Myth Debunked- The idea of the alpha males and the top dog might have percolated through the zeitgeist, with the biggest, baddest, males living their best lives compared to lowly betas. And whereas this idea is somewhat true in the animal kingdom, it is actually not really the case for dogs or wolves or humans. The term alpha wolf was originally coined by the biologist, L. David Mech, studying wolves in an American national park in the 70’s. Mech observed that in wolf packs, an individual male seems to assert itself as the dominant “leader” of the pack. Mech later wrote up his research in a very popular book, introducing the concept to the masses (1). However, almost 20 years later, when Mech tried to replicate his study on truly wild populations of wolves in Canada, he realisied that his original conclusions were mistaken. Wolves did not live in packs led by a single alpha, but in family groups with parents looking after their offspring (2). Mech later tried to renounce his work and the ideas of “top dog”, but still to this day the concept lives on, and perhaps still having an effect on perpetuating outdated gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity in humans.
- Mech, L. D. (1970). The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Garden City, N.Y., Published for the American Museum of Natural History by the Natural History Press.
- Mech, L.D., 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77(8), pp.1196-1203.
An edited version of this article was published in the Times of Malta 12/07/2020