Friday, October 18, 2013

Charles Darwin and the Dominance Meme, Part 2

Does Human Observation Create Dominance Hierarchies?

“Although it has been shown that in horses … dominance hierarchies are so poorly developed as to be invisible, needing artificially created competition to develop, … there is a reluctance on the parts of both trainers and some scientists to abandon human attitudes about dominance.”
—Lucy Rees, horse trainer

The Baby and the Bathwater 
Some readers may think that I’ve been embarking on a fool’s errand in trying to make arguments against the idea of dominance hierarchies in social animals. However, I’m not alone in this regard. Some scientists have tried, with little progress, to dismiss the idea of hierarchies entirely. Others, who still believe the myth, and who toil honestly in the vineyards of animal behavior, are fond of the phrase “Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” meaning just because there are gaps in logic pertaining to how and why some social animals seem to form dominance hierarchies, the really important stuff remains.

But are there contradictions in dominance theories? 

Yes. And as usual, the clearest window into these contradictions comes from David Mech, who is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the best wolf researcher currently working in the field.

These two quotes sum things up perfectly.

“Dominance contests are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.”                                                
—L. David Mech, 1999.

“Dominance is one of the most pervasive and important behaviors among wolves in a pack.”                            
—L. David Mech, 2010.
So according to Mech dominant behaviors are a) so rare as to possibly not exist at all, and b) so pervasive that they’re a profoundly important part of every wolf pack’s daily life.

When I was writing for I was surprised and shocked when Dr. Marc Bekoff told me that he’d never heard of anything like Mech’s first statement in the literature. How could Dr. Bekoff have not known about it? Would knowing that have changed his perceptions concerning the many flaws in dominance theory?

The second quote comes from a 2010 paper by Mech and Dean Cluff, which concerns an incident observed in 2009, where the leader of a large pack of wolves (20+) on Ellesmere Island repeatedly pinned and re-pinned a younger wolf, possibly (according to Mech and Cluff) one of his own offspring, for the purpose of “pack dispersion” (hypothetically motivating the youngster to go start his own pack).

The only real question of interest here (again according to Mech and Cluff) is the length of time that the older wolf spends doing this, which they suggest might have been due to the fact that the older wolf had recently been shot with a tranquilizer dart (for the purpose of attaching a radio collar). They eventually dismiss this idea, but ask openly if anyone else has seen such a long and continuous bout of “dominance” in wild wolf packs.

So why is there a seemingly conflicting difference between Mechs two statements? Did conditions on Ellesmere Island change substantially between the late 1980s and 1990s to what they were in 2009? Was there a difference in the technology of the radio collars? (It’s been shown that even weak electromagnetic frequencies can affect the brains and nervous systems—and thus the behaviors—of humans and animals.) Being anesthetized can also cause an animal or human deep stress, and since hierarchies are more apparent when animals are under stress, was there a difference in the types of anesthetic darts used? And, finally, since Mech has said that one of the draws for traveling above the Arctic Circle to study wolves in the wild was that the packs there had no fear of human beings, making them ideal subjects for study. So did the wolves gradually learn to become wary of humans? After all, if a wolf could avoid being shot with a tranquilizer dart, she would probably do so. 

The Stressful Effects of Human Observation

“Just when we think we know it all ...”

—Marc Bekoff, 2013

Biologist Thelma Rowell, who studied baboons in the wild, got into hot water with the scientific community back in the 1960s when she questioned the idea of animal hierarchies. She said they didn’t seem to exist in the baboons she studied. In the 1970s, Shirley Strum took a stronger stance, claiming that dominance hierarchies were a myth.

The differences both women saw in baboon behavior were seemingly related to one thing: stress. Captive baboons, who were under more stress than those living in their natural habitat, formed dominance hierarchies. Wild baboons didn’t. 

This coincides with what Dr. Mech reported in the late 1990s—that captive wolves also behave differently than those living in the wild. And according to Rowell captive animals only form dominance hierarchies under two sets of conditions: a) where the animals are total strangers to one another, and b) where they lack ready access to resources available to those living in the wild. 

Rowell took this idea even further. In her book The Concept of Social Dominance (1974) she wrote, “The experimenter will report that his trials have demonstrated a dominance relationship between the monkeys while in fact they (the trials) have actually caused it.” (p. 136.) 

In fact, Rowell went on to say that dominance hierarchies only exist where the observer creates them. 

In a piece at, Dr. Marc Bekoff writes about how the behaviors of animals change in very substantial ways when they’re aware of predators in their environment. (His article is the source of the quote at the top of this section.)

Bekoff: “It's not an overstatement to say that many animals live in constant fear. Consider the reintroduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. While most of the attention focused on these magnificent animals, biologist John LaundrĂ© was more interested in the elk who had been living in the park.”

Bekoff recounts the realization that Laundre came to: wolves don't just kill elk, they also change the elk’s daily behavior simply by living in the same general area. This is true in other habitats as well. Whenever predators live in the same environment—they don’t even have to live in close proximity to their prey—it creates a perpetual state of apprehension and stress in the local prey animals. 

Wolves are known as apex predators, meaning they’re at the top of the heap: no other animal preys on the wolf, at least no other non-human animal does. But since humans are the only animal that poses a real and serious danger, it would make sense that wolves might behave differently when they feel our presence in their environment, particularly if we’re also shooting them with tranquilizer darts. 

If stress is the chief factor causing the formation of dominance hierarchies, and if being watched increases an animal’s stress, then being “observed” by scientists may very well be stressful to wolves, increasing incidents of so-called dominant and submissive behaviors. These effects would likely multiply in situations where wolves were shot with tranquilizer darts and outfitted with radio collars. 

Granted, I’m an outside observer, not an active participant in the process. To quote Professor Donna J. Haraway, “Science, for the most part, makes room for technical papers, grant applications, informal networks of students, teachers, and laboratories, official symposia to promote methods and interpretations; and textbooks to socialize new scientists. It does not, however, provide room for outsiders and amateurs.” Thats me. (Animal Sociology and a Natural Economy of the Body Politic, Pt/ II. 1978.)

In their 1995 book When Elephants Weep Masson and McCarthy wrote, “In recent years the idea of the dominance hierarchy has become more controversial, with some ethologists now asking if such hierarchies are real or a product of human expectation.”   

I’ll go beyond that and—siding with Thelma Rowell—say that dominance is not only a product of human expectation, it’s probably a product of human observation. 

Before I began questioning dominance in dogs, I viewed canine behavior through what I later came to call “dominance-colored glasses.” Once I took those glasses off, an amazing thing happened. No matter how many dogs I saw exhibiting so-called dominant behaviors, I saw them for what they really were, symptoms of anxiety and stress.  

You can watch this video of the incident Mech and Cluff reported on in 2010. And if you're like me you might wonder, when the wolves stare directly into the camera at the end of their tussle, has the presence of human observers perhaps caused or at least increased the magnitude of these stress behaviors (i.e., dominance)?

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