The Long Legacy Of The Alpha Wolf Myth

24:24 minutes

a beautiful lone wolf with a grayish brown cut stands alert on a rocky cliff on a rainy day. it looks behind at the camera, eyes piercing
We can’t seem to shake off our obsession with the ‘alpha wolf’ myth. Credit: Shutterstock

Around the 1970s, the world latched onto a catchy new scientific term: alpha wolf. It described the top dog that clawed its way to the top of its pack, and it quickly became a mainstream symbol for power and dominance. 

The idea of the alpha wolf was debunked almost 25 years ago, but its legacy lives on. Most commonly, it’s found in circles of the internet where men appoint themselves alpha wolf, and also in dog training. Strangely, those two things are connected. 

Guest host Maddie Sofia explores how science works and how people use it in their everyday lives, whether it’s true or not. And a little about what happens when science goes mainstream. 

Maddie first talks with Dr. Dave Mech, senior research scientist at the US Geological Survey and founder of the International Wolf Center. His 1970 book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species helped popularize the term “alpha wolf.” But when he discovered that alpha wolves aren’t really real many years later, he tried to right the wrong.

Then, Maddie talks with two researchers about how the alpha wolf idea is still around today: Anamarie Johnson, PhD candidate and canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University, and Dr. Lindsay Palmer, social and behavioral scientist who studies the human-animal bond at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. They explore how biases and societal ideas shape science, and connect the dots between alpha wolves, masculinity, and dog training.

Further Reading

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Segment Guests

Dave Mech

Dave Mech is a senior research scientist with the US Geological Survey and the founder of the International Wolf Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Anamarie Johnson

Anamarie Johnson is a PhD candidate and a canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Lindsay Palmer

Lindsay Palmer is a social and behavioral scientist in the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Maddie Sofia

Maddie Sofia is a scientist and journalist. They previously hosted NPR’s daily science podcast Short Wave and the video series Maddie About Science.

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