I was invited by Aeon Ideas to respond to the question, "Are human beings the only political animals?" Here, in part, is what I wrote in reply:
In the Politics, Aristotle famously identifies human beings as ‘political animals’. By this he does not mean that we are all, by our nature, interested in elections, or lobbying, or community organising, but rather that we all, by our nature, belong to the polis, which is to say to the city or to the city-state. It is a corollary of this view for Aristotle that if a person lives entirely outside of the bounds of human society, he or she cannot partake fully of what it is to be human; the proverbial child raised by wolves inevitably grows into a different sort of animal than you or I: non-political, and so not fully human.
There is not in the end such a sharp distinction between 'political’ in Aristotle’s sense and in the sense in which we usually understand it today (voting, lobbying, etc.). To live in society at all is inevitably to embody and enact social roles that have political significance. George Orwell understood this when he wrote that “in our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics’,” though in truth this was no less the case in classical Greece.
But if all social life is political, won’t it be necessary to think of the designation 'political animal’ as a genus name, including many species, rather than as something unique to human beings? After all, and as Aristotle knew well enough, there are many highly social species of animals (not least, wolves). Even if we exclude simple gregariousness as being non-political, to the extent that it implies no distinction of social roles, there are still very many species that appear to have a complex system for the division of labor (ants), the capacity for collective planning (elephants), bargaining (apes), and so on. Since antiquity the evident complexity of beehives has led many authors to suppose that these insects are not only political, but that their social world might provide us the very model and ideal of political organization. Thus in the early modern period we see a proliferation of works blending elements of both political philosophy and practical apiculture, such as Samuel Purchas’s 1657 work, A Theatre of Politicall Flying-Insects, Wherein Especially the Nature, the Worth, the Work, the Wonder, and the manner of Right-ordering of the Bee, Is Discovered and Described. This title is not exceptional in its era, but only one of dozens of similar attempts to understand the nature of the polis through the world of the hymenoptera.
If however we are looking for signs of intentional or willful 'right-ordering’ in animal society, there will always be some human skeptics for whom no evidence will count as decisive. Any appearance of complex intellectual or emotional activity in non-human animals can always be explained, or explained away, as mere instinct, and any argument to the contrary can be dismissed as naive or sentimental anthropomorphism. The reasons why intention and will are posited as requisites for any complex social behaviour among animals are seldom made explicit, and the fact that human beings for their part, and a fortiori human politicians, often seem to do what they do without giving any real evidence of reflection, does not seem to the skeptics to show that the very arguments used to deny a true political life to animals might well bounce right back at us.
And yet there is another sense, much less often discussed, in which we might think of animals as political. We might, namely, ask whether there is any good reason to think of the boundaries of our own political life as extending only to the limits of our species, and no further. What if the domestication of livestock, the hunting of wild animals, our close community with pets, and so on, were conceptualised as fully and truly activities of interest to political philosophy? There is some minimal motion in this direction already; Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s important 2011 book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights is noteworthy here, as is the recent attribution to great apes of the legal status of 'person’ in a handful of countries.
What is a person, anyway? Until the very most recent age, often vaguely called the 'modern’ period, humanity existed within a trans-species community of person-like agents: some of them human, some animal, some physical, and some spiritual. While it is indeed only since Darwin that we have come to think of ourselves as animals, for the great majority of history we imagined that the animals, themselves, were persons. They were not human persons, not homo sapiens, but they were fellow actors within a shared reality, in which bears and birds and human beings all moved within a complex web of reciprocal moral relations.
Today we tend to imagine that we have progressed as a species from the naive world view of our predecessors, who saw themselves as having not just shared evolutionary connections with animals in the distant past, but also a shared community in the present. Yet this progress has come at a considerable cost. For one thing, modern adult humans are now cut off from the deeply ingrained patterns of thought that once helped us make sense of our place in the world through our relations with animals. These patterns are natural, seared in by evolution, and can only be trained out or suppressed with considerable harm to our sense of self, to our psychological well-being, and also, eventually, to our environment. Aristotle’s restriction of the attribute 'political’ to human beings goes directly against the way human beings actually experience the boundaries of community. As amply attested in literature, history, and mythology, and as confirmed in our own experience, community has always cut across species boundaries.
Curiously, Aristotle also recognises that hunting is, as he puts it, “a form of war.” The hot war, so to speak, is one that human beings had decisively won already by the time of the rise of city-states, and the human relation to animals witnessed by Aristotle was in truth something more like an occupation of the animal kingdom by the overwhelmingly more powerful empire of humans. In daily life Greeks did not worry much about being eaten by lions, even if in the proverbial state of nature a lion would have decisive advantages in one-on-one battle.
In the intervening millennia the overwhelming power of humans, at least over other megafauna, has only grown more unquestionable, and has led not only to the total absence of real danger from other animals, but also the complete annihilation of many species, and to the rise of great, efficient death factories for others. Animals might kill us yet, but they will not be the sort of animals that are visible to the naked eye.