Wolves

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Chapter 12 endnote 39, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Dogs are extremely social creatures, continues Bradshaw, as are wolves in the wild when you don’t toss them into zoos with a bunch of strangers. ...] For an enlightening discussion of why wolves are not aggressive creatures by nature, read Bradshaw 2014.

Wolves are not aggressive creatures by nature — in the wild, the members of a pack are cooperative, not competitive. According to Bradshaw, a wolf pack is usually a family grouping, As long as there is enough food, cubs stay with their parents until they are fully grown.[1] Once the cubs are old enough, they hunt together with their parents, and older siblings hang around to help care for their little brothers and sisters in subsequent litters of cubs. They regularly reinforce their attachment to their parents with certain behaviors that we humans mistakenly categorize as aggressive dominance displays.

Where did this misunderstanding come from? It’s probably an artifact of captivity, caused by crowding strangers together in a zoo. As a result, affiliation behaviors in these wolves were labeled as “submissive” behaviors to avoid conflict. Signals that wolf parents (as leaders of the pack) would use to remind their offspring to cooperate were labeled as aggressive “dominance” behaviors. Scientists created a false circumstance (captivity) and then made mistaken mental inferences for the behaviors they observed, and this led to a false image of what wolves are like. Again, a lack of appreciation for the power of context combined with a failure to recognize that mental inferences are being made.

According to Bradshaw, wolf biologists now describe behaviors, such as "belly-up display," rather than use mental terms like "submissiveness," to avoid engaging in the mental inference fallacy.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Bradshaw, John. 2014. Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books.