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No more ‘alpha male’!

L. David Mech is a famous wolf researcher (and a blogger about his research). If you have heard of a concept of “alpha-male” it is because of ideas from an old book of his, about social structure of wolf societies.

However, most of the early research on wolves was done on artificially built groups, e.g., wolves caught in various places all put together in a single wolf pen at a zoo. In such rare and unnatural situations, these stranger-wolves do indeed form social hierarchies (or “pecking order” – a term that arose from studies of chickens). But such situations rarely if ever happen out in nature. A pack of wolves is usually composed of Mother, Father and their (sometimes quite grown-up) offspring: closely related individuals who know each other well.

These days, it is L. David Mech himself who is working the hardest to change the way we think about wolf (and dog) packs and to eliminate the term “alpha male” at least from studies of canid behavior if not from metaphors about human societies (hat-tip to Jim Henley). Decades have passed since his book came out, much research was done in the meantime (including by him and his students) and we now know better. That is how science is supposed to work:

The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”

Learn more about the wolves here.

Update: Thanks DeLene for alerting me to a recent Mech’s article Whataver Happened to the term Alpha Wolf (PDF)

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    August 23, 2009

    Of course, a bunch of wolves caught from different places in the wild and forced to live together in an artificial environment is a much better analog for the workplace.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    August 23, 2009

    sad that society cannot cast off its erroneous ideas as easily as science can when confronted with more accurate data.

  3. #3 Miriam Gordon
    August 23, 2009

    I love wolves and people who care about them, as well as good science. Thanks for posting this, Bora.

  4. #4 Gregor
    August 23, 2009

    So in some sense this vindicates Roissy’s definition of alpha male as the male who is most desirable to the most beautiful females.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    August 23, 2009

    … republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it.

    I know some authors who would commit major bodily mayhem to have such a problem…

  6. #6 Paper Hand
    August 23, 2009

    This is the great thing about science. Here’s a man who now finds himself arguing against his own earlier research, a man honest enough to read the evidence and see that he was wrong and to come out and say “I was wrong.”

  7. #7 DeLene
    August 23, 2009

    Read the full Mech article, from a publication for the International Wolf Center, from winter 2008, here: http://www.wolf.org/wolves/news/iwmag/2008/winter/alphawolf.pdf

  8. #8 Donna B.
    August 23, 2009

    Has anyone told Cesar Millan yet?

  9. #9 Marc
    August 23, 2009

    No one told Cesar Millan yet Donna, that would be ”transmitting bad energy” :P

    for the one who don’t get it Cesar Millan is known as the dog whisperer and he often makes claims about alpha males, pack leaders and such.

  10. #10 doug l
    August 23, 2009

    Glad that a more enlightened perspective is doing away with the old term which was so loaded with connotations particularly among those who see some sort of meaning for their own lives and the “purpose” of challenges in creating human character; something scientifically irrelevant when being objective about animals in the wild..think Sarah Palin’s use of wilderness metaphore.
    I am reminded however that the complex social behavior of wolves which had long been overlooked despite our human interaction with wolves going back thousands of years was first observed not in artificial context but within the entirely natural wilderness setting with its unobstructed views of wolf societies living upon the taiga and tundra of Alaska, in what is now Denali National Park.

  11. #11 moonkitty
    August 23, 2009

    @Gregor: “So in some sense this vindicates Roissy’s definition of alpha male as the male who is most desirable to the most beautiful females.”

    And in what sense would that be, Gregor? The it-doesn’t-actually-have-shit-to-do-with-it sense?

  12. #12 Betty
    August 24, 2009

    For the dog whisper’s (Cesar Milan) work the outdated info does apply. He’s working with human assembled packs, not naturally occuring family groups.

  13. #13 afarensis, FCD
    August 24, 2009

    The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it.

    Perhaps he should be pleading with his publisher to allow him to revise the book?

  14. #14 Julie
    August 25, 2009

    What’s interesting then is the resistance to altering this perception. Why is the public so invested in the notion of an Alpha Male? An exploration of our need to believe in a concept and all that it may carry is what’s called for now, I think.

  15. #15 Marc
    August 25, 2009

    Why should this research change the understanding of the alpha-male in human society?

    From the quotes in the post above it appears to support it’s use. After all, a significant amount of our time is spent in non-familial groups; at work, out socialising etc (as the first comment points out). Assuming an analogy to human society, the study appears to show that the alpha male distinction does arise under these circumstances.

    Why do people think that this invalidates alpha males at work, for instance?

  16. #16 Coturnix
    August 25, 2009

    “Why should this research change the understanding of the alpha-male in human society?”

    It doesn’t. But it is important for people studying behavioral biology of social carnivorous mammals in the field.

  17. #17 Marc
    August 25, 2009

    I agree. The data would have a huge relevance to anyone studying the behavioural biology of family groups where they previously, in analogy with the wolf research, they had assumed alpha-male behaviours.

    The question was intended for the comments that had seized upon the study as a chance to disregard the notion of an alpha-male in human society. Especially in comments like:

    “sad that society cannot cast off its erroneous ideas as easily as science can when confronted with more accurate data.”

    where, without meaning to be inflammatory, it seems that the comment has completely misinterpreted the data to fit with their preconceived notions*; exactly the opposite of what science is supposed to be.

    *to expand slightly: Were we to make analogies to human society (which I’m not completely confident of) then this data would show that in family groups there is no alpha male behaviour. There’s simply a father and kids. However, since a large proportion of human social life is conducted outside the family group, in these situations the more accurate analogy would be to the zoo animals, where the alpha behaviour occurred.

  18. #18 Mike McGuire
    August 25, 2009

    Re Julie’s posting as to why society is so invested in believing in alpha males: Human predators, in the workplace or on the streets, prefer us to believe they’re merely following what God and/or nature intend, for it makes their intended prey more likely to submit without a fight.

  19. #19 Electronic cigarette
    August 26, 2009

    It is really interesting that of all of our “scientific data” is really unscientific after all, since the original conditions were contrived. So natural observation was not allowed to happen since the environment was not natural.

  20. #20 jlawac
    November 14, 2009

    I really like your comment Mike McGuire, I agree with your thoughts. Selfish and manipulative behaviour is not a matter of alpha male behaviour but rather immoral behaviour.