There are many myths and misconceptions in science that need to die;
“Autism is caused by Vaccines”, “Gun mufflers silence the sound of guns”, “redheads and blonds are going extinct”, “Humans only use 15% of their brain”, “One dog year is equal to 7 human years” are a few of many myths and misconceptions people have that science has long since DEBUNKED.
An overlooked misconception – or shall I say a misinterpreted piece of pseudoscience is the idea of the “Alpha Wolf”. The idea behind this myth is simple; wolf packs are governed by a single patriarch – a male who has risen to the top of the social ladder by brute force. This “alpha male”, according to the myth has access to all the food and the females he desires and any other male who tries to interfere with the “alpha” in his sexual prowl will either be killed or chased out of the pack. There is just one problem with this narrative; it never happens in the wild.
The origin of this myth goes back to the 1960’s when a researcher by the name of L. David Mech made observation notes of a wolf pack. This observation made note of aggressive anti-social behavior the wolves had. The findings were published in the 1970’s and titled; “The Wolf: Ecology & Behavior of an Endangered Species”. The observation was junk science to begin with. The observations were made on…. Wolves raised in captivity. Wolves in the wild do not behave as Mech noted in his book. Science has corrected itself, Mech himself even noted corrections in his website and his book was revised and reprinted in 1981.
No problem -no damage done right? Wrong!
A simple revision has stopped millions from proliferating the myth. National Geographic’s “Dog Whisper” hosted by “professional dog training guru” Cesar Millan has given the myth some steroids. Millan has been busted numerous times using animal behavior modification techniques that border animal abuse and cruelty. His methods stress that the dog owner must be the “alpha of the pack” by resorting to physically punishment and even psychological torture of the dog.
No matter how you may try and pretend – dog brains are not human brains. Dogs, much like young human children lack the ability to link cause and effect. While smacking a child before they touch a hot stove is effective, and pulling a dog back with the leash from sniffing a dead animal is effective – if your learning model is based solely on punishment – neither the dog or the child will learn. Science has found that positive reinforcement is a far better teaching model than positive punishment.
The consequences of using punishment heavy learning techniques has been fully understood and is equally applicable to all higher level animals (dogs, humans, non-human primates, etc). Consequences can range from repeat offense, learned helplessness, resentment, stress, depression and sometimes severe psychosis. Go to any dog park anywhere in the US and you will see the Alpha technique be used and it always ends in disaster – the animal re offends, the animal becomes aggressive out of frustration and even someone else’s dog becomes the target of the punishment.
Lets step away from the Animal Kingdom and look at the dangers of the “Alpha” paradigm in human society:
While humans are biologically and anatomically animals – we possess a cognitive ability that is not present in any other organism. Attributing and translating animal behavior into humans doesn’t work – in fact human society is stratified and rigorous. So much so that we categories our own species into groups based on sex, weight, height, geographical location and economics. While it is theoretically possible to have social mobility – it only happens once in a blue moon and only when certain steps have been met.
The Earliest Ancestor of the Alpha paradigm in humans comes from Herbert Spencer who extended Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection into human society. Spencer’s Social Darwinism was a misinterpretation of Darwin’s work and stressed that the only way you can have social mobility is by violent ruthlessness – much like Mech’s wolf.
Very recently has the Alpha paradigm crept its way into the dating scene and it became a best seller with Pick Up Artists and it branched off into other subcultures of misogyny. PUA constituents were (and still are) encouraged to be violent and to never take NO as an answer. It mustn’t be said of the disaster this has caused, in the dawn of 2014 Elliot Rodgers went on a bloody rampage in Isla Vista California – days prior he made numerous YouTube manifestos and every single one of them have elements of Spencer’s Social Darwinism & Mech’s botch study.
The myth of the Alpha doesn’t seem to be dying faster. We can speed up the process by being vocal, learning correct research based dog training, reading animal behavior research and cracking down on any sort of testosterone inspired violence.