86 pages 2 hours read

Isabel Wilkerson

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Part 4, Chapters 13-15

Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Part 4: “The Tentacles of Caste”

Part 4, Chapter 13 Summary: “The Insecure Alpha and the Purpose of an Underdog”

Wilkerson describes a personal situation that at one point caused her great distress: After her divorce, her dog, a terrier, bit and was more hostile, as he had preferred her first husband. Upon a trip to a behaviorist, Wilkerson was told how alpha dogs behave to assert leadership, because she needed to assume a similar role to help the dog feel more secure. Alpha dogs, the behaviorist said, “are fearless protectors against outside incursions, but they rarely have to assert themselves within the pack, rarely have to act with aggression, bark orders, or use physical means of control” (203). She ultimately restored order by getting another dog who established dominant status. This confident leadership is lacking in popular understanding of alpha canines and wolves because our ideas are based on “large groupings of wolves placed into captivity” (205). Pack social cohesion is also dependent on the presence of an “omega” at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Similar to the artificiality of wolf pack behavior in captivity, most humans are assigned their social position “on the basis of having been born to the dominant caste or the dominant gender or to the right family within the dominant caste” (206).