Wolves and Human Families

Edwin Wollert / Education Coordinator / Wolf Song of Alaska

There exists a curious feature of human child-raising which is not found among other primates, including the other "great apes:" besides humans, this includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. This element is our family structure: humans are the only great apes who tend to group in specific families, typically starting with an individual mated and/or married couple and their children, and possibly continuing with other family groups. All primates are social, to be sure, yet humans alone exhibit such strong devotion and caring towards their young from members of both genders.

So, the question to be asked about this trend is: how did we acquire this tendency? If we are biologically and genetically most closely related to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, and yet their societies generally lack doting father figures, then why are humans different in this regard? There do not seem to be good grounds for maintaining that we are "hard-wired" for such behavior, since our nearest relatives do not share this feature: the other apes form larger family groups, with mothers collectively offering care for the young, and fathers mainly occupying the fringe and defending the home territory, with occasional internal struggles for domination. Granted, humans are certainly capable of these same behaviors, though we have grown more to emulate nuclear family models within most of our societies.

Are there, then, good grounds for positing the question: how did we learn this family structure? Is it possible that we aped (if you'll pardon the pun) other species, and acquired behavioral models that we admired? This is where the non-primates might enter into our consideration.

Wolves are an excellent example here. While there are lone wolves and mated pairs of wolves living alone, wolves thrive and have the highest likelihood of survival in packs, which are really just extended family groups. Packs are usually defined by blood ties, though this is not always the case, as lone wolves might get adopted by packs, or else find other lone wolves with whom to start their own families. There are strict male and female hierarchical structures within packs, from the alpha couple at the highest rank, to the various betas of both genders, down to a single omega (which can be of either gender) and any pups which may have recently been born. And even with the hierarchy, the roles of individual wolves change over their life spans (it is possible, for example, for the same wolf to be an alpha and an omega at different times). In other words, wolves clearly display a group approach to family structure and family care. They share roles regarding caring for their elder members, as well as for raising their youngest members.

The survival benefits of such a model are easy to verify; yes, there is also simple strength in numbers, which many species rely upon, but in the case of the wolves, there is the additional communal bonding and sharing of responsibilities. So if humans did not acquire their family structures from their fellow great apes, might wolves have offered their own model to our ancestors? After all, modern people often speak of gender equality, shared workloads, two wage-earners within a single household, and there is no evidence to suggest that these notions simply materialized; they had to have a source, and wolves represent one of the most equitable forms of society among wild species.