Alpha Males are What’s Wrong in the World

I know what is wrong in the world. It’s Alpha males. But I don’t know how to remedy that, and there is a strong likelihood that it cannot be remedied. But read on …

I earned a Masters Degree from Harvard University (1970) in Anthropology, with my main interest being the biological basis (evolution) of human social behavior – and I have pondered that subject ever since.

To better explain why Alpha males are what is wrong in the world, I need first to go over some facts of evolutionary biology, in general, and human evolutionary biology in particular. Natural selection occurs as the consequence of competition over “reproductive success”. This is a keystone term of evolutionary theory, and use of the term actually and always implies “relative reproductive success”, since organisms compete with one another to leave a greater number of offspring. The combination of traits possessed by those organisms that compete successfully predominate in successive generations. This is how evolution takes place. And, therefore, the DNA of every organism on Earth has one and only one goal – live and reproduce to the greatest degree possible. Is this also true of ourselves, who, we suppose, are free of strict genetic programming? Are we not free to choose what we want to do with our lives? Well, yes and no. Some people do choose to commit suicide, while others choose to remain childless. Some humans can, in other words, override the strong predispositions organisms have to live and reproduce. Further, isn’t it the case that people don’t ordinarily think or talk about being “reproductively successful”? It’s an abstract concept. But people think and talk a lot about something that is far more concrete – having sex.  This fact highlights an important evolutionary mechanism – the “proximate” cause of a behavior. Proximate means near by. It’s contrasted to the ultimate (or farther off) cause of a behavior. In this instance, the proximate cause of human sexual activity is wanting to have sex. The ultimate cause is that your genes want to be transferred to new bodies. It does take some effort to imagine that one’s sexual activity is caused by the demand of your genes to be reproduced – but were that not so, evolution would not have happened and we would not be here, talking about how we got here. The beauty of evolution, in this case, is that you, as a sexual actor, don’t need to understand what underlies your sexual appetite. What works to fulfill that ultimate aim of your genes – to be reincarnated in new bodies – is that you have sexual appetites, and that you are damn well going to satisfy those appetites.

We see, in nature, two principal mating systems – monogamy and polygyny (polygamy in which a man has more than one wife). The two differ in a number of characteristics: 1. presence or absence of pair-bonding; 2. presence or absence of male parenting activity; 3. presence or absence of physical and behavioral differences between the sexes and 4. presence or absence of male fighting over access to females. In regard to these characteristics, monogamous species (e.g. Canada geese) exhibit: 1. long or life-long mating bonds; 2. male parenting activity; 3. little or no difference in size and appearance between the sexes and 4. little or no fighting between males over access to females. Polygynous species, on the other hand, exhibit just the opposite: 1. no individual mating bonds; 2. no male parenting activity; 3. considerably differences in size and appearance between the sexes (e.g elk) and 4. male fighting over access to females. These are remarkable differences. So … why does one species end up as monogamous and another as polygynous? What is the logic that underlies each system? Reproductive success has two components – the first is success at mating, and the second is success at parenting. Newborns and young of some species require a lot of parenting activity and others very little. To use one of the examples cited above, canada geese parents must both contribute to the rearing of their young. Why? Because they must fledge their young before the summer is out (which is generally the case with birds), and this requires that they become a fully cooperating monogamous pair. In the case of elk, a newborn is on its feet within minutes, and requires only suckling from its mother thereafter. No parental contribution (called “parental investment”) is required of the father, and no pairing occurs. The requirement (or not) of male parental involvement in the rearing of young is the crucial factor that determines which mating system is adopted.

There is another reason for monogamous pairing where male parenting effort is called for. It is the question of “certainty of paternity”. Certainty of paternity means that a male who is acting as a parent needs to be sure that the kids are, in fact, his. Being cuckolded is the very worst thing that can happen to a male’s attempts to be reproductively successful. His efforts in rearing young have furthered his rival’s reproductive success – not his. Thus, both a strong pair bond and vigilance on the part of the male (female guarding) are part of the monogamy package.

Item 3 above refers to the presence or absence of sex differences. The presence of sex differences is called “sexual dimorphism”, and can include differences in behavior, size and adornment. Why do the sexes differ in polygynous species? Being free of parenting duties, males in polygynous species can concentrate on maximizing copulations. But this inevitably brings them into conflict with each other (Item 4). In polygynous species, males fight each other over access to females. This conflict leads to the establishment of  a “dominance hierarchy”, where the the most aggressive male rises to the top,  and becomes known as the “Alpha” male. To speak of elk again, the top male will gather all local breeding females into a “harem”, fight off other males who try to mate with these females, and, thus, end up being the only male to sire offspring by those females. The fighting over access to females constitutes a “selection pressure” (or push to evolve in a particular direction) on size and pugnacity in males. When all offspring in a local population are sired by one male, that next generation of elk, in its entirety, inherit the attributes of that male that enabled him to create and hold onto a harem. This is considered strong selection pressure towards size and aggressiveness in male elk. Another item comes into play here. It is known as “sexual selection”, and is a variant of natural selection. In many species, males exhibit a certain flamboyant trait and behavior that females find desirable. The male who displays the most developed form of the trait/behavior is considered the most desirable (and may, in fact, be the strongest male in the group), and is chosen by one or all of the local females as a breeding partner. An avian version of this is the “lek” – a spot where males of a particular species gather and strut their stuff to an audience of a female or females. Probably the most famous of lekking birds is the brilliantly-colored male Andean cock of the rock.

So … what does all this have to do with humans? Let’s first consider sexual dimorphism.  Question: Do males differ from females in size and adornment (musculature)? Answer: Yes. The human species is sexually dimorphic. Question: Do males compete over access to females? Answer: Many or most do. Question: Do males fight over females? Answer: Some do.  These facts are consistent with a polygynous mating system. How about pair-bonding? Do humans form life-long pair-bonds? Some, but not all, do. How about male parental “investment” (rearing activity)? Do males contribute to the rearing of young? Many, but not all, do. How do we interpret this, where some characteristics indicate a polygynous tendency and others a monogamous tendency?

It appears that there is no single genetically-ordained human mating system, but rather a variable adaptation, where individuals and societies veer towards one mating system or the other. Today, as in the past, there are societies that allow men to have multiple wives (and harems), societies that allow women to have multiple husbands (polyandry), societies where serial monogamy is a common practice, societies that advocate strict non-serial marriage and so on. See Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Frequency of Marriage Types Across Cultures (from Robert Quinlan, ANTH 468, Washington State U)

Additionally, we observe that, across the board, some males are more inclined towards monogamy, while others are more predisposed to polygyny. And, there is a reproductive success calculus that undergirds the choice of one over the other. A common pattern of behavior for human males who are strongly predisposed towards polygyny (sometimes called sex-addicted males) is to maximize copulations while minimizing parental investment in the children that those copulations produce. The females that are inseminated by these males (“absentee fathers”, in modern society) are thus required to raise their children by themselves, which puts those children at risk. The calculus is this: although a certain (probably high) percentage of these single-parented children will end up as damaged goods, a male who inseminates many women will still have some children who survive in fair condition to reproductive age. I call this the “shotgun strategy” (a marketing term), because it depends on quantity over quality. How about non-combative males who are inclined towards monogamy? What is the calculus here? Because these males become pair-bonded, the number of children they may sire is limited to the number of pregnancies that their mates are capable or desirous of. But, that relatively fewer number of children will be reared by two, not one parent, which is a 100% improvement over the lot of a child reared by one parent. This suggests that a much greater percentage of children born into two-parent families will survive in good condition to reproductive age, but probably in smaller absolute numbers. As opposed to the shotgun approach, this strategy is based on the quality of child-rearing. Thus, the strategic choice for the DNA of human males in the competition over reproductive success is one between quantity (polygyny/no parenting) and quality (monogamy/parenting). The variability seen in the human mating system reflects the fact that the DNA of some male humans directs them towards one strategy, while the same directs other male humans towards the other strategy.

An additional factor that bears on this “choice” is the absolute need of human infants for sustained and highly-attentive rearing. The size of the female birth canal puts a limit on how big a newborn’s brain (head) can be, with the result that humans are born with small and, therefore, undeveloped brains, and are correspondingly helpless at birth and for a significant period of time thereafter. Moreover, humans, being less under the control of genetic imperatives than any other species, are more susceptible to negative environmental influences that may cause young people to go astray during development, and turn out “bad”, putting a yet greater premium on quality child-rearing. The logic of monogamy is that the male will assist his mate from the very beginning, by providing food when she is burdened with a completely dependent newborn, followed by unrelenting support until “the kids are out of the house” (and often later still). I should add the obvious:  that, despite the associated risks, both bonded males and females will cheat on their partners – males, to secure additional  copulations, and females to procure better genes (e.g. from the tennis coach or her husband’s “dream boat” best friend). Not every mating circumstance or pair-bond is likely to be purely one way or the other. Sex-crazed males do marry and rear children e.g. Tiger Woods. Donald Trump, who delights in grabbing women by the pussy, has married a succession of women and appears to take an interest in raising his children. Even the keepers of harems marry. The Sultan of Brunei, famous for his harems, has multiple wives and children.

Before going on, we should consider what a women needs, in the way of maximizing reproductive success. Whereas men have an unlimited and lifetime supply of semen, a woman has a limited number of eggs and a limited number of years in which to produce offspring. Thus, with only a limited number of children possible to her, a mother hopes to provide them with the highest-quality rearing possible. With that in mind, what kind of contribution does she look for from a male parent? She, like a female cock of the rock, wants good genes. But, perhaps more than good genes, she wants as much of a guarantee as possible of material support sufficient to the quality rearing of the children she and her mate have brought into the world. A monogamous pairing should, in theory, provide most, if not all, of that. If she cannot, however, find a male who is willing and capable of providing material support to any children they may together produce, she will, then, settle for good genes (good looks) alone.

Another aspect of human evolution needs mention. Humans evolved to be highly effective small group nomadic hunters-gatherers, who shared food and everything else of importance, and this very successful adaptation enabled our antecedents to colonize all of the habitable earth, from the polar regions to the deserts. Alongside the sharing of food, tools and subsistence techniques, these were egalitarian societies, without coercive leadership. Equality/mutual aid was the name of the game. Because of that, these hunter-gatherer groups had to have been mainly monogamous. Competition for mates and dominance hierarchies would have been fatal to the unity of an egalitarian mutual-aiding group.

All of the above argues for the idea that a society based on monogamous pairing is probably the best way for humans to achieve individual reproductive success (not to mention greater likelihood of social harmony). But I also observed that we have a variable adaptation, with a percentage of males in every population who want only to maximize copulations i.e. have sex with (or at least grab the pussy of) every woman in sight. Other would-be Alpha males are motivated, simply, to dominate. For them, access to females is the underlying (ultimate) reason for engaging in dominance competition, whereas the wish to dominate others is the proximate cause. When we look around the world today, we see Alpha males – whether in sports, business, politics, religion, entertainment, the military, as cult leaders and any other sphere characterized by a dominance hierarchy – using their status to gain increased interest from and access to women. To me, a basketball court looks like a lek. And what is the reward for soldiers victorious in war? Besides pillage, it’s rape – a way to greatly enhance one’s reproductive success – and the reason why “1 in 200 men (are) direct descendants of Genghis Khan“. (Discover blog).

At the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 yrs. ago), the introduction of agriculture led to the rapid disappearance of small group nomadic hunting-gathering from most parts of the earth. Larger societies, towns and cities quickly appeared, and these societies were, without exception, “socially-stratified”, meaning a class society that is ruled from above by an elite group. Once established, such elites remained in power through hereditary kingship, a royal guard, an army and a priesthood that confered the divine right to rule upon that elite. Japan had an empire established along these lines at the onset of WW II. The Emperor of Japan was considered to be “divine”. These initial societies (the beginning of so-called “civilization”) were dominance hierarchies, ruled by collections of the most vicious Alpha males. And nothing has changed since.

*Here’s the most important part of this examination: small-scale egalitarian hunter-gatherer society did not tolerate “bossy”men. When peer pressure failed to bring such men around, they were either exiled or murdered. This mechanism was critical to the retention of equality and equity i.e, egalitarianism. Also critical was the small-scale of these societies, which allowed for effective peer pressure and action. But, with the introduction of larger societies, this mechanism of control was forever lost. Today’s world is dominated by Alpha males in business, government, the military and elsewhere, all vying with each other for power and constantly at each others’ throats. With such men in control of our collective destinies, what can one expect for the future? Can anyone reasonably believe that human society will remain “civil”, as the pressures of increasing population, decreasing resources and the scourge of climate change mount? As to climate change – people ask why some politicians don’t “get it”. They get it. It’s just that, like Trump, they don’t give a shit. Besides grabbing pussy, Trump cares about one and only one thing – the creation of a dynasty for Ivanka, Jared and their children. In his reckless, ruthless ways, Trump is the new exemplar of the Alpha male, and of what is wrong in the world.

About believesteve

I am a photographer and have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book:
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