alpha males continued -- 3/10/21

Today's selection -- from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Recently, we sent out an excerpt on the "true alpha male." We offer more thoughts on that subject in today's Delanceyplace:

"The social hierarchy and vocabulary of wolves and canines runs throughout our culture: alpha male, underdog, lone wolf, pack mentality -- in part due to our observations of the dogs we may have owned and to the seeming parallels between ourselves and this companion species of social animals. Current-day canine specialists have sought to correct the distortions of the term alpha male -- the king-of-the-world chest-beater of popular imagination -- that have worked their way into our psyches. 

"True alphas, ... are fearless protectors against outside incursions, but they rarely have to assert themselves within the pack, rarely have to act with aggression, bark orders, or use physical means of control. ...'We treat [dogs] like children but as pack animals they respond to the cues of an alpha in a pack structure. A human alpha should never have to raise her voice. Dogs don't understand that. 

"'If you are having to raise your voice to get [a dog's] attention,' [my dog behaviorist] said, 'a dog will not see you as the leader. You have already lost. A true alpha does not behave like that and doesn't have to. If a so-called alpha resorts to that, they are signaling that they are not in control at all.'

"True alphas command authority through their calm oversight of those who depend upon them. They establish their rank early in life and communicate through ancient signals their inner strength and stewardship, asserting their power only when necessary. An alpha generally eats first, decides when and who will eat afterward, inspires trust through firm shepherding for the safety and well-being of the pack. An alpha is not necessarily the biggest or fastest but usually the innately self-assured one who can chastise a pack member with a mere look or a low voice. A true alpha wields quiet power judiciously apportioned. 

"You know that you are not seeing a true alpha, or, put another way, you have encountered an insecure alpha, if he or she must yell, scream, bully, or attack those beneath them into submission. That individual does not have the loyalty and trust of the pack and endangers the entire group through his or her insecurities, through his or her show of fear and lack of courage. ...

"We owe our misconceptions about alpha behavior to studies of large groupings of wolves placed into captivity and forced to fight for dominance or to cower into submission. In nature, wolf packs are more likely to consist of extended family systems, packs of between five and fifteen wolves, led by an alpha male and an alpha female, whom the pack trusts and has reason to trust for the survival of them all.

"'The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf is quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance,' Richard McIntyre, a researcher of wolf behavior at Yellowstone National Park, told the ecologist Carl Safina. 'You know what's best for your pack. You lead by example. You're very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect.'

"The other members of the pack, the various beta and gamma wolves, can thus go about their tasks with greater reassurance in the wisdom of the alpha. At the bottom of the hierarchy is the omega, the underdog, the lowest-ranking wolf, arising from natural personality traits in relation to others in the pack. The omega generally eats last and serves as a kind of court jester who acts as an escape valve, often picked on by the other wolves. He bears the brunt of the tensions they face in the wild, where they are subject to attack from predators or from rival packs and during lean times in the hunt for prey.

"The omega acts as 'a kind of social glue, allowing frustrations to be vented without actual acts of war,' wrote a wolf conservationist. The omega is so critical to the pack structure that when a pack loses its omega, it enters 'into a long period of mourning,' the conservationist observed, 'where the entire pack stops hunting and just lays around looking miserable,' as if they were no longer a reason to go on.

"The loss of the omega can threaten social cohesion and put the entire pack at risk. Depending on the composition of the pack, an omega might not be easily replaced. The new omega would mean a demotion for one of the lower to mid-level pack members. Either way the pack is destabilized. After all, these roles are not artificially assigned based upon what an individual wolf looks like, as with a certain other species, but emerge as a consequence of internal personality traits that surface naturally in the forming of a pack.

"Humans could learn a lot from canines."



Isabel Wilkerson


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents


Random House


Copyright 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson


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