In a Jan. 26 review in The New Republic, HLS Professor Adrian Vermeule ’93 examines the book “Honeybee Democracy” by Thomas D. Seeley, which explores group decision-making behavior in apian colonies, and he presents his assessment of its relationship to collective wisdom and decision-making in human societies.

According to Vermeule, Seeley’s work is “a model of biological research that builds bridges to the social sciences, and to the practical arts of institutional design for humans.”

Vermeule’s latest book is “Law and the Limits of Reason” (Oxford University Press 2009).

The New Fable of the Bees

by Adrian Vermeule

Collective wisdom is a perennial topic in the social sciences. How and when can groups make decisions that are better, in some sense, than the decisions of individuals? One broad tradition emphasizes the folly of crowds, another their wisdom. On the one hand there is Madison’s dictum in Federalist No. 55 that “had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” On the other hand, a rough contemporary of Madison, the Marquis de Condorcet, proved a “Jury Theorem” which shows (in the simplest version) that under certain conditions the majority vote of a group will be more likely to be correct than the vote of the individuals in the group, and will converge on perfect accuracy as the size of the group increases.

In recent decades, social scientists working in economics, law, politics, and psychology have obtained a measure of critical detachment from the extremes of both traditions, and have explored the conditions under which Madisonian skepticism or Condorcetian optimism is more likely to capture the truth about groups. Even more recently, however, it has become clear that this sprawling body of work suffers from a major limitation: it focuses solely upon decision-making by groups of human animals. It turns out that groups of non-human animals—not just higher primates such as chimpanzees, but social insects, herding mammals, and many others—make collective decisions, use observable “voting” rules or decision procedures to do so, and in many cases make group decisions that are quite accurate, in the sense that they promote the common interests of the group’s members in survival and reproduction. Biologists such as Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex, theorists of group decision-making such as Christian List of the London School of Economics, and many others have begun to compare collective decision-making in human and nonhuman animals. … Read the full article on »