With regards to the latest phase of alpha incarnation via our close biological relationship with chimpanzee troops, I watched Animal: Apes and listened to the TedTalk with Dr. Frans de Waal, the biologist/primatologist from Emory University in Georgia, who takes responsibility for helping coin the phrase “alpha male.” (and doesn´t support the way it´s most often utilized) Read Time Magazine´s article on comparative intellect and the Dr. Jane Goodall homepage on chimpanzee social hierarchy. Here´s what I learned in just that rather brief foray into chimpanzee behavior:
- Alpha males become popular and well-liked not nearly as often as through sheer violence as by keeping the peace, grooming and breaking up fights, keeping the community happy, and bringing peace and harmony to the group. They are peacekeepers and community-builders, inevitably.
- Often dominant bully alphas get attacked and killed by other males within the group if abusing females, babies, mistreating the communities, or dominating resources. Even in the ape world, nobody likes a douchebag.
- Alphas are always and perpetually under the threat of being overtaken by other males in the community. The job is high-risk and highly-unstable as that threat is ongoing and perpetual until your time expires.
- Often those aspiring to overtake the current alpha try and get his attention by beating an allied female – or multiple – to get the attention of said alpha.
- A male striving to overtake the alpha grooms others, hold babies, shares food to gain compliance and support. Campaigning, inevitably. Not at all unlike a human politician.
- Generally, an alpha male stays within power for only 3-4 years, without exceptions to the rule, of course. The job-security is rather flimsy, unfortunately.
- In physical learning tests, 2.5-year-old human children performed as well as full-grown chimpanzee and orangutan adults until the type of testing became social-based, when the human children were clearly superior to their ape ancestors, whether female, male, alpha male, whatever. So, an alpha male either has the equivalent intellect of a newly-anointed toddler…or worse.
- There can be only one alpha male and one alpha female in any community and the positions are not shared. They do not work together with alphas of other communities and usually there is violence or outright killing involved when the two meet or interact, whether over mating, territory, resource accessibility, or dominance. So, they are threatened, insecure, and projecting when other alphas are around to threaten their status. Not at all unlike the human male “alpha.”
So, when you use the term “alpha” to describe your fighting prowess, A-type personality, dominant male self…I don´t think that word means what you think it does.
Wolves are another animal where the term “alpha male” is often utilized – and another place where the theory has long been debunked. David Mech, an American biologist, originally coined the term relative to wolves being studied in captivity, where male wolves were seen to fight for control of the pack in violent fights with other males. In his later works he completely disregarded this theory as myth when actually studying wolf packs in their natural habitat in the wild. He´s even gone so far as to ask the publisher of his original works to stop publishing it (though to no avail) as it´s been over 20 years since Mech has stopped using the term “alpha male” pertaining to wolves.
What he has seen is that wolves break from their own pack to seek out opposite-sex companions for the sake of starting their own pack, where a co-leadership dynamic takes place between male and female so as to most peacefully raise their shared pups.
The alpha concept was originally believed to have started with female chickens. Female chickens – hens – do have a social hierarchy based on pecking apparently, but the male roosters do not have a part of this whatsoever. It´s the hens who assert dominance and the standard “alpha” practices, and I hardly think that “alpha females” are what most testosterone-driven men had in mind with their alpha male fantasies. A little bit of misfiring on gender if so. “Henpecking”, as a metaphor, actually refers to a woman who continually criticizes and derides her husband, which is far more a form of “dominance” than the receiving male, clearly not presumed to be an alpha should he “let” this behavior continue. (I jest…) Remember, there´s a reason the term “cock-fight” (male squaring-off, dueling, match-fighting, monkey-dancing – whatever relative term you choose to utilize) exists pertaining to supposed male dominance. And usually they occur for the shallowest of reasons, at least with human beings – territorialism, pride, fictitious rights to a woman/modern “chivalry”, alcohol, dominance or superiority, or something generally comparable or connected to those above.
Finally, another animal where the term “alpha” his so ingrained in modern society is regarding lions, where it has some merit in the context of protecting the group from other male pack leaders or rogues, fighting viciously on behalf of the pride. Yet, even with lions, the bulk of the heavy-lifting in a pride goes to the females. They do the vast majority of the hunting because they´re faster and more able to run down prey than the slower, heavier male. They also provide the social-stability for the pack but I guess it depends on what definition of “pack” you adhere at the end of it all.
Traits usually affiliated with the term “alpha” or “alpha male” include dominance, aggression, superiority, physical intimidation, and conflict. These are hardly the hallmarks of a team-building enterprise that´s looking for the most efficient manner of streamlining a business. Nor is it the prototypical manner of staying safe in the self-defense world that so many exponents project online with bluster, ad hominem attacks, or feigned “dominant” personality. In fact, it´s a very outdated model for even a stand-alone male at this point on the timeline. Very few progressive, creative, highly-functional people would ever choose – voluntarily – to work with someone that openly claims to be an “alpha.” (not in the least a little egocentric, arrogant, and self-important) It´s hardly conducive to progress or goal-achievement where discourse, unity, diversity, and creativity can be bred. To me, it´s the industry equivalent of calling oneself (not via peer or student) the stereotypical (yawn) “warrior.”
The concept of the alpha male most often tends to go against the idea of a highly-organized and functional community and once again goes down into the tribal depths where shamans, gurus, and title-whores dwell. Those who crave identity-defining terms, are insecure without them, and search for things that make them feel more superior than they actually are. To hear men (it´s always men as I – personally – have yet to hear a woman call herself an “alpha female”…) still utilizing this term shows the remnants of outdated partriarchy, old boys´ clubs, and unbridled machismo – all moving towards the “built upon sand” junkpile. (Mercifully) However, and admittedly, I suppose at the end of the day it depends on what your personal definition of a strong, confident, comfortable-in-his-skin man should look (and act) like…
Thanks to Siofra for the concept for this blog-post.