Saturday, June 13, 2015

Will the Real Alpha Male Please Stand Up?

Will the real alpha male please stand up?

Every man wants to be an alpha male. It takes more than wanting, of course. Very few can attain that goal. If all men were alpha males the concept would become meaningless.

Yet, all men compete to advance up a status hierarchy; they seek to better themselves and to excel. As it happens, women prefer a more balanced life. They are less driven to compete for status in the marketplace.

More men pretend to be alpha males than are alpha males. They imitate those they consider to be their betters. Sometimes they can observe how real leaders function. More often, they rely on media portrayals.

The world is filled with wanna-be alpha males who believe that the job is more about show than substance. In order to find out what a real alpha male looks like Professor Carl Safina went out to observe wolves.

You would have thought that primates would have been more relevant, but researchers seem to believe that wolf packs have more in common with human groups. I will refrain from offering an opinion.

Safina points out:

If you watch wolves, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that perhaps no two species are more alike behaviorally than wolves and humans. Living as we do in families, we can easily recognize the social structures and status quests in wolf packs. No wonder Native Americans recognized in wolves a sibling spirit.

The similarities between male wolves and male humans can be quite striking. Males of very few other species help procure food year-round for the entire family, assist in raising their young to full maturity and defend their packs year-round against others of their species who threaten their safety. Male wolves appear to stick more with that program than their human counterparts do.

The role of the alpha male is clear. Among wolves and among humans, it is the same: to protect and provide. The alpha male protects other members of the group and provides sustenance for them.

Note well, Safina does not believe that alpha maledom is a social construct. His and the others who do this research are presupposing that the position of alpha male is part of the natural order.

Media stereotypes suggest that alpha males are snarling figures who push other people around. Anyone who has achieved a position of executive leadership knows that this is nonsense.  A good leader allows his subordinates to do their job and to fulfill their responsibilities. He does not spend his time diminishing them in order to feel that he is in charge. And he does not tell them what to do.

Safina explains:

In fact, the male wolf is an exemplary male role model. By observing wolves in free-living packs in Yellowstone National Park, I’ve seen that the leadership of the ranking male is not forced, not domineering and not aggressive to those on his team.

“The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf,” the veteran wolf researcher Rick McIntyre told me as we were watching gray wolves, “is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what’s best for your pack. You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect.”

The point is, alpha males are not aggressive. They don’t need to be. “Think of an emotionally secure man, or a great champion. Whatever he needed to prove is already proven,” he said.

Obviously, alpha males can be aggressive when need be. But, even among wolves the leaders set an example by adopting a pose of quiet confidence and self-assurance. They do not engage in psychodrama; they are secure because they have proven themselves.

One might question how an alpha male becomes an alpha male. And one would think that he attains his status with achievements, whether by working his way up the corporate ladder or by fighting off others who seek the position.

Safina writes:

This does not mean that alpha males are not tough when they need to be. One famous wolf in Yellowstone whose radio collar number, 21, became his name, was considered a “super wolf” by the people who closely observed the arc of his life. He was fierce in defense of family and apparently never lost a fight with a rival pack. Yet within his own pack, one of his favorite things was to wrestle with little pups.

Evolutionary theory yields the same conclusion:

“Imagine two wolf packs, or two human tribes,” Mr. McIntyre said. “Which is more likely to survive and reproduce? The one whose members are more cooperative, more sharing, less violent with one another; or the group whose members are beating each other up and competing with one another?”

Thus, an alpha male may be a major player in a successful hunt but then, after the takedown of the prey, may step away and sleep until his pack has eaten and is full.

Does this mean that female wolves are oppressed by the patriarchy? Not at all. They simply have different roles and different spheres of authority.

One understands that the researchers are obligated to describe these roles in ways that will keep the thought police at bay. Still, their view is interesting.

In Safina's words:

Biologists used to consider the alpha male the undisputed boss. But now they recognize two hierarchies at work in wolf packs — one for the males, the other for the females.

Doug Smith, the biologist who is the project leader for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, said the females “do most of the decision making” for the pack, including where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt. The matriarch’s personality can set the tone for the whole pack, Dr. Smith said.

Or, as Mr. McIntyre put it: “It’s the alpha female who really runs the show.”

In more human terms  women have traditionally run their households and have made important decisions for the family. While men directed their efforts toward the outside world, women have been masters of a different domain.

Yet, today’s young American woman will refuse to identify herself as a homemaker. She will often not want to prepare meals for her family and will insist on sharing all household and child rearing responsibilities. Then she will go out to compete with men for position on what remains a male status hierarchy.

Thus, feminism has persuaded women to give up their authority and responsibility in the home in order to compete for something that does not really mean very much to them.

Give feminism credit for diminishing women by depriving them of authority and responsibility in the home and setting them up to compete on a playing field where they do not have home field advantage.


David Foster said...

"Media stereotypes suggest that alpha males are snarling figures who push other people around. Anyone who has achieved a position of executive leadership knows that this is nonsense."

Maybe this kind of Snarling is more common among media executives and leading academics than it is in other industries, and hence the propagators of these stereotypes are relaying ideas based on their personal experience.

Anonymous said...

If the qualities of an alpha male in lower mammal societies are to procreate, protect, and provide for others then what makes executive leaders more alpha? Their mode of interacting with other members of their species do not tend to mirror the modes of interaction by alpha wolves, apes, or native tribal males. Doctor Phil can make money on TV pretending to be an authority on human relationships but a child in need of and lacking authentic fathering is not going to get from the image Doctor Phil projects on TV.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Give feminism credit for diminishing women by depriving them of authority and responsibility in the home and setting them up to compete on a playing field where they do not have home field advantage.

I was impressed by Adam Curtis's program on "Century of self" and the scene where Freud's nephew Edward Bernays gleefully describes how he helped teach women to smoke, a traditionally male vice, by planting some fake feminists to all collectively light up in a public setting and calling them "Torches of freedom" as a phrase that successfully convinced women to express their rebellion though claiming a male symbol. Edward L. Bernays, approached in 1929 to attract a new audience to tobacco, orchestrates a "Torches of Freedom" march from coast to coast.

Was Bernays an "alpha male"? An exemplary male role model? If modern status is based on money, and money comes from whomever can be most skillfully use propaganda to manipulate others against their best interest.

On the propaganda line I saw there's a new documentary about Scientology, largely collected from a number of high up members who finally dropped out and started looking more critically at what they were apart of.

The common denominator of both Bernays and L. Ron Hubbard is a desire for power and wealth, and both convinced themselves that they were serving the greater good of society in their actions. Everyone should be liberated, whether from their gender roles, or being cleared from alien souls who went into your body when you were born and control you until a savior can come along and "clear" them.

How do we protect ourselves from "personality cults" like that? What attracts people to confidence men with simple answers and what keeps us following them for years and decades? And at what point does a person step back and say "This is crap!" How do you teach people not to give their power away?

Anyway, I'd say when money is the only serious modern measure of success, then the definition of "alpha" is permanently deposed and replaced by something else, something I'm not sure you can find and contrast from social animal studies.

ama said...

Another interesting aspect to the male hierarchy in the wolf pack is that a beta male will often exhibit more "aggressive" behaviors (in frequency) than the alpha male. This has postulated as maintaining his position as heir apparent to the alpha, as the proxy-discipliner (makes me think of vice-principals) or as the surrogate for all the subordinates to take their aggression out on. Of course I am remembering this from lit- research I did over 25 years ago... Point is, I think there are corollaries to humans with this phenomena as well. said...

Being a perpetual student of Freud, Lacan and finally culminating in Jesus and the Catholic Church, I suspect that is why there will be no female priests. The Catholic Church seeks to preserve order-amen! Decades ago, when Bush senior was running for president, a young girl I was treating wanted to play Miss America, when I queried as to the appeal of presidential power she rolled her eyes and suggested, "what a bore." She was after female power, "the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world." Dare I say, unlike Hillary, no "penis envy" for this evolving young girl?