Ninjaed! Links debunking the pseudoscience of alpha status and social dominance

A wolf sitting on its haunches in the snow, its muzzle pointing upwards, howling.

Wolf Howling In The Snow | Image Credit: Retron, image released into public domain at Wikipedia

This post has been dusted off from the Drafts folder, which is full of half-written things.

I had a rather long post in the works during August regarding recent science that discredits the popular (mis)understanding of how certain dominance hierarchies are structured along the lines of alpha, beta and omega members of a social group. 

While I was procrastinating, John Scalzi tweeted the following:

Commentors dropped lots of Actual! Science! links on the related blog post, which led to some thoughtful discussion of the alpha myth.

Then David Futrelle of the ManBoobz blog added his scathing contribution: Yo, dudes: Alpha males are a myth, according to actual experts on wolves. The commentors there dropped even more links to actual science debunking simplistic alpha/beta myths, alongside mocking the stompy defenders of tautological question-begging pseudoscience (paraphrase: since I define alphas as those who get more sex than betas, so how can you possibly deny the scientific fact that alphas are more sexually successful than betas?)

I was going to link to lots of these substantive posts/articles but not finding the time is the reason why this post has been sitting around in my drafts folder since August. In summary, dealing with the science of how what we understand about various hierarchies in different animal species, including our own, debunks the simplistic self-help alpha/beta mythology which originated from a study of captive wolves in zoos (which the original scientists have long since repudiated as not having adequately considered the pathologies of non-related subjects in captivity versus the norms of family groups in the wild).  The same  scientists have updated the terminology so that  individuals once designated “alpha” are now designated “breeder”, and individuals once designated “beta” are now designated “offspring still cohabiting with their parents”:  the primary role of breeder males and females is the care and socialisation of their young, and once the offspring mature they strike out on their own to find a partner from a different pack with whom they will become the alphas of their own pack.

The linked posts above have many relevant links which point to the science of how dominance in most animal species is correlated with seniority and breeding status rather than the outcomes of aggressive/hostile incidents designating winners and losers. If you happen to have any relevant links bookmarked, please do share them in comments.

Categories: education, Science, Sociology

Tags: , ,

11 replies

  1. Let’s not forget the cheerful consideration that pack structures of lupine carnivores are almost totally inadequate as a way of explaining the group dynamics of hominoid primates.
    If we look at our closest surviving biological relatives (genus Pan, the chimpanzees and bonobos) we don’t see much of a pack structure at all, and what we do see gets rather complicated very quickly. Rather like human cultural systems anyway…

  2. [Slight tangent: I am now slightly irritated, because I went and read the “Whatever” threads linked to in the post above, and then got sent to a post from the “Electrolite”[1] archives wherein a particular wide-mouthed frog with Views (I’ll refer to him as Victor Delta[2] in this comment because he does tend to Kiboze himself, and I wouldn’t wish him on the mod queue here) showed up to “defend his honour” and managed to convince all and sundry he wasn’t worthy of discussion within the space of about five posts. On the one hand, I do now know the origin of the joking comparison of trolls with pinata on both “Whatever” and the “Making Light” blogs, so I suppose all is not lost…
    [1] Electrolite used to be the blog of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, back before he folded it into “Making Light”.
    [2] Trollumnist, anti-feminist, and renowned for asking all kinds of persons, including luminaries like P Z Myers to debate him[3].
    [3] Where “debate” means “attempt to discuss something (anything) with him and fail miserably because he’s too busy hitting himself over the head with the goalposts he’s attempting to move.”]

  3. I didn’t before I started the whole reading. I do now, although his books are apparently Christianist fantasy with avenging angels and such. He hasn’t landed on my “might be worth reading” list… can’t think why!

  4. You hadn’t encountered Victor Delta before? I have run into him in so many places I just roll my eyes now. He’s definitely on the list of People You May Wish To Avoid On The Internet that should be issued to every person who isn’t a white heterosexual cis male.

    • AotQ, I described Victor Delta as ”self-anointed all-round ‘expert’ and bundle of trust-funded smug … “Christian Libertarian” pundit” back in a 2006 post, so I’ve certainly been aware of him for quite a while.

  5. Oh cool, I’m glad you mentioned the ManBoobz article! I spend ::mumbles:: hours on there and remember that one well. And not just for the zombie wolf in the pic, either. 🙂

  6. I’ve run across references to him before (I used to read “Respectful Insolence” on a regular basis, and he cropped up there a lot) but never actually read anything he’d written. After all, if he’s a trollumnist for the WingNut Daily, that’s a pretty solid dis-recommendation right there.
    (My position is if I want to read incoherent ramblings about the nature of the world which bear little to no resemblance to external reality, well, that’s what the Time Cube site is for.)

  7. There’s clearly such things as alpha males, I am one.

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