This post will be a bit more academic and philosophical in nature. Previously , I had talked about the concept of the Alpha male, what it means in the popular culture, and whether or not it even exists (Spoiler: it does, but it might not be what you thought). In this post, I want to go into a bit more depth on the subject, and explain how the whole “Alpha male” thing got started in this first place, the misconceptions behind the term, and how we might be able to move past the misnomer and forge a newer, more accurate, more complete definition of the term.
So, Where Did This All Get Started?
The idea of the “Alpha Male” entered the collective consciousness in 1947, after a zoologist named Rudolph Schenkel completed and wrote about studies that he had performed with wolf packs in captivity. Schenkel studied many different captive wolf packs over the course of 15 years, and one common theme that he had noticed is that there were clear dominance hierarchies in the packs, with one particular male, the alpha, leading the pack and ruling over the females and the lesser males. These studies were closely followed up by other studies by various scientists, most famously L. David Mech’s studies in the 1970s. Mech would be the one to introduce the “Alpha Male” term as we know it today into the literature.
So popular and ground breaking were these studies and papers that many people invoked the usage of the term into human related hierarchies not too long after. However, there was a fundamental problem with this whole concept: It was bogus, at least, as it related to wolves. The previous studies only looked at wolves in captivity. They completely ignored wolves in the wild. When follow-up studies were conducted by scientists in subsequent years, they found that with wild wolves, the hierarchies were completely different. Wolf sociology was found to be much more egalitarian out in the wild, where more space and more resources meant less pressure on the individual packs. Sure, there were powerful male leaders, but they were not the aggressive, domineering tyrants that were throwing their weight around like the ones in captivity. So different were these follow-up studies that Mech actually had to recant his original conclusions in a 1999 follow-up piece to his original work. Despite this new revelation, the “alpha male” term as well as the original description of it was still being used more than ever when applied to human beings.
But….What About Apes?
A huge part of the reason why the original description of alpha males lingered on after the follow-up wolf studies was because of other subsequent studies done on great apes, particularly chimpanzees, one of our closest genetic relatives. Study after study done with these animals confirms that chimp society is quite unilateral, unequal, and zero-sum. Since chimpanzees are the closest genetic relative to humans, and since chimps engage in strict dominance hierarchies with the lone alpha male on top, ruling his kingdom, then humans surely must also have similar natural tendencies, since we observe so many similar behaviors in human beings today. So the prevailing wisdom goes, at least. The alpha male concept as applied to humans was not fully popularized until 1982, with the release of Chimpanzee Politics by Franz De Waal.
At first glance, without digging too deep into the issue, the observations of chimps and humans make a great deal of sense. The idea of the alpha male human, the big, broad, brash, swaggering rebel who takes what he wants and who’s all outta fucks to give, has been part of our society at least since recorded history, so being able to ascribe an actual label to these guys is quite convenient. Add to that, most humans are greatly swayed and influenced by displays of dominance, power and confidence. How many guys have watched a James Bond movie and have not felt, at least for a few minutes, that if we could be him, life would be totally badass? How many guys would love to be the guy who has a mountain of “fuck you” money, and use it to show off our latest assets and acquisitions, making the common plebeians insanely jealous? How many of us are guilty of listening and responding more positively to a message when it’s delivered by a tall, broad, deep voiced man vs. a short guy with a high-pitched voice and skinny limbs who delivers the exact same message? Does anyone remember the Saturday Night Live sketch with Tom Brady? “Be attractive…..don’t be unattractive.” Yeah. We as a species tend to look upon such people in awe and majesty. After all, they’re just so much better than us. If we take all of these examples from the real world and put them all together, the evidence looks pretty solid that universal human alpha males do in fact exist.
What if it’s still all BS?
The above section does not take into account the many studies and real world observations that run contrary to this, however. Despite the fact that we are most closely related genetically to chimpanzees, the simple fact remains that…..we are not chimps. In fact, many studies have recently reported that humans may be more closely related to another subspecies of chimp, the Bonobo. Bonobos are a much more egalitarian, less autocratic version of a chimp, where resources, food and yes, even sex, are more equally distributed than they are amongst their common chimp cousins. Studies of the human anatomy, from the sizes and positioning of sex organs, to the comparatively small differences in body sizes between males and females, indicate a point origin for humans that points to a far more egalitarian, resource sharing and peaceful existence than what we have been originally led to believe. The book Sex at Dawn, a recommended read for anyone who visits this blog, outlines that throughout 99% of humanity’s history, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Since we did not own land and did not have governments, rules, and restrictions, we did not have the same kinds of artificial pressures being put on us that we have now. Because of that, we lived a much more laid back, shared, and egalitarian lifestyle. Apparently, this is what real “human nature” is. Well, at least 99% anyway.
But what about today? Well, one can make the case that even now, with our modern amenities, rules, laws and customs, the universal alpha male still doesn’t make much sense. The big reason for this, as discussed in the last entry on the subject, is that human society today is so complex and varied, that it’s not really possible for one to be an “all around” alpha male. Donald Trump may be President of the United States, but he’s not going to fare well if he wants to become a male model. Placed in that environment, even when he was in his physical prime, he would get laughed off the stage. The star of your local NBA team may be dominating on the court, but if you ask him to make a scientific presentation amongst the world’s leading experts, he might not be as well received among that social circle. “But, but… the NBA is more important than the Scientific Community!” you may fire back. Firstly, shame on you! Secondly, yeah, maybe in America in 2018. But it’s surely not the same in many other parts of the world nor will it always be at different points in time. You see, because of our large numbers, cultural preferences, geographical and linguistic diversity, among many other things, our global society is far too nuanced and complex for a single alpha male to be universally revered, feared and respected.
Knowing this, how do we become an “alpha” then? Simple, find what it is that gives you passion, strength, what gets you out of bed in the morning. Once you discover that, become the very best at it that you can. By raising your standards, committing to excellence, and networking with a strong team, you will naturally end up being the leader of your own pack.