Charles Darwin & The Dominance Meme, Part 3

Does Human Observation Create Dominance Hierarchies?

“Among Thelma Rowell’s baboons, young male infants get more attention from the males than do young females, a fact that has never been described in any other baboons. But the strangest thing comes out when Alison Jolly compares the social behavior of these baboons with those that have hitherto been observed in all studies. In Rowell’s troop, males were extremely peaceful: they formed a coherent cohort, “constantly aware of each other’s movements, but with scarcely any aggressive interactions.”

--Belgian Scientist Vinciane Despret, 2010.

The Baby and the Bathwater

Some scientists have tried, with little progress, to dismiss the idea of dominance hierarchies in animals 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 any real contradictions in dominance theories?

Yes. And as usual, the clearest window into these contradictions comes from David Mech, who spent 25 summers studying wolves in Ellesmere Island in Canada. These two quotes sum things up perfectly.

“Dominance contests are rare, if they exist at all.” Mech —1995.

“Dominance is one of the most pervasive and important behaviors among wolves in a pack.” Mech —2010.

So why is there a seemingly conflicting difference between Mech’s two statements? Did conditions on Ellesmere Island change substantially between the late 1980s and early 2000s to what they were in 2009? Was there a difference in the technology of the radio collars? Being anesthetized can also cause deep stress, and since hierarchies are more apparent when animals are under stress, was there a difference in the types of anesthetic darts used?

The Stressful Effects of Human Observation

“Just when we think we know it all ...” —Marc Bekoff, 2013.

In an online essay published on June 5, 2013, Dr. Marc Bekoff discusses how the behaviors of animals change in very substantial ways when they’re aware of predators in their environment. “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 Laundré 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 habitat. This is true in other habitats as well. Whenever predators live in the same environment as their prey (and they don’t even have to live in close proximity) it creates a perpetual state of apprehension and stress.

Wolves are 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. It seems to me that 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, possibly increasing incidents of so-called dominance and submission. These effects would most likely be multiplied in situations where wolves were shot with tranquilizer darts and then outfitted with radio collars.

Artificial Selection Primatologist Linda Marie Fedigan has criticized the way many researchers set up artificial food-competition scenarios designed to test or, more to the point, create dominance relationships in selected dyads (groups of two).

“It has been found that food tests do not generalize to other conflict situations in any consistent way. Not only does the test-situation only exist in the artificial laboratory-test setting, it has been found that priority to food does not necessarily correlate with priority to other incentives, and that dominance, determined through dyadic tests, does not generalize to dominance relationships for the same individuals within the group as a whole. ... Rather than peeling away the layers of the behavioral onion, to arrive at the core of an underlying ‘real’ dominance rank or dominance relationship, it can be argued that the experimenter has in fact created [it].” (1992, Fedigan, “Dominance and Alliance: Chapter 7 of Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, University of Chicago Press.)

Lee Alan Dugatkin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, writes: “Winner and loser effects are defined as an increased probability of winning an aggressive interaction.” He goes on to say that “Prior theoretical work on dominance hierarchy formation has demonstrated that … loser effects always produce a clear top-ranked (alpha) individual, but all other ranks in a group remain unclear; whereas winner effects always produce strict linear hierarchies in which the rank of each individual is clear. Paradoxically, however, when individual recognition—a phenomenon long thought to stabilize hierarchies—is possible, winner and loser effects have no impact on the probability of forming strict linear hierarchies.” (2004, “Individual recognition, dominance hierarchies and winner and loser effects,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.)

Add to this the fact that when researchers isolate two members of a social group, and study their “dominance” relationships, an odd thing happens: Animal A is said to be dominant over Animal B, and Animal B is dominant over C, yet in some cases C is strangely dominant over A, creating a peculiar dominance loop not found anywhere in Nature.

Natural vs. Artificially-Created Models

Creating artificial conflicts in “laboratory settings” is one thing. But does that flaw also translate to observations of behaviors of animals in Nature?

Yes and no. In the 1960s, biologist Thelma Rowell, the first scientist to study baboons in the wild, found that dominance hierarchies didn’t exist in the animals she studied. 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. (This partially coincides with what Dr. Mech wrote in 1999—that captivity stress causes wolves living in confinement to behave differently than 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.”

Rowell found that baboon males were actually extremely peaceful and not at all competitive. There was much positive or friendly interaction. Aggression was rare. “The dominant impression of interaction between males,” Rowell concluded, “was that of active cooperation.”

Shirley Strum, who studied baboons in the 1970s, 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.

Like Rowell, Jane Goodall also began her studies in the 1960s, and initially saw no signs of dominance in the chimpanzees at Gombe Stream. That changed after about 10 years when she first saw “dominant” females killing the young of other females of the troop, in some cases eating their young.

“During the first ten years of the study I had believed … that the Gombe chimpanzees were, for the most part, rather nicer than human beings. … Then suddenly we found that chimpanzees could be brutal—that they, like us, had a darker side...”

Was this change due to changes in the chimps’ external environment, or a by-product of continued human observations?

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


Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?

animal hierarchies don’t exist except when they’e obserrved by scientists

animals don’t form hierarchies except when they’re observed by researchers

human observation is what causes animal groups to form hierarchies

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.