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Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Reading University, UK; Fellow, Royal Society; Author, Wired for Culture
Evolutionary Biologist, Reading University, England

The Limits of Democracy

Some historians think the idea of democracy arose in the Greek soldier-sailors of the 7th to 4th centuries BC who manned the trireme warships. Up to sixty men—a deme—rowed these daunting three-tiered ships. Their effectiveness in battle depended upon precise and coordinated teamwork; the phrase 'pulling together' may have its origin in the triremes. Deme-ocracy arose when the rower-fighters realized that the same kind of coordinated pulling together that powered the boat could be used to influence which battles their masters had them fight and the conditions of their service. Herodotus records that up to forty triremes were used when Samos invaded the Egyptians—a lot of voting oarsmen. Modern democracies owe a debt to the actions of these wretched fellows whose fates were gambled by rulers who did not always have the rowers' best interests at heart.

In spite of this, and two and a half thousand years on, I am optimistic that the world is glimpsing the limits of democracy. I speak of democracy in its wider manifestations, and not just as government. The common idea of democracy—that everyone has a 'right' to be heard—naturally flourishes among the smallest collections of people that can organise themselves into a group. To survive, these groups compete for what they see as their share of the pie. Look no further than the ultra-democracies of some Western European nations, deadlocked coalition governments legitimized from systems of proportional representation that reward small special interest demes. Look to the intolerance that arises when this or that group asserts rights over this or that groups' rights. Look to 'focus groups'. Look to a state of numerical populism in which the most votes or text messages or viewers is what is to be delivered, crowned or sold. In the artist Paul Klee's words "democracy with its semi-civilization sincerely cherishes junk". Strong words perhaps, but there is that old saying about decision making by committee.

The British playwright Dennis Potter in a public speech not long before his death defended the BBC—a decidedly undemocratic and state-owned institution—for its very lack of populism. To Potter the role of the BBC was to decide for the rest of us the standards of what should be deemed good art, drama, history and reporting, and to challenge us intellectually and aesthetically. A dangerous state of affairs? Elitism? Maybe. But I am optimistic that people are recognising that democracy simplistically applied, without an eye on the larger Project, can easily descend into an ochlocracy ruled by the groups that shout the loudest. Even by the middle of the 19th century Disraeli was saying "the world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians".

A hopeful sign: some nations and especially some American states are researching new low carbon-footprint technologies and voluntarily committing to what will be burdensome and expensive climate-change targets. In most cases they are doing so without any democratic mandate. They realize that there may be larger and longer term stakes to play for than the 'right' to behave as one pleases or to have what one wants. Maybe you know of other examples.