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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Fallacy of the Alpha Male

Masculinity is having a renaissance. After several decades under the thumb of radical feminism and media denigration, men are finally digging in their heels and trying to be men again. It's a good sign, a turning point for men, but the effort is not without its perils.

There have been no leaders of men for several decades, and few media role models. John Wayne passed away years ago and his masculine characters left with him. Clint Eastwood's masculine, but woefully incomplete, nameless man of the spaghetti westerns has long been forgotten. There are no definitive guides to manhood anymore. Instead we have dozens of upstarts trying their best (and sometimes their worst) to establish themselves as leaders of the next generation of men. So far, the world of new masculinity has avoided a Lord of Flies scenario, in which chaos ensues due to the lack of solid leadership and role models. (The notable exception being the Red Pill movement and various reddit forums, which are nothing but isolated pockets of male chaos and insanity, only suitable for those wishing to study internet chaos. In all other cases, these groups are to avoided by aspiring men at all costs.) Without solid examples and leadership, masculinity still has a long road to establish itself once again.

In looking for that example of real manhood, many of the aspiring oracles of masculinity have sunk their teeth into the concept of the alpha male as the epitome of masculinity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, the alpha male was observed in behavioral studies of animals that naturally form and travel in packs or groups. In simple terms, the alpha male is the leader of the pack, the male that all other members of the pack defer to. The alpha male, due to his size, aggression, strength and animal-specific skills takes the right to have first access to the resources of the animal group, including the right to eat first and to have his choice of females to mate with. The other males will defer to the alpha as long as the alpha can maintain his status through his strength. Being the alpha male also has disadvantages, in that the alpha often is the most skilled hunter and brings in the most food. The alpha, being the strongest, is also the animal with a target on his back, the first to be attacked if the group is under threat. The alpha thus has to work in exchange for his privileges. (A notable exception is the African lion, in which the females are observed to be the hunters.)

The alpha male concept extends beyond the four legged pack predators, such as wolves and lions, and has been observed in other species, such as primates (as well as extinct velociraptors, if you believe the Jurassic Park movies.) Although the alpha male concept is useful and appears to reasonably explain group behavior in animals, there have been some criticisms of the concept. For example, an astute scientist observed that packs of wolves in the wild are often family units, including a breeding pair and their offspring from several previous seasons. This confounds the typical interpretation of the alpha male, making the alpha male the oldest parent, rather than simply the strongest male.
The aspiring oracles of masculinity who reference the alpha male concept believe we can learn a lot from the alpha males in nature. After all, although we are human, we are still animals. At our deepest primal levels, perhaps part of the limbic system in the brain, we still have primitive impulses, although it might be best to compare our primitive selves to the primates rather than the wolves. Among both aspiring oracles and the lesser pickup artists it has been popular to reference the gorilla as the exemplar of alpha males. The Renaissance Man Journal even has an excellent article on what we can learn from alpha males among the chimpanzees.
Why would I want to
be the gorilla?


I agree there is a lot to be learned from observing alpha males in the wild. We can witness strength, courage, intelligence, and even social skills among the higher species, all traits to admire and aspire to. Being the alpha sounds like a good thing, especially if you desire the social and sexual benefits, like having plenty of females to mate with. Unfortunately, few men understand that learning how to be a human alpha male from wild animals must be put in the proper context. Although the lessons are there, in reality it's like learning to be a corporate CEO by examining the skills of a professional NFL football coach. The environments, motivations and methods might seem similar but are significantly different.

The most obvious flaw in the alpha male concept as applied to humans is that technically there is only one alpha male of any given group. If you aren't the alpha, are you prepared to beat the crap out of the alpha to attain that status? I guarantee that will not go over well in modern human society. Human society and social structure differ significantly from animal social structures. The alpha male concept doesn't provide any guidance for dealing with the rules, written and unwritten, of human social hierarchies. In addition, human social hierarchies are both complex and dynamic. A handsome guy might be the alpha male at the bar one night, only to have a pickup artist come in the next night and dislodge him from his position in the hierarchy. Several nights later he might be the alpha again. At a party another frustrated guy might be an omega male with no social skills, but at work he might very well be an alpha male based on his job-specific prowess. Among humans, alpha status can be fleeting and context dependent which renders the concept of a human alpha male essentially useless.

The alpha male concept relies on several key factors that are often ignored. The first is that the alpha male concept exists within a group social structure that is essentially closed and relatively small. Seldom, if ever, will a wolf or even a primate join a different pack or troop. You won’t see a chimpanzee get fed up with his group because of a poor choice of females to mate with, then wander over to the other side of the jungle where the females are more attractive. In fact, leaving or being ostracized from a troop is often a death sentence, since the animal will lack access to group gathered food, and no other troop will share resources with an unknown outsider.

In most human social groups, members are free to come and go as they please. (I’ll acknowledge there are a few types of dysfunctional groups among humans where membership is fixed, but these are not pertinent to the discussion since these more primitive groups are few and far between.) Even when leaving a human group is difficult and results in being ostracized, there are plenty of other human groups willing to adopt new members. Membership amongst human groups is dynamic and fluid, so there are many options in group membership, and many more options to either be alpha, or to be at least a leader in the group.

Don’t like your job? Find a new one. Annoyed by your drinking buddies? Make new friends. Don’t like your darts team? Form a new team. Humans can move between groups in ways that animals cannot.

The notable exception is the alpha male himself. If a human group develops an alpha male, the one person who simply cannot leave the group is the alpha. The group is centered around the alpha male; the alpha male defines the group. The human alpha male is trapped. He cannot leave until he is supplanted. Consider Steve Jobs at Apple, Inc. Apple was Steve Jobs; Steve Jobs was Apple. Steve could not leave Apple on a whim if he had wanted to. During his and Apple’s heyday, Steve was the alpha male, not just the CEO like his predecessors. He couldn’t pack up and leave for a new venture like a normal CEO even if the venture were to create something as awesome as unlimited, pollution free power. As the CEO he was free to move positions, but as the alpha male he was locked into his position. It was only his illness and death that freed him to leave, and a careful transition plan enabled the group to survive.

In nature, social groups emerge as a means of surviving in situations where resources are limited. This is probably the most ignored aspect of social groups in nature, and the most important. There are only so many sources of food and water in nature. Membership in a group gains the animal access to those scarce resources, and hence a chance at survival. If the source of food or water is challenged, there is protection in the group’s ability to defend their resources. Ultimately, being the alpha male guarantees the alpha first access to a limited set set of resources, including first access to the ability to procreate and pass along his genes to the next generation. Being the alpha male is, at it’s essence, a selfish endeavor that ensures survival.

In a human society, being the alpha is no longer necessary to ensure survival, nor is it necessary to ensure passing on your genes to the next generation. The need for social survival groups has been obviated by society and technology, as has the need to be the human alpha male.
Human society and social groups nowadays are not built around the need to obtain limited resources to ensure survival. Food is readily available at the local grocery store, and water is available at your sink's tap. If you get hungry or thirsty, you can be satisfied with a quick trip to the local Burger King or Wendy's Hamburgers. You don't need to be an alpha male to guarantee access to survival resources.

The availability of all these resources stems from another aspect of human society you don't see in the animal kingdom. If there has been a drought, or another troop has raided all the banana trees, the chimpanzee group has a significant problem. Their only choice is to hunt down new resources, and perhaps fight for access. You won't see these battles happening among human groups, except perhaps on Black Friday at the local department store. (Wars have stopped being about resources nowadays and are more about ideology.) Humans have the unique ability to not only manage their resources, but also to create new resources. A human male doesn't need to be an alpha to guarantee access to food when he can grow all the food he needs. He doesn't need to be an alpha when he can dam a river and create a reservoir to hold more than enough water for his people, and have enough left to water crops. Human society improves the ability to access resources in ways that animals cannot.

In human society, this concept extends even beyond survival resources. Humans can create new resources for work, leisure or other endeavors whenever they desire to. Furthermore, humans will tend to create resources, like tools amd machinery, that enable them to more easily create even more resources. 

Freed from the need to band together for survival, humans form fluid groups in a myriad of different ways. Moving between groups allows humans to find suitable mates among a much larger selection, so there is no necessity to be an alpha male in order to pass on your genes in a subconscious effort to extend the species.

Among humans the alpha male has been obsoleted by the human ability to apply ingenuity and social skills. The role of the alpha male is completely unnecessary in a world where ingenuity enables humans to create resources rather than depend on the providence of nature. The concept of a human alpha male is a fallacy; interesting and thought provoking, but still a fallacy.

Can you learn from the alpha males in nature? Yes, but the lessons are limited. Should you want to be a human alpha male to selfishly guarantee your access to resources and women? I say no, but some oracles of masculinity might disagree with me. Instead, I believe the human male should be seeking to be a better person, a better man, and a better member of society, using his social skills and intellect to manage his personal and social life for his own good and the good of others. The power of the modern man lies not in domination as some fallacious alpha male, but in striving to leave everything and everybody better than when he first encountered them.

Gorilla image courtesy of M - Pics at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

1 comment:

Keith Ledig said...

The human societal construct doesn't really follow the ape alpha male structure. We can have multiple alpha males in a group. There is a hierarchy usually, but there can be multiple men at each level. In today's modern homosapien Society, the women are still looking for a male that is a good provider at least symbolically. Doctors and lawyers, rich men, successful and famous people in their niche, are all very attractive mates to females.