Alpha in a Wolf Pack is a Fallacy

Grey Wolves
Photo: Dušan veverkolog (Unsplash, CC)

At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley I had my first and only glimpse of a pack of wild grey wolves, but they always loomed large in imagination. I follow them in books and movies, read about their conservation and reintroduction, and in a more contemplative mood see their shadow in my pets.

We hold ambiguous attitudes. We created stories of them as evil predators but also learned they are faithful mates and parents. One of the enduring myths is that a pack is ruled by an alpha male and female.

The notion of a pecking order in social animals began with chickens! Such an appealing theory, the biologist Rudolf Schenkel adopted it back in 1947 to explain the hierarchy he observed among ten wolves cooped up in an enclosure at Basel Zoo.

Human societies organize vertically according to rank or class and historical upheavals trying to level differences to the horizontal never lasted long. I experienced the bottom of the pecking order in the school playground as a new boy tortured on the ‘bars’ (iron railings) by bullies who hazed/ initiated us. The great ethologist Konrad Lorenz in seeking to understand human aggression projected it forward from the behavior of animals, although I wonder if we misinterpret animals by extrapolating backwards from our behavior!

Animals, it is said, avoid inevitable conflicts of a homogeneous society by creating social ranks, disturbed occasionally by a strong rival for the alpha post. But this attractive theory fails the test of wilderness evidence in wolves, although even experts find it hard to break the habit of referring to alphas in a pack.

Dave Mech is a world expert who has studied wolves for decades. In Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high arctic he got on intimate terms with them where they are fearless of humans. He learned a wolf pack is not an assorted mix of related and unrelated animals, as in captivity. Each is a family consisting of a monogamous pair of adults and their pups, sometimes with adolescents tagging along. Since we don’t regard our parents as alpha adults, neither should we think of wolves in that way.

The dark side of the error of believing that pack leaders violently rule over subordinates is when it is applied to the training of dogs.  Owners who harshly punish pets for disobedience or insubordination may achieve their goal by intimidation, but at what price? Much better and more faithful to what we now know from wolves, we should be head of the family, Mom and Pop to our pups. Likewise, professional trainers today prefer to reward dogs for being a good boy or girl through positive reinforcement (operant conditioning).

Studies in Norther America and Europe should have packed off the creaking theory. But in biology there always exceptions, and not just those unhappy creatures in a cage. Evidently, pecking orders can exist in unusually large packs and maybe I saw a spectrum from alpha to omega when the morning mist cleared over the Lamar River.  

Next Post: Downy Woodpecker

Waldeinsamkeit

Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Yellowstone National Park (RG)

Is there anything about the pandemic that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? It is no secret that one of the healthiest places to rest from screen fatigue and lockdown lethargy is outdoors.

People have rushed to national and state parks and to the coast for a dose of ‘nature.’ Take, for example, Yellowstone National Park. Gate registrations of recreational vehicles surged every month in 2020. In the peak month July 2020, 365,937 were recorded compared with 320,464 12 months earlier. When this post goes out, I too will be breathing mountain air, except in the ‘Mon.’ Phew. That feels better!

Seeking peace through a mindful stroll among trees has a long history among forest-loving Celtic people and forest-bathing Japanese. So important is it in Germany that a new word was created by conjugating two unrelated words, for which the language has a facility. Waldeinsamkeit (forest plus loneliness/ solitude) captures an entirely positive feeling with no English equivalent.

Nothing green and vegetable is more loved than a tree. Perhaps because we venerate their long lives—counting rings and planting saplings to memorialize life events. Perhaps out of gratitude for what they provide—permaculture food and the most versatile material for crafting our needs. They keep on giving: hardly something we can boast. It’s hard to imagine a civilization emerging without them or human beings even evolving. Weren’t we molded from the genome of an arboreal ape?

To go to the woods and forests is to go home, as if on a family visit to a third parent. They grew deep roots in mythology and religion. The Druids had their sacred groves and other cultures cherished the Banyan tree, Bodhi tree, and Christmas tree as symbols of growth, decay and renewal. Dryad spirits of the woods populate poetry and literature while Tolkien’s Ents guarded the forest. And, despite casting off superstition in the modern age, the mystique endures through scientific discovery of the wood wide web in which vibrant communities connect tree to tree and tree to fungus and microbe.

Recent best-selling books about trees or set in forests add to a perennial genre: The Overstory, The Hidden Life of Trees, Game of Thrones, etc. Children’s books too: The Magic and Mystery of Trees, The Tree Lady, etc.

I close in contradiction. One of the goals of going outdoors is to leave paper and screen behind, but hurry home to one of the finest short stories for children and adults. The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono is an inspiring story of a shepherd living as a hermit in the desolate mountains of Provencal. He transforms the landscape by planting acorns that grow into a forest. A CBC cartoon movie narrated by Christopher Plummer and available on YouTube captures the story beautifully of how an unselfish activist can make a difference for humanity and the environment.

Yellowstone Opens the Doors of Perception

While I was sauntering through woods I mused how quickly the intensity of first impressions fade to extinction. How the frisson of a new place or a face we want to sustain with its original freshness never burns so brightly afterwards, like the turning down of a dimmer switch except the hand that turns it is unconscious.

I was in the backwoods of Montana last week at dawn. I was told to drive past the last ranch on a gravel track to where it peters out at the edge of a lodgepole pine forest that girdles a snow-capped mountain. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is outside the Park and a better place for the only big beast on my list that I hadn’t seen inside. I followed the directions of a local man to signs posted for grizzly habitat.

I left the car to tramp into a dew-soaked meadow where there were wild forget-me-nots, bluebells and lupines in bloom, and crouching among the sagebrush there was a kind of golden sunflower. A Painted Lady flitted around, confused by the choice of flowers to suck for nectar. There was a powerful fragrance of pine resin breathing out of the trees, and it involuntarily triggered a memory flash of another forest walk long ago. The place was so silent only the ringing in my ears kept me from mental numbness. I stood soaking in the scene and scent for several minutes before starting along a forest trail used by riders in the fall who come to hunt elk and mule deer.

This is not a prologue to a terrifying bear story. Sorry! It was the hope of seeing one of those old men of the woods that brought me there, and I was alert because without rummaging in my backpack I wasn’t sure if in the dark cabin to avoid disturbing my wife I might have brought a can of hair spray instead of bear spray.

Ecstatic absorption in a scene obliterates other thoughts and pushes away anxieties, if only for a few minutes. I remember I had the sense of being naturally high before, not always on nature. It is a mysterious emotion of pure being the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart called is-ness, and the best word to capture my feelings for the object is love. As for the bears, I never saw or heard them, and yet wouldn’t exchange that lone stroll in the woods for lying longer in bed. But those feelings are becoming strangers as the days pass. The images, fragrance and silence faded as soon as I started back along the path to the ordinary day.

It’s tempting to wish to live permanently on the heights of exaggerated sensibility, to continue to enjoy the fullness of being in the woods, a new home, a new lover, and all those other special moments that are fleeting. But our minds quickly shut down inputs from our senses, which I suppose protects us from too much distraction in the business of normal life, or even from going mad.  Maybe that’s what T.S. Eliot meant by, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Most of the time we look and do not see; we listen and do not hear; we breath and do not smell. That’s my experience. My brain diminishes the world, casting aside unnecessary details I only notice when they are fresh, making it less extraordinary and the experience of being alive less astonishing. Familiar stimuli quickly slip from the mind into a chasm of unconsciousness. The aroma of barbecue fades before the end of the meal, the stale smell of tobacco smoke is not so offensive by the end of the taxi-cab journey. I don’t notice dust on my bookshelf unless a visiting mother-in-law holds up an accusing finger she wiped across its surface. It takes concentrated effort to focus on the same object for long. I mostly achieved it when I was scanning specimens for rare cell types under a microscope, and when I used to draw and paint and had to scrutinize the subject for the finest details.

When the dimmer switch is turned down and our senses are no longer in rapt attention, the mind draws in on itself to internal thoughts and memories. I don’t think it is only introverts who will admit this. l can walk a familiar path without much consciousness of my surroundings, and am sometimes so absorbed in thought (including plans for the next blogpost) that if my dog didn’t steer me away with her leash I could walk into a tree or lamppost.

I wonder if my dog lives a much more sensate, much less introspective life than I do. Both predator and prey animals must remain alert to their environment to capture nuances that help them find food and to survive. Humans are relatively liberated from this urgency because we learned to provide more security for ourselves by controlling our environment and sharing responsibility.

Perhaps early hominids engaged the sensory world more acutely and more like animals, but it seems likely that big differences in natural sensibility exist between modern people. I doubt if this territory has gotten much attention from researchers because it is subjective, but I think artists like van Gogh and poets like Blake had this gift.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, experimented with mescaline from the peyote cactus and with LSD to induce psychedelic experiences for mimicking the experiences that inspired William Blake’s art. He wrote about the intensity of visions and red-hot poker plants in his book The Doors of Perception, which became a handbook for early hippies. But drugs provide an artificial and forced escape without the fullness of an experience that comes free from nature and empties the mind for liberated senses to fill. Coming out of the internal cavern spontaneously to experience a “high” in the woods was so much more rewarding for being rare, taken by surprise, and not bent under pharmacology.

Next Post: Eunuch Dog on Stilts