- All around the planet, animal behaviourists continue to peel back the layers of complexity around how creatures of all kinds acquire, retain, lose and claw back power. But there’s much more work to be done before we have a wide-reaching, integrated model of power in nonhumans. It’s hard to say exactly what this will look like, but I can hazard some guesses. The theory, if and when it arrives, will almost certainly be informed by new technological advances associated with gathering behavioural data. GPS tracking is just the tip of the iceberg: in many species, animals have been fitted with small devices that ‘talk’ to one another, so that when two animals are within some set distance, the collars collect data on both of them. While observing animals in the field (or lab) is irreplaceable, how that data is collected is changing at a breakneck pace.
- The model will also likely be informed by what is going on inside animals as power dynamics play out. New advances in endocrinology and neurobiology will allow us to better understand not only how power-related behaviours affect hormone levels and neurobiological activity, but how such physiological processes affect the dynamics of power. Likewise, work on gene expression will help us gauge how genes ‘turning off’ and ‘turning on’ affects creatures’ place in a hierarchy.
- Finally, any truly effective model must take account of evolutionary forces and focus on the costs and benefits of power in a particular ecological context, over long periods of time. This means that, as we continue to amass more and more data on power dynamics, we might be able to employ this model to search for broader patterns. Consider the case of power and spying. Do we see spying mostly in animals with a certain level of cognitive sophistication? If so, what level? Is spying primarily done via visual cues? Or does it work just as well using other senses? Does espionage function especially well in certain kinds of habitats? Which ones, and why? We can easily replace ‘spying’ with ‘audience effects’ or ‘complex assessments of individuals and groups’. In time, I’m confident we will be able to answer those and many more power-related questions in order to deepen our understanding of the evolution of sociality in nonhumans – and perhaps, even, in ourselves.
- Lee Alan Dugatkin is professor of biology at the University of Louisville. His books include Power in the Wild: The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways Animals Strive for Control over Others (2022) and, along with Lyudmila Trut, of How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) (2017).
- A plug for the author's latest book.
- The message is that smarts - as well as commitment - is sometimes as important as might in sorting out animal dominance hierarchies. Yet some of the examples imply that might is still the most important factor.
- There's what appears to be an error - under certain circumstances for the little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) 'When males heard the triumph call of the victor in a fight, their heart rate jumped to around 30 beats per second above normal.' I presume this is a typo for '... per minute ..', as the heart-rate of a humming-bird in flight is 'only' 20 beats per second.
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