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The Subtleties of Power-Brokering Among Wild Animals

A new book carefully explains the importance of power in diverse species.

Key points

  • Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin wrote “Power in the Wild: The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways Animals Strive for Control over Others.”
  • The book explores the ubiquity, subtlety, and diversity of power struggles in wild animals.
  • Although power is often depicted as the large vanquishing the small, the author says it is much more complex, nuanced, and subtle than that.

I've long been interested in the concept of power among nonhuman animals (animals). All too often, when humans act violently, they're written off as "behaving like animals," but from my own and others' research we know that this convenient speciesist dismissal is extremely misleading. This is among the many reasons why I was pleased to learn about a new book called Power in the Wild: The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways Animals Strive for Control over Others by prolific author and award-winning scientist Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin.1

 David Selbert/Pexels
Source: David Selbert/Pexels

I'm delighted Lee could take the time to answer a few questions about his important penetrating analyses of the ubiquity, subtlety, and diversity of power struggles in wild animals that "pervade every aspect of the social life of animals: what they eat, where they eat, where they live, whom they mate with, how many offspring they produce, whom they join forces with, and whom they work to depose."

We also learn how researchers go about their business—valuable lessons for those who aren't fortunate enough to do this sort of work.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Power in the Wild?

Lee Alan Dugatkin: Power, or more specifically, the quest to attain and maintain power, lies at the heart of almost all animal societies. Right now, all over the planet, the work on power in nonhumans has become so cutting-edge, so exciting, and so replete with adventure, that it’s time to tell its story.

 University of Chicago Press, used with permission
Source: University of Chicago Press, used with permission

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

LAD: My background is in animal behavior and evolution, but of late I have also done quite a bit of work on the history of science. Power in the Wild allowed me to tie together all my interests.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

LAD: The enlightened lay science reader, who revels in the natural world. Just like your audience, Marc. Science and tales of adventure and wonder are a potent cocktail.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

LAD: Power in the Wild opens with an overview of the incredible ways that power manifests itself in nonhumans. From there, I move on to the costs and benefits that drive the evolutionary trajectories that power takes. Once that basic framework is in place, I dive into the myriad ways that nonhumans employ information from their own personal experiences, spy on the power struggles of others, and even change how they try and secure power depending on who is watching them, in part to form alliances to cement their hold on power should they attain it.

I also explore how and why, in some species, group dynamics play an important role in building power structures. Finally, I explore how even though power structures are often stable, sometimes they crumble, only to be rebuilt in new ways. All of which is to say that the journey to understand the quest for power in nonhumans will require casting aside any notion that it is simple and straightforward. It isn’t.

But there is more to Power in the Wild than that. How the researchers the reader will meet came to do their studies, the day-to-day work involved, the twists and turns, the serendipity and the bad luck as well, all provide a narrative backdrop for their work on power. We see what would lead a researcher to lie in mounds of guano for hours on end in the middle of the night to observe penguin power plays in New Zealand, how a vacation outing to the Ngorongoro Crater in Kenya over 30 years ago led to an incredible study of hyena power that is still ongoing, how a chance encounter at a garage solved a problem and helped forward our understanding of spies and power in swordtail fish, and how a childhood love of the street dogs of Kolkata eventually turned into the most detailed analysis to date of social behavior and animal power in an urban setting.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

LAD: Power is often depicted as the large vanquishing the small. Power in the Wild shows that it is so much more complex, nuanced, and subtle than that. The book also takes you to where the work was done, and guides you through how and why it was done.

MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

LAD: Though history has not always acknowledged their role, here I made a concerted effort to see that the work of female scientists studying power receives the attention it so richly deserves. Close to 40% of the studies we will cover were led (or co-led) by women. I also made a conscious effort to include the work of younger, as well as more seasoned, researchers.


In conversation with Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin, Professor of Biology and Distinguished Arts and Sciences Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville.

1) Lee doesn't consider power-brokering among humans, a topic in which I've long been keenly interested given the work of award-winning author Robert Caro, but there are many lessons for those who are interested in human behavior.

Barash, David. ‘Power in the Wild’ Review: Forces of Nature. Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2022.

Lessons From Nature When Powerful Females Call the Shots.

Lessons from Animals About Barriers to Female Leadership.