caudoviral

Discussions and reflections on science and life

The Alpha Myth

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Okay, I am going to be honest here. And it is going to hurt: I actually like urban fantasy as a genre. And specifically I might have, in moments of weakness, indulged in some borderline paranormal romance involving sexy werewolves. So to say that I have been wearily overexposed to the alpha myth is an understatement.

This ties into what I was talking about on Monday. When you change an animal’s environment, you force widespread changes in the animal’s behavior and even biology. Thus any observations you make about the animal in the new environment should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. When you don’t do that you get things like the alpha myth. In case you have somehow missed this: there is a widespread misconception that wolves have a hierarchical pack structure led by an “alpha”, and characterized by posturing and in-fighting. And this idea still perpetuates itself in popular writing despite being outdated.

So where did this idea come from? Well, a guy named Rudolph Schenkel was studying wolves. He formulated a hypothesis that wolf packs formed as isolated individuals came together at the onset of winter. To study this, he took a bunch of wolves from different zoos and put them all together in an enclosure, and the standard alpha model emerged. So he published a paper about his grand discovery on wolf social structure. Well, his hypothesis was wrong, and it took way too long to point out the flaw (which is that a similar structure emerges any time when you put a collection of unrelated animals in a restricted area and force them to fight over resources, this is what happens to humans in prisons). He took no pains to model the natural environment of the animals, and as a result is all that he proved was the way his subjects behaved under his improperly constructed experimental conditions. And while eventually someone disproved his theory with observations in the wild, the idea had already made its way into the popular consciousness where it remains.

So why does it prevail? Because most people find the truth less interesting. Wolves living in the wild tend to act pretty reasonably. They form a basic nuclear family structure or strike off on their own and it is all very ordered and elegant. And while that does have a certain beauty to it, it’s obviously less visceral and exciting. Not to mention that the misconception plays into our also outdated notion of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Not to mention that this is very similar to how we live and that goes against the deeply ingrained idea that we have a privileged place as a civilized species set apart from the savage world.

So why does this matter? Well, to begin with I am a pedant; however, my objection extends beyond that. If this were limited to fiction I could deal (when reading fantasy I just credit it to another part of the fantasy), but it spills over into other things. Numerous books exist pushing people to take lessons from a bungled piece of science and apply it to their relationship with their dogs. Which is a delightful two for one package of scientific misconception (modern dogs were not domesticated directly from wolves but rather from a intermediate species of “camp dogs” with, you guessed it, a different environment and different behavior set than their wild cousins). So take one bit of bad science, popularize it, and let society run with it to the point that they misunderstand and sometimes even abuse their pets. There is a reason we work so hard to get these things right, and the past mistakes of science should not be immortalized in pop-culture.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Obviously the original publication by Schenkel is interesting reading, if you can track it down.
  • For a dynamic view of this shift in thought, try looking up the works of L. David Mech. His 1970 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, was largely responsible for propagating the alpha myth, and his recent papers have gone a long way towards disproving it.
  • No, I am so not going to tell you what urban fantasy I read. It’s bad enough that I admit to it at all.
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Written by Caudoviral

02/09/2011 at 19:34

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