Step aside, Alpha Male


Image by Flickr user Bob.Fornal

I want to try and draw some parallels, but before this is possible we need a common text.

This fascinating podcast is about a community of baboons that Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neurologist, studied in eastern Africa. (It’s not long, and well worth a listen.)

Here’s a very basic summary:
  • The podcast opens with the increased percentage of people who don’t believe human beings will ever stop waging war because “it’s in our nature.” Just one of those sad but inevitable things we can’t change.
  • We then meet Sapolsky’s study subjects, a community of “textbook” baboons. The group is highly-aggressive, hierarchical and dominated by alpha males.
  • A tourist lodge opens up nearby and a different group of baboons stops foraging and starts feasting on cakes, hamburgers, etc, everyday.
  • Sapolsky’s group discovers the dumping ground and wants in on the free-for-all. The tougher males fight their way into the food dump every day, for years.
  • One day, some of the baboons start getting really sick. Turns out they’ve consumed contaminated meat and contracted tuberculosis. The disease  kills off most of the aggressive alpha males.
  • Sapolsky is devastated by the deaths of his alphas. He also starts to observe changes in the clan. The beta males start doing things the alphas never did, like grooming the females and even other males. He figures the study group has been scientifically compromised by a freak event and moves on to a different clan.
  • Six years later, Sapolsky visits his old group. To his amazement, the less violent culture remains! This despite the fact that the community is full of new males that grew up under the “old world order.”
  • Surprisingly, the new males adapted to the relatively peaceful culture of the group instead of trying to become the new alphas.
  • Lots of theories are thrown around, but the idea of hard-wired and inevitable aggression is called into question, especially because this more peaceful baboon behaviour has now lasted 20 years.
  • Many behaviours thought to be hard-wired changed, and very quickly!
  • The podcast ends with a question: can this scenario teach us something about the human potential for change?
Now, my own anecdote comes in.

Toss it in the Gender Blender


Image from Flickr user Wendy Piersall

We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons, but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.  ~Gloria Steinem

Some years ago, I lived in a group of 12 young volunteers for a period of nine months. We were six young men and six young women, previously strangers, living in one house. One person was the designated project leader.

After hearing the story of the aggressive baboons, I thought of two of our guys.

I’m not being rude. I thought of these two–we’ll call them Jack and Joseph–because, in the beginning, they always talked about optimizing their alpha males traits. They even had two shorthand categories: “Steves” were the assertive alphas and “Stus” were their unfortunate beta brothers.

The project leader–we’ll call him Stan–seemed particularly threatened by Jack and Joseph. Despite his official title, he felt like his authority was constantly being undermined. (He admitted as much to some of the women in the household.)

Jack and Joseph certainly looked and sounded like alphas: Jack was extremely tall, slick, and rather suave with the ladies (outside of the house, to be clear). Joseph was muscular, fiercely opinionated and strident in his mannerisms. They would puff up their chests and exchange modern-day survival strategies.

Their aggression wasn’t physical, but it could be very stifling. For instance, when I led a group meeting for the first time, Jack reclined and covered his face with a hat. He questioned the need for feminism, full stop. Joseph attacked my political views one night, called me an idiot and stormed up the stairs chanting “four more years.” (This was prior to Bush’s second term as president.)

I didn’t think constructive conversation would be easy to achieve with these guys, especially on touchy subjects.

(I’m tempted to make more allusions to Lord of the Flies, but you get the point.)

Now, I’m no expert from any vantage point,  but I think it made a real difference that many of the women in the household were extremely strong communicators. Instead of stereotypically fawning for the alphas (who were actually very attractive young men), we pretty much called them on their bullshit.

The power dynamics really changed when insecure and overcompensating Stan was replaced by an articulate and disarming new project leader,  a woman we’ll call Ellen.

Ellen created an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition. She didn’t assert authority; she earned respect.

I have to fast-forward here because the nine months were long and non-linear, but I think it’s truly worth noting that I came to appreciate and love Jack and Joseph when they toned down their talk of Steves and Stus. Because of the structure of our arrangement, they too had to cook, clean and respectfully communicate–activities that are, for better or worse, traditionally steeped in gendered stereotypes. It was very, well, egalitarian.

Overall, our group learned to overcome many of our differences (not the least of which were our views on gender) and we became a high-achieving and almost family-like unit.

Sounds simple, right?

Here are some interesting variables: Everybody had their heads shaved (we had done it for a fundraiser early on in the program) and thus there was a lot of androgyny; there were no romantic/sexual relationships in the house; we weren’t all heterosexual though, at that point, no one was openly queer; we lived in very close quarters; and we were constantly encouraged  to communicate effectively, needing less and less guidance as the months went on.

Although there were still many things about which we did not agree, we learned to respect each other. To live and let live. We could have mature discussions instead of upsetting arguments.

Not bad for a group of people in their late teens and very early twenties.

In light of all this, I really want to re-post most of an interesting comment someone made on the original baboon podcast:

TM from Brooklyn, NYOctober 16, 2009 – 06:36PM

It strikes me as sad that for women to be competitively powerful in this country, they are encouraged to play the same game of dominance and aggression. A greater shift is possible, and it does seem logical that it requires only a single generation’s removal from the patterns of patriarchy, gender role, and rewarded aggression that plague our culture, and are introduced at a very young age. Even considering a genetic predisposition in men, which I think is conveniently overestimated, women can and must refuse to be a part of this continuance and instruction.

Further, in the aggressive male culture, mutual male grooming is highly rare, as this piece points out in observation of apes. Of course, this is entirely true of our culture also, and I take, for instance, the large resistance to the “threat” of gay marriage. If we encourage men to take care of each other, clearly the old way is threatened. I hope we do, and I hope it is.


4 thoughts on “Step aside, Alpha Male

  1. Stumbled onto your post randomly. Well written post but …

    The title of this post lead me to believe that there would be more alpha male bashing. Instead after reading this, all I got was a story about a woman stepping up to the plate and commanding two alphas. Which is great and all but the title is misleading.

    Further more, even if your original goal was to showcase how Alpha males are overrated, I think you missed your mark. Here is why I think so,

    When you say things like, “Jack was extremely tall, slick, and rather suave with the ladies (outside of the house, to be clear).” you showcase the actual problem behind Alphas. It is because you (women) perceive them as tall, slick and suave that they are Alpha. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Alphas are attractive to women, and until that changes they won’t ever be overrated.

    So by the time I was done reading your post, I was more convinced of the magical powers that Alphas posses, than by your plans for making them seem overrated!

    … All in my opinion of course.

    • Hey Alex,
      Point taken. Thanks for posing it respectfully. I changed the title. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m simply bashing.

      I think I’m just reflecting on the complexity of gender relations, and proposing that communities function better when we don’t encourage the “conveniently overestimated” stereotype of masculine aggression.

      I admit that these guys were attractive physically, but personally I’m not drawn to men who behave like chauvinists, or even like cavaliers.
      I’m much more interested in a peer relationship, you know, love between equals.
      I’m not denying that alphas are attractive to many…but things like this make me roll my eyes.

      If I were a baboon, I’d go for the guy who groomed me back.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Oh, absolutely. I think the combination of appearance and attitude made these two guys “alpha,” though.
      Also, they self-identified that way.
      But point taken, for sure. It’s about way more than being big or muscular.
      Sorry if I didn’t make that clear. :-!

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