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A Second Look at Hyenas, Part 2

March 1, 2023

A Second Look at Hyenas, Part 2

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Natalie Cash Natalie Cash

Inheriting social rank allows dominant hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) to live longer and maintain the status quo of their clans. It is akin to what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson discovered in her exhaustively researched and revelatory book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, regarding our own species.

According to Wilkerson, “Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”

While this social infrastructure may be invisible and inherited, “In America,” Wilkerson writes, “race is the primary tool and the visible decoy for caste.

What people look like, or rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is the visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flashcard to the public of how they are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong in this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether they may be shot by the authorities with impunity.”

As Black History Month segues into Women’s History Month, we are called to examine our own social ecosystems and actions we might take to break down rigid, seemingly impermeable, divisions. I recall the words of Hope Wabuke, poet, writer, and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in her NPR review of Wilkerson’s book, where she writes that “biology offers another model for social positioning. Let us think not just about replicating oppressive patriarchal systems but about alternative models such as matrilineal cross-cultural communication and connection.

Let us look not to the wolves, but to the hyenas.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate Women’s History Month, Wild View is featuring posts by and about women and their contributions to science and conservation throughout March.

Read A Second Look at Hyenas, Part 1 here.

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