vastly different societies, we revealed more similarities than previously appreciated between leadership in humans and non-humans".

In fact, examples of cooperation and leadership in the animal kingdom are not lacking: chimps travel together, hyenas hunt in crews, but the way in which the leaders of each group promote and coordinate these collective activities is not yet clear. To clarify this aspect, the team - composed of biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians and psychologists - has analyzed the dynamics of leadership in four specific scenarios: movement, mediation of conflicts, food procuration and social interactions. They then classified their attitude to rule according to various parameters, such as how to achieve physical strength, the benefits of their “ruling” position, and so on. An analysis that has led experts to conclude that leadership, in general, goes hand in hand with the acquisition of more experience, both in animal and human species. Of course in both cases they found exceptions: in herds of spotted hyenas and the community of Nootka, a tribe of native Canadians living in the west coast of North America, the scepter of the leader passes from father to son, rather than being recognized attributed to the individual with the most experience.

According to Smith these similarities probably reflect a shared set of cognitive mechanisms related to dominance, subordination, formation of different social groups and decision-making processes. To justify the difference between human and non-human behavior they took in account more complex cultural factors of men, such as the tendency to engage in distinct roles within the social group. As Smith explained: “Even in the least complex human societies, the scale of collective action is greater and presumably more critical for survival and reproduction than in most other mammalian societies”.

Source: Mills College. Image: Shutterstock

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Should men be able to give birth to children?


Koert van Mensvoort: Is the artificial womb frankenstein-like symbol of (male) engineers trying to steal the magical womb from women? Or… is it a feminist project and needed to reach through equality between the sexes? I personally lean towards the latter. To me it feels like progress if a girl can tell a guy to carry the womb for a change.

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