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Alpha Males No Longer Dominant August 10, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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The phrase “alpha male” gets a lot of work in popular culture, referring to “a dominant, aggressive male who gets all the females”. The phrase in its popular usage suggests that a propensity for testosterone-fueled one-upsmanship is the key quality in a leader.

The phrase apparently originated with David Mech’s book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species originally published in 1970. But in this video, Mech argues that subsequent science shows that it doesn’t apply to wolves. Apparently, wolf packs are essentially families related to a mother and father, and the term “alpha” now refers to breeder.


I have no idea if the term still applies to primates or other mammals—Mech suggests it might apply to mixed packs that contain unrelated animals.

But it clearly is an abused phrase that neither describes human social organization nor is it universal among mammals.

Like earlier interpretations of evolution that assumed competition between individuals was biologically pervasive and inevitable, references to “alpha males” borrow their illicit legitimacy from an oversimplification of science.

 H/t Matt Yglesias


book-section-book-cover2  Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - August 12, 2009

Interesting–but I don’t think confusion/revisions within a popular term need have much of an impact on sociobiology. Wolfpacks are (as we know now) highly egalitarian, and caring for their own family. An “Omega” (runt) wolf may end up being a breeder, it all depends on the dynamics of the pack. And the “Alpha wolf” terminology itself actually yielded some refreshing (from a human perspective) aspects, inasmuch as female wolves could be Alpha, too. So should we be wolves? Sorry, won’t work. We’re primates, and among primates there are indeed Alpha males. There are the highly sexually dimorphic gorillas, with the silverbacks and their females (and indeed, that doesn’t equate to the silverback being the only breeder, as was once thought–the females sneak off to have affairs with Beta males!). So do the slightly less dimorphic chimpanzees. The one ape species that does not have dominant males is the endearing Bonono Chimp–as we all know, they “make love, not war.” And they are the least sexually dimorphic of all the apes. So where are we humans in this picture? Genetically and dimorphically between the regular chimps and the bonobos, if my information is correct. At any rate, we are the closest living relatives the bonobos have–not the chimps. So are we closer to a biological society where males and females are equal, or closer to the society of natural Alpha males and subservient Beta males and females? If we believe that genes equal social destiny, then we have to face up to the fact that we will never be a completely egalitarian society, based on our hardwiring. However, if we think that human rationality enables us to rise above our nature–what philosophers have generally thought, in the old days–then all these stories about our mammalian cousins can only serve as a caveat, or (on the flipside) what Kant called a regulatory idea.

2. Dwight Furrow - August 16, 2009

“If we believe that genes equal social destiny, then we have to face up to the fact that we will never be a completely egalitarian society, based on our hardwiring”.

Given the various complex interactions between genes and the environment in which they are expressed, I’m not sure what “genes=social destiny” means. Since it is becoming increasingly obvious that, with regard to most traits, uni-directional, single-factor causal explanation is not the right account, that calls into question any simplistic extrapolation of “alpha male” behavior from primates to humans.

The point of my post was to flag the oversimplification.

3. forrest noble - August 27, 2009


“Alpha Males No Longer Dominant” is certainly a defensible assertion with some degree of validity. In humans larger males often get management jobs over smaller men. Men that are willing to fight physically for females often attract more females. Assertive males physically are often more popular than passive men (sports, etc.).

In this country we are less than 100 years away from a male dominated society, women’s vote 1920. Many Generals in our history have become presidents, most recently D.D Eisenhower, 1952-1960.
Christianity, the Moslems and Jews all follow the old testament where males are supposed to report to god and the woman, in many scriptures, are supposed to answer to the husband. Many beta males, like myself, are in lifelong training for the day when they can defeat the alpha male and take over the pride. Like chimps, alpha males are part of our nature and it may be a long time before the last vestiges of this genetic propensity might fade away.

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