It is often suggested that members of the pack selflessly subordinate their own interests to the greater interests of the group, but this is really not an honest description of the evolutionary forces or motives at work. In wolf packs the males and females of the group each establish their own social rankings.
The top male and top female furiously disrupt any attempts by their inferiors to breed. These rankings are often stable for long periods, and when this is the case the lower-ranking animals readily give way to their superiors without a fight. The alpha male is greeted with fawning, even puppy-like, submissive gestures of face licking; if an inferior ranking male is challenged by the alpha, he will roll over on his belly and submit.
All members of the group, male and female, participate in the care and rearing of the young, regurgitating food for the puppies and being generally solicitous of them.
Why do the inferiors put up with this role? The honest answer is really that it is just an expedient. The group would erupt in constant aggression, and quickly disintegrate, if the pack did not acquiesce to the demands of the most assertive members among them. Yet if all that inferior wolves got in the bargain was room and board and the chance to play nanny for someone else’s children, evolutionary logic would bridle at the arrangement.
All wolves are offspring of alpha wolves. The instinct for submission must serve some purpose that helps a wolf not only eat but also reproduce – at least eventually. For how else would the instinct for submission ever be passed on to the next generation? The evolutionary calculus, then, is not that subordinate wolves are naturally peaceful, selfless caregivers; they are rather just biding their time. Subordination is a way to avoid getting killed or driven off by a larger or stronger or older and more experienced member of the group while awaiting one’s turn to challenge him.
It is a very good strategy to play the fawning courtier until one is strong enough to depose the king. It is a very bad strategy to be obnoxious or hostile to the king before the moment to strike has come. The acceptance of social rank is thus a way to avoid constant fighting, and it is something built into every wolf, and dog.
Wolves understand social rank, and accept it, and it is the source of long periods of stability in wolf society. Dominant and subordinate wolves go for months enjoying friendly relations, with no overt righting, and indeed few overt signs of hostility. Subordinate animals have an endless capacity to deflect incipient aggression by their superiors by submitting to their will and temporarily repressing their own self-interested drives. It is no coincidence that wolves became house pets but raccoons did not.