I am going to offer a number of thoughts on the nature of leadership, not because there is such a thing in the nature of animals, but because this issue is generally on every dog owner’s mind and can determine the nature of their relationship with their pet. In the old days folks used to think in terms of a “top dog” and “teaching a dog its place” whereas these days owners and trainers talk in terms of alpha status, dominance, calm assertiveness, control over resources, etc., etc., and so while it may look like things have changed a lot because the terminology has changed a lot, in reality these are merely variants on the same theme. They all revolve around the human conceptions of control, respect and a trickle-down autocratic interpretation of social order. I’m asking if such a conception makes sense.
The best argument I’ve found for the existence of a dominance hierarchy might be that offered by Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D who writes a blog on Psychology Today and buttresses her case with the latest findings on the neurochemistry of behavior. Dr. LGB argues that a dominance impulse is the organizing principle of mammalian behavior and that the neurochemicals involved implement a long term reproductive strategy apart from any cognitive comprehension of the animals involved. She also argues that a competition for rank is consistent with the modern thinking of emergent systems.
I’ve excerpted the following from Dr. Breuning’s blog at …..
“Female chimpanzees are “in heat” about once every five years (because lactation suppresses fertility). Male chimps are only interested in sex when the hormones of fertility are in the air. But they’re interested in social dominance all the time. They effectively fight for five years to be first in line when the big moment comes. The winner’s DNA survives. Obviously chimps are not intending and planning this strategy, since they don’t have abstract knowledge of conception and genetics. They simply respond to their neurochemicals. Brains that motivate successful reproductive strategies were naturally selected for over millions of years.
2. Sex, aggression and dominance are different behaviors motivated by different neurochemicals. Testosterone and oxytocin motivate sex, serotonin rewards dominance, and aggression is a cocktail of neurochemicals. Mammals seek dominance because the serotonin feels good. Dominant animals get more food, which builds the strength it takes to keep their DNA alive. Strength helps males vanquish predators and compete for sex. Dominant females get extra food that helps them make more nourishing milk, chase off more predators, and get better paternal genes. (In some species, stronger females compete with other females; in other species, they run from all males and manage to escape getting impregnating by all but the strongest.) Dominance is not just about sex. It’s about survival, and sex is one facet of survival.
Note that LGB postulates the impulse in terms of feelings: “Mammals seek dominance because the serotonin feels good.” But working dog trainers since the seventies (and without the benefit of research into neurochemistry) recognized that the behaviors related to so-called dominance in reality indicate sensations of insecurity, not an attitude of supremacy. Science is now catching up to this understanding as per the following article in the NY Times. (7/15/11)
As the article states:
“It may now be time to take a step back from alpha worship. Field biologists, the people who gave the culture the alpha/beta trope in the first place, have found there can be a big downside to being No. 1.”
“The new study showed that top-ranking males had higher levels of stress whether the social structure of their group was stable or in tumult. Researchers collected fecal samples to measure levels of stress hormones called glucocorticoids.”
“Levels of stress are important partly because of the health effects of stress hormones. In the short term, in immediate fight-or-flight situations, the hormones work to energize the individual. Long-term stress levels are a different matter. “In the long term, you fall apart, or are subject to diseases,” said Jeanne Altmann, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, and senior author of the new report.”
Since in LGB’s model, long term reproductive strategies are not the result of cognition but of millions of years of evolution, and evolution is supposedly driven by genetic fitness, the long term consequence of achieving high status might actually lower physical well-being, the quality of existence and quite probably overall fitness given that stress hormones can inhibit gene expression (epigenetics). So if males seek sex because it feels good, then why do they seek to attain dominance since it makes them feel stressed? This is an especially intriguing question when we observe that Bonobos are wired as the opposite, eschewing dominance/stressed behaviors for the sexual approach to social friction. So the neurochemical explanation of the dominance model isn’t as straightforward as it might appear.
On the other hand, and again from the discipline of the working dog, a modern understanding of Drive explains how an individual might seek an increase in tension as a means of finding release from same. This renders order, but it is not concerned with status. Unresolved emotion in the emotional battery can only get out via a “trigger,” i.e. via the way-it-got-in. So an individual becomes attracted to social friction as a means of triggering and releasing pent up energy. And if the emotional capacity of the individual or situation is high enough, once this energy is at the surface, a group can now form in alignment around its expression toward a “group trigger.” This is what dogs can teach us about the evolution of sociability. It’s not about achieving dominance, it’s about resolving unresolved emotion.
(Note: What we’re witnessing with the idea that a dominance hierarchy can be defined as an emergent system which is really a contradiction in terms as Lee Kelley pointed out semantically in his Psyche Today blog: is the invention of an oxymoron, i.e. a trickle down organizing principle deriving from a bubble up organizing principle. This isn’t possible. One can have a trickle-down PSYCHOLOGY emerging from a bubble-up dynamic, for example the U.S. Government with a hierarchy of functions, but the psychology invested in these is not an organizing principle. The U.S. Government gives rise to a trickle-down political architecture, but it is predicated on a bubble-up dynamic given that voters elect their leaders who swear an oath to the rule of law, the true organizing principle. So the innate impulse in one politician to out compete his political rival in order to win office is a complex predicate of the U.S. Constitution. An official must always abide by it or he can be impeached and removed from office no matter how dominant he may be. The U.S. Constitution enables a dominance hierarchy as indeed human beings do seek dominance over other human beings, but we can’t say that the organizing principle is the impulse to achieve dominance. By definition a bubble up system cannot be organized in terms of a competition for status. One could make a far better argument that a prison community is a true dominance hierarchy, but again this relies on a complex rational psychology rather than an innate impulse. A dominance impulse can’t possibly be a fundamental impulse because it would require the co-evolution of the complementary state of appeasement in a “submissive” to accompany it, and the evolution of this would require the complementary state in the dominant of being able to recognize the signals of appeasement, and then the appeaser recognizing that the (so-called) dominant is capable of recognizing signals of appeasement and on and on in an infinite hall of cognitive mirrors. In other words, we will quickly run out of neurochemicals to implement these finer and finer lines of distinction and invariably we will have to generate a complex psychology of motive and understandings of causes and effects. An innate impulse for dominance cannot be an organizing principle because it cannot be a fundamental element of behavior.)