By Jonathan Kingdon
As a mechanism to induce group action, a referendum reduces the many complexities of existence into a simple binary choice of actions – yes/no, left/right, in/out. Animals such as lemmings, locusts, sardines and free-tailed bats swarm in response to simple social and physiological stimuli which elevate hormones, notably serotonin. Could the emotions triggered by referendum campaigning stimulate irrational crowd behavior in human animals? Could it be that Brexiters pumped up their serotonin levels while Europeans, (previous to the vote) had more normal levels?
In a referendum the essential medium to persuade and instruct fellow-speakers to act on their emotions, (i.e. raise their serotonin levels?) is language – emotive language – in this case what might be called “Tabloid English”.
We have precedents for misuse of a language to over-ride its more beneficent and creative purposes. In the 20th Century, very large numbers of one of the most intellectual, creative and admirable of European peoples – those who spoke German – allowed themselves to be swept up into types of swarm behavior that precipitated calamitous wars and holocausts.
The referendum shows that English speakers are not immune to the same or very similar arguments barked out by self-styled “Leaders”, incipient demagogues, at crowd meetings, on T.V. pulpits and in tabloid newspapers. Peddling the simplest of prescriptions for action – in/out, us/them, Brexiters have invented lies, aroused fears, articulated threats to spread a rudimentary emotional vocabulary which seems to have triggered a cultural equivalent of swarming which leads to desolation.
The referendum seems to have induced swarm behavior in a language group no less admirable, intelligent and creative than speakers of German. Will the final legacy of England and the English be a confirmation that, given an experimental mechanism such as a referendum, humans can behave like grasshoppers?
Jonathan Kingdon is a distinguished zoologist and world-renowned zoological artist. He is a research associate at the University of Oxford.