For my part, I adhere at least partially to "role theory", proposed by scientists like Bernstein, Fedigan, Gartland, and Mech (Mech, 1999 writes about "division of labour", a similar concept). In wolves, it is clear that the dominance hierarchy is in place to determine the breeding pair (as only the formerly labelled "alpha male" and "alpha female" typically breed; wolves are "technically" monogamous). This is clearly seen via noticeable peaks in aggression in (captive and wild) packs during the breeding season (January to March). Our main captive pack at the Canadian Centre for Wolf Research rarely displayed significant aggression or dominance conflicts outside of the breeding season (with some exceptions over the 30 year life of that pack). And even during the breeding season, my Master's student Barbara Molnar re-analyzed my PhD videotapes to find that they still engaged in almost 3 times more affiliative behaviours (e.g., play) than agonistic behaviours during that more "conflictual" time of year!
We also forget that not all packs (captive or wild) are the same. Some form nuclear family groups (mom, dad, pups of the year). In those groups you are less likely to find any dominance hierarchy. Why? Well, for one, wolves don't "enter" the dominance hierarchy until they are sexually mature (at puberty). In principle this is not until their first Winter/Spring, and often not until the following breeding season, in other words, well into their second year. So those "nuclear" or immediate family units (like the Arctic wolves of Ellesmere) cannot compare to wolves that form extended family groups that are multi-generational (with cousins, uncles, aunts, even grandparents, being part of the group). In those family units, there will be individuals interested in breeding beyond the breeding pair. This will create conflicts (note that in principle, in larger packs, some subordinates could end-up never having a chance to breed unless they challenge the breeding individuals).
Another forgotten characteristic of dominance hierarchies, in wolves, humans, or any other animal, is that they are in place in order to avoid conflict and aggression, not contribute to it. In fact, wolves use mostly ritualized aggression, not contact aggression.
To summarize this discussion on dominance:
1. Dominance and dominance hierarchies exist in wolves.
2. It is not all about dominance, in fact, they would rather have fun with their buddies.
3. Dogs are not wolves.
Well, that last point raises yet another issue... Actually, modern molecular genetics is pretty clear about this: They kind of are the same... In the past decade, the debate is more about when and where the "split" occurred. But to play the dialectical game here again... they kind of are "not the same". We spent centuries working on selectively getting rid of aggressive behaviour in wolves and purposively making them more docile... Why insist on still seeing them as wolves? Have we failed our artificial selection (selective breeding) experiment, or are we just obsessed ourselves with status and rank (think corporations, the military, academic ranks, sibling rivalries)? And again, what kind of relationship do you want with your pet? Personally, I would rather have a friend than a competitor or slave. I don't get the paranoia, or the servitude angle. That is why I pick dogs as pets, and not grizzlies or wolverines.
To summarize our current knowledge on the origin of dogs:
1. Dogs: They are virtually undistinguishable from wolves, genetically speaking. It is certainly easier to see the similarities than the differences. Somehow these days it is trendy to talk about the differences.
2. Dogs and wolves: They are at the very least extremely close in evolutionary terms. Coppinger discusses this in terms of genealogy, Fentress used to refer to the evolutionary bush (as opposed to an evolutionary tree). Great metaphors in both cases.
3. Obviously domestication induced changes. That was the whole point. Pointing out differences to advance the idea that they are different species is forgetting what artificial selection is about (e.g., inducing neoteny).
For people that may have followed some of my posts on the internet over the past 20 years (Facebook, the old "applied ethology listserv", "human ethology" list, etc.), I know I will sometimes exasperate some with my relativist attitude and (now you know) my dialectical style... But science is NOT about all-or-nones and black or white judgements, at least, not for long. Science is not infallible, nor is it dogmatic. Science is an attitude, a cognitive style, a method. And I do not accept the idea that the popularization of science and knowledge translation mean that you need to oversimplify the information, especially when communicated to people that will educate others about behaviour, dogs and wolves. Maybe some scientists think that the public is not smart enough to be given all the information and nuances necessary. I would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt and let them decide.
As Spring is upon us, wolves already think about dens, pups, play and fun and leave the politics behind for another year. I wish you the same, until next time.
Simon Gadbois, Ph.D.
Canid Behaviour Research Laboratory
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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