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What Can the Animal Kingdom Tell Us about North Korea?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s difficult to come up with a snappy intro to a story like this: Kim Jong-il is dead of a heart attack at age 69. It’s also hard to deny that he was fascinating to watch, somewhat like a train-wreck writ large. But as interesting as Kim himself was as a world leader, it is the society that surrounded him that has always captured my attention. As a nation, it is reclusive, oppressive, and nearly self-supporting, with information only dribbling in and out; Kim’s North Korean society, described as a “cult of personality” around the Supreme Leader, was (and is) characterized by a totalitarian leadership, a Communist economy, and restrictive social structures like the censored state-run media. Now, at the news of  Kim’s death the question that has always bugged me about North Korea comes up again: how do such societies evolve and maintain themselves?

Many scientific fields have something to say about this issue, including (but not limited to) sociology, psychology, media studies, political science, and economics. However, the topic has been a current event in behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology as well, and I think that recent work might offer some insights. In particular, there has been a push in behavioural biology to study both group dynamics in animals and the leadership of those groups. A recent paper by Andrew King, Dominic Johnson, and Mark Van Vugt reviews this topic in some detail and makes a great starting place for anyone looking to explore these themes. In their paper, King et al. pose the two questions that we might ask of Kim Jong-il: who leads groups, and how do they lead? There are many reasons why some individuals in a group may lead while others follow; in animals, these include:

* Motivation. For example, the hungriest fish take point position in a foraging shoal.
* Personality. Traits such as boldness can lead exploratory individuals to push forward and direct the movement of the group (a theme that I touched on in my own Ph.D. work on social foraging).
* Dominance. Many species, including primates and wolves, assort themselves by means of a dominance hierarchy. Individuals rank themselves in some way, such as intimidation or aggressive conflict, and the leader is the individual at the top of the hierarchy. Given that Kim suffered a heart attack it is worth noting that – as the brilliant nueroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky has pointed out – being at the top of a dominance heirarchy in a despotic regime can bring with it a lot of stress and negative health consequences. Sapolsky argues persuasively that the trends seen in animal societies may apply quite well to human hierarchies as well, which is something that North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-Un might want to pay close attention to!
* Knowledge. Informed individuals in a group, such as those with information about predators or food sources, can emerge as natural leaders simply by virtue of having that information and acting on it.

King et al. also explore the way in which individuals actually lead groups once they have formed. In particular, they draw a distinction between passive leadership that is an emergent property of the group structure, and active leadership where leaders signal their intenta and give their fellows a chance to follow or not. Passive leaders lead simply by virtue of their actions, and as the authors point out, tend to be seen in homogenous groups where individuals have little conflict of interest. This is an exciting theme underlying the work of Iain Couzin’s group, who do fascinating work on collective animal behaviour showing that a small minority of informed individuals can have powerful effects on the movement of groups; they’ve also managed to show the same effects occuring in humans. Active leaders, on the other hand, attempt to take control of the group’s movement and provoke an active choice on the part of their followers; an example comes from bottlenose dolphins, who try to influence the travelling behaviour of their group by performing acrobatic signals.

Of course, explanations for Kim Jong-il’s power over the North Korean people will be very complicated, and will hinge on the fact that Kim inherited the position from his father, Kim Il-sung. On the other hand, many primates show inheritance of social position, though my understanding of the relevant science is that this is more common for females and in spotted hyenas. But I believe that it is instructive to draw lessons from the evolution of animal groups when we study regimes like North Korea. If you discount the Great Man Theory of history, then the same processes that promote group formation and give rise to leaders within those groups may shed some light on how these leaders come to power in human societies.

The restriction of information and trade in North Korea is also an issue of some importance; research on information use in human and non-human animals is too huge a literature to cover here, but there is evidence that information acquired from and about others (social information) is important to primates, and both models and empirical research show that dominance can emerge from the information use and reputation, the so-called ‘winner and loser effects’ that are seen throughout the animal kingdom. Winner and loser effects, what we might call ‘self-confidence’ in humans, come from the information that animals gather while engaging in social interactions with others (“oops, I got my butt kicked that time, I guess I’m not that strong after all”). These effects not only help to predict the outcome of conflicts between animals, but can lead to the evolution of highly structured animal hierarchies. Even as a metaphor, it’s interesting to draw parallels between winner effects and the personality cult that grew up around the Supreme Leader; I can’t imagine a stronger winner effect than what Kim would have experienced every day (and taken to its logical conclusion, could help explain the oftentimes bizarre behaviour of the North Korean government).

Though many of the pieces of the puzzle have been gathered, the integration of our knowledge of animal aggregations and leadership into a cohesive whole is still in its infancy (as King et al. note in their introduction), but with exciting new advances in both theoretical and empirical work from recent years to draw on it has never been a better time to study these questions. I hate to make predictions, because there’s no better way to be wrong than to predict the future, yet I will say that I believe I will see major impacts from these lines of research on our understanding of both animal and human societies during the span of my career. And if we can meld our understanding of the evolution of animal group behaviour with that of other social and cultural forces, perhaps our comprehension of, and ability to deal with, Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea will be better than our understanding of Kim Jong-il’s.

### References

Andrew J. King, Dominic D. P. Johnson, and Mark Van Vugt. The origins and evolution of leadership. Current Biology, 19:911–916, 2009.(

Jens Krause. The relationship between foraging and shoal position in a mixed shoal of roach (Rutilus rutilus) and chub (Leuciscus cephalus): a field study. Oecologia, 93(3):356-359, 1993.(

Robert M. Sapolsky. The influence of social hierarchy on primate health. Science, 308(5772):648-652, 2005.(

John R.G. Dyer, Christos C. Ioannou, Lesley J. Morrell, Darren P. Croft, Iain D. Couzin, Dean A. Waters, and Jens Krause. Consensus decision making in human crowds. Animal Behaviour, 75(2):461-470, 2008.(

David Lusseau and Larissa Conradt. The emergence of unshared consensus decisions in bottlenose dolphins. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 63:1067-1077, 2009.(

Heribert Hofer and Marion East. Behavioral processes and costs of co-existence in female spotted hyenas: a life history perspective. Evolutionary Ecology, 17(4):315-331, 2003.(

Robert O. Deaner, Amit V. Khera, and Michael L. Platt. Monkeys Pay Per View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques. Current Biology, 15(6):543-548, 2005.(

Claudia Rutte, Michael Taborsky, and Martin W.G. Brinkhof, What sets the odds of winning and losing? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21(1):16-21, 2006.(

G. Sander van Doorn, Geerten M. Hengeveld, and Franz J. Weissing. The evolution of social dominance II: multi-player models. Behaviour, 140:1333-1358, 2003.(

Steven Hamblin About the Author: Steven Hamblin is a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales, studying the evolution of viruses and bacteria. A behavioural ecologist by training, his focus is on the evolution of behaviour on as many levels as he can get at by means of theoretical modelling; his specialty in the translation of Diet Coke into scientific progress by way of computers and mathematics. He blogs at A Bit of Behavioural Ecology, and can be found on Twitter at @behavecology. Follow on Twitter @behavecology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RSW 7:13 pm 12/19/2011

    I’m a little troubled when you talk about personality traits, such as boldness. If seems to be me all you are doing is labeling a class of behaviors observed in particular members of a species, not a particular phenotypic or dispositional characteristic of that individual. It also seems circular to me to say that boldness leads to exploratory behavior. Isn’t it the other way around? Or again, isn’t boldness just a label given to individuals who explore around in their environments?

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  2. 2. BehavEcology 11:28 pm 12/19/2011

    Hi, RSW. Regarding personality traits, I’m not entirely clear on what your issue with the term is, so forgive me if I’ve misunderstood. Personality is usually defined as some variation of the following sentence (from p. 417, ch. 16 of Social Behaviour: Genes, Ecology, and Evolution; Székely, Moore, and Komdeur eds.):

    “Animal personality represents consistent behavioural individual differences over time and across contexts, and/or correlations between different types of behaviour.”

    As it is usually used in the literature, the idea of “animal personality” does very much address individual phenotypes and dispositions (and is currently one of the hottest areas of research in behavioural ecology – you can’t shake a stick at a conference without hitting a speaker or poster on personality).

    When it comes to boldness specifically, things are a little fuzzier, and I’ve seen boldness used in multiple ways. For example, Wolf et al. (, in their now-classic Nature paper on personalities essentially lead off by defining boldness as predator approach. On the other hand, my collaborator Ralf Kurvers has operationalized the term as exploration in his work on foraging behaviours on barnacle geese (e.g., and I recall seeing other similar but slightly different definitions (Realé et al. argue that boldness and exploration were the same thing in a 2007 paper, .

    Of course, it’s possible that boldness encapsulates all of those behaviours, if (for instance) there’s a correlation between exploration and predator approach, and this is one of the ways that animal personality traits are often studied: a suite of correlated behaviours that vary together in a consistent fashion is assigned a name like “boldness” or “aggression” and then studied for, say, its fitness consequences.

    There’s been a lot of work recently on (i) demonstrating that these traits exist (which is pretty well accepted now) (ii) explaining *why* they exist, theoretically, and (iii) assessing the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these traits (fitness differences, life history effects, etc). But it’s still very much an active area of research, and I know from conversations I’ve had with people studying these ideas that it’s a developing field with its share of disagreements and confusion. Having said that, I’m very much interested in how personality research is going to interact with group dynamics and leadership as in the research I discussed in this post, because I don’t think that this is an intersection that has been very well explored yet.

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  3. 3. rgcorrgk 1:00 am 12/20/2011

    Steven Hamblin, I agree, “It is instructive to draw lessons from the evolution of animal groups”. But when it comes to small (or large) Communist tyrannies we don’t have to leave our species to gain some modest incite.
    The “cult of personality” syndrome has many natural origins of course; but, arguable, it often manifests itself with high virulence when religious or pseudo-religious dogmas are in play. In modern times, it has been the pseudo-religious malignant utopian socialists/communists “Messiahs” with the high water mark for misery & death (in my book, they get no reprieve for “good intentions”; but, I’m not “teaching” at one of our prestigious universities). Over one hundred million and counting – of course, as Joseph Stalin said, “a million deaths is just a statistic…”
    A few in the “cult of personality” list (in order of their kills): Mao Tse Tung (PRC), Joseph Stalin (USSR), Adolf Hitler (National Socialist German Worker’s Party -NAZI), & Pol Pot (Khmer Rouge – killer of about 25% of the Cambodian people). Mao, Hitler, & Pol Pot used naive “youth” extensively to advance their utopian socialists “religion” (in its many dark manifestations). The gift of Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels etc. (verbose intellectual pigmies all) just keeps on giving. It’s the appeal to human sloth, greed, and envy that hooks people (“social ownership of the means of production”, “creating an equal society” the free lunch & so on. The downfall of such socialist tyrannies is they get what they promote, more sloth, greed, and envy! As for their pseudo-religious utopian dream world, when they get close to that nonsense it looks & feels more like an ant-hill hell on earth – think North Korea!
    Richard Carlson
    PS: As a former member of the UN Command (UNC) at the Joint Security Area (JSA) I’ve had a few illuminating experiences with members of the North Korea military. In the Military Armistices Commission (MAC) meetings we, of the UNC, were always addressed as, “you US imperialist aggressors and running dogs”. It’s an understatement, they do not like us. I was spit on a number of times (& that’s not counting when I got spit on in uniform, back in the states) The North Koreans even tried to run me over with a truck once. Here is the thing, even when I was wiping the spit off my face and they were laughing at me, I felt only sadness for those poor souls. In the early evening, back at our advance camp we could pick up only one B&W TV station (a North Korean station). It was endless propaganda, so absurdly blatant it was actually humorous to see; but, it was no joke for the poor people of North Korea, – it was their only view of the world. Therefore, I understand their blind hate, and for that matter I understand & feel for their current sadness– regardless of my view of that late chap with the bad haircut.

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  4. 4. Mr Parsimony 10:17 am 12/20/2011

    Analogies between nonhumans and humans have been offered to explain various aspects of human behavior, from that of individuals to cultures, for along time. And while often interesting and sometimes even compelling, they frequently violate the principle of parsimony, which states that explanations should make the fewest assumptions. The interpretation of Kim Jong-il’s behavior or that of the North Korean people offered by Hamblin is no different. To cite formal similarities between nonhuman cultures and humans cultures and then to assume functional similarities is certainly not the most parsimonious approach. One problem is the complexity of the phenomena being explained. But the other problem is that there are probably proximal explanations that require fewer assumptions than appealing to such vague constructs as “motivation,” “personality,” “dominance,” and “knowledge.”

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  5. 5. RSW 7:43 pm 12/20/2011

    To BehavEcology: Thanks for your reply to my concerns. Sometimes the term “personality” carries an essentialistic connotation and thus its use may be misinterpreted, as do terms for traits, such as boldness. No individual animal is necessarily bold in all averse or dangerous situations. So on what basis do we apply the trait of boldness to a particular individual? Also there is, of course, the issue of whether “personality” or “boldness” are equivalent when ascribing them to human beings and to other animals.

    If the term animal personality represents “consistent behavioral individual differences over time and across contexts”, then a fairly obvious question to ask is what is the origin of these differences. Do they lie in the individual’s phenotype, as you suggest, or as the definition suggests, products of the environmental contingencies that the individual animals encounter in their lifespan? The common sense answer to that question, it seems to me, is that the origins lie in both. But is it that easy to tease them apart observationally or experimentally? For example, a young chimp may challenge the dominant male in his troop. This initial sign of boldness might be attributed to some aggressive dispositional characteristic of the young chimp, but after he gets pretty beaten up by the dominant male, is it likely that the young chimp will continue to act so boldly in the future? Also,what does such a scenario and many other such scenarios imply for trying to characterize individuals in terms of personalities and traits? If traits are contingent, if personalities can change, and if such terms are not commensurate when applied to humans and other animals, how good are they in explaining group dynamics and leadership in human society?

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