Department of Sociology Athabasca University
Growing up as a small boy in a rinky-dink Canadian town, I was tortured a lot. Part of the problem, I think, was I always small and undernourished for my age, weak, and an easy target. Not surprisingly, I was targeted a lot, bullied really, by students and teachers. In almost every year of my Catholic education past the grade of five, I have memories of shit and abuse heaped upon me by all those in my life who were stronger than I, which pretty much amounted to just about everybody.
But my small and timid stature was not the real cause of my abuse. Psychologically and sociologically, the people doing the bullying were probably victims themselves. It is common psychological wisdom–shit and abuse tends to travel downhill and settle on the weakest and since I was one of the weakest it only made sense that the horror that others had experienced, or were currently experiencing, should settle on my weak shoulders. Perpetrators, once victims themselves, often follow the path of reduced cost.
But again, that is not the whole story of course. I can certainly envision a society where victims are not left to “take it out” on those who are weakest. I can envision a social order where the weak are protected and nurtured so that they become strong and mighty, and not pummeled just to prove a point. When we added our most recent animal friend Frodo to our family (a rottweiler cross), he was the runt of the litter. But we heaped him with love, cuddling, and attention, fed him good food, and now he’s a friendly giant, much bigger, I imagine, than others in the litter he emerged from.
So why on this world do we beat the weak ones down?
Well, that’s ideological, archetypal really.
It is what we are taught, with words and by example.
“It is survival of the fittest,” don’t you know.
“The strong rise to the top and weak are pummeled into submission.”
Give the gold stars, the love, and top rewards to the “winners” and screw the losers into the ground!
It is true, it is true!
Just the other day I was talking to an individual who was telling me that it was cool for two guys to get together and pound each other out because, well, that’s what males do as they sort themselves into some imagined “natural” hierarchy. Life’s a struggle for survival and it is it in our genetic code don’t ya know. The strong “alphas” dominate the weak, we vie for our position in “the hierarchy,” and that’s just the way it is.
It is natural and inevitable, ordained and condoned!
Isn’t that true?
Aren’t we all familiar with these ideas?
This whole idea that “life is a struggle and only the strong shall thrive” is part of the common intellectual heritage of our planet and we find this ideology everywhere. We find it the social sciences where Herbert Spencer said “survival of the fittest” (Darwin of course never said that). We find it in science which teaches us about alpha males and the domination of the weak by the strong. We even find it in religions, spiritualities, and the esoteric”boys” clubs that dot the power grid of this planet where we learn that life is a struggle between good and evil (good being the stronger of the two).
Don’t ya see?
God dukes it out with Satan and we, poor imperfect little human stick pigs, are stuck in the middle, asked to choose a side, and told to prove ourselves worthy and strong else we should be subjected to eternal torture in the fires of damnation.
It was kinda like what I experienced as a child. Life as a struggle with winners and losers (winners being defined as “good and losers being thrown out in the trash). It is a fight sanctioned by Mother (Gaia) and approved of by Father (God).
But is it true?
Is it natural?
Is Papa God really all about the fight?
Does Mama earth really crush the weak ones out of genetic existence?
Do alpha males really dominate the weak?
Well no, it is not like that. We believe the nonsense because of our religious or scientific indoctrination; however, it is not, in fact, true. It is ideological, archetypal, and fallacious. Indeed, science is just beginning to unravel its own bullhit statements in this area.
Check this out, for example. Here is the scientist who coined the term “Alpha Male” admitting he was wrong!
Have a listen.
The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”
A Social Prison
Now isn’t that interesting. According to the guy who coined the term, there really is no such thing as an “alpha male.” There’s a successful mom, and a successful dad, and they both hang around looking after “the pack,” but that’s about as far as it goes. That whole alpha male thing, well that’s an aberration, really, a pathology that only emerges when we (and by “we” I mean male scientists) take the male wolves away from their families so that we can experiment on them at our convenience. When you “imprison” them in this fashion, then you get this unnatural behaviour. As one commentator notes, “Apparently a fair amount of the original support for the alpha concept came from studying groups of captured, unrelated wolves. Mech allows that in such circumstances wolves will sort themselves into hierarchies, but that those circumstances hardly ever obtain outside captivity. What he doesn’t say, but that suggests itself, is how similar this is to what happens in a human prison.” (Ref)
The bottom line?
Alpha male behaviours are unnatural, at least according to Mech who says that you almost never find the physical conditions in the natural world that cause the aberrant, aggressive, and dominating behaviour of the “alpha male.”
So what’s up with this whole idea of alpha male? Well despite’s Mech attempt to attribute the whole alpha male mistake to a methodological foofaraw, I’m not buying it. The problem is the “alpha male” idea, from a sociological perspective, is ideological (for a course based discussion of ideology, see the second part of my introductory course Sociology 288). That is, it is not an innocent idea. It is, in fact, a justification. It is an archetype (or rather part of an archetypal constellation) that justifies the abuse of others, typically for personal gain. If a boy pummels another boy in the school yard, well that’s just what young males do (I can’t count how many times have I heard that as a parent, from other parents, teachers, and even principles in schools). If a business man crushes some other business out of existence (perhaps throwing an entire family into poverty), he’s just doing what comes naturally. If a country invades another and takes their oil, well that’s just the way the world works. The strong pummel the weak, the alphas beat up on the betas, and the “cream” rises to the top and we should just stand aside and let it all happen because, well, that’s the way the world works. It is the alpha male thing and we’ve been doing it since our ape ancestors descended from the treetops. It is all part of a naturally evolving, divinely sanctioned, predatorial world order.
Ya right. Clearly, and as scientists and others begin to unravel their own indoctrination, the archetypal house of cards is beginning to crumble. There is nothing genetic, evolutionary, or divine about aggressively dominating another living being. It’s just an excuse the violent bullies use to justify “taking it out” on those who are weaker.
- What other examples of “ideological dogma passed off as scientific truth” can you come up with. What about the early work of anthropologists and archeologists (before females were allowed to enter universities), compared to the work now.
- What are implications of this, for gender stereotypes, for the capitalist system (which is all about the domination of the “alpha” male), and for those who justify bullying, brutish behaviour by reference to animal world?