Recently the ideas expressed in this article where written into an “Adam Ruins Everything” spot for TruTV. Check it out by clicking this link. Adam does a wonderful job of debunking the pernicious and damaging myth of the Alpha Male!
Growing up as a small boy in the rinky-dink Canadian town of Regina, I was tortured a lot. Part of the problem I think was that I was always small and undernourished for my age. I was 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 abuse heaped upon me by all those in my life who were stronger than me. And since I was a child at the time, that pretty much amounted to everybody. Mine was not a pleasant childhood.
But note, my small and timid stature was not the real cause of my abuse. To say such a thing is to blame the victim. The real cause of my abuse was the “social structure” that I was living in. I was living then, as we all are now, in a accumulation/debt based social structure and it is that social structure that was the cause of the bullying.
“What’s that Dr S.?” you say. “Social structure is the cause of your suffering?”
“Why yes, young padawan,” I respond, “you heard me correctly. It is not the ‘force’ (dark or light) or my father that is to blame. It is not our genetics that causes us to beat each other down. It is not evolution that brought us to this door. It is the environment and social structure that causes us to be bullies.” And “How can social structure and environment cause people to bully weak and defenseless children”, you wonder? To answer that question let us turn to animal behavior, in particular the behaviour of wolves. As it turns out, and as you probably would never guess, the “simple” animal behavior of the wolf is totally determined by social structure. It is true, and you know it is true because if you put wolves in one type of environment, you get one type of behavior; but, if you put them in another type of environment, you get another type of behavior altogether!
Don’t believe me?
Don’t take my word for it. Take your case to Dr. David L. Mech. Dr. Mech is the global authority on wolf behavior. This is the man that coined the term alpha male to describe the dominance and aggression that he observed in his “lab pack” over forty years ago. Dr. Mech observed that in any pack of wolves there would be a leader that would, presumably owing to its greater strength and greater aggressive drive, “naturally” rise to the top and dominate the weak. He called these dominant males “alpha males,” called the behavior “natural” (because he observed it in a “natural” environment, cough cough), and the rest is ideological history! Nowadays, every violent, aggressive, and competitive male turned out by our competitive, aggressive, and violent system justifies their violent, aggressive, and competitive behavior by calling themselves a naturally violent, aggressive, and dominant “alpha male.” They justify their bully behaviour by pointing to the “natural” behavior of the adult male wolf to justify their abuse. It seems reasonable to say this, especially since Dr. Mech said it. So, thank you Dr. Mech.
But you know, Dr. Mech doesn’t say this anymore.
Nowadays, Dr. Mech says there is no such thing as an “alpha” male.
Nowadays, Dr. Mech says it is all a big mistake!
Nowadays, Dr. Mech admits he is the one responsible for this error.
Nowadays, Dr. Mech wishes he could just take back everything he originally said.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s get it straight from the horse’s mouth:
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 books’ info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.
You can even see him explain it in this video where he points out that is unnatural all male Social Structures (kinda like what “the boys” get when they mosey on down to the Mason’s Lodge) that cause “alpha” behaviour!
Yes, you heard him right. He said, in an inappropriately understated fashion, given the global negative impact of his original error and the significance of his retraction-bombshell, that when males are taken from their families and thrown into all male social structures, they behave aggressively. On the other hand, in their natural environments it is natural for wolves to have families, settle down, and act like responsible parents.
If this revelation hasn’t blown your mind, consider this. Just about every bully on the planet is going to invoke, at some level or another, Dr. Mech’s “alpha” wolf myth to justify their domineering and aggressive behavior. They will say to themselves and anybody that will listen that it is “natural,” that they should compete, “natural” that they should dominate, “natural” that they be so aggressive, and “natural” that they should be at the top of the social/political/economic heap. They will primp themselves with pride, puff out their chest, and sit righteously exploiting others, all the while telling themselves and others that what they are doing is “natural” behavior.
In Sociology, we call this sort of thing IDEOLOGY. As I note in the SpiritWiki, Ideology is simply an organized set of Archetypes that provide justification for the actions of individuals or groups. Ideology essentially gives us excuses for our bad behaviour, and boy is the archetype of the alpha male a great excuse! Everybody from the schoolyard bully through the Capitalist Donald Trump to the power hungry politician and even the violent drug lord can trot out this ideology to justify and excuse. They are not bullies, they are “alpha males”. Of course, they don’t really have to trot it out because the ideology is so ingrained that we do it ourselves. Whenever we see a bully on the field, or a capitalist getting rich, or a dominating CEO, we mark it down as the “natural” behavior of the glorious Alpha Male.
Now, in all fairness to Dr. Mech, he didn’t set out to provide “ideology.” He’s a scientist and he bases his theories on observations. The problem, as he notes, is that when he originally made these observations, he made them in “unnatural” settings. He then assumed (or maybe he just didn’t think it through carefully enough) that he could generalize his observations of wolves in “unnatural settings” to wolves in natural settings. He made a huge methodological mistake, but to his credit he admits it. The real problem is that even though he has tried to get his book pulled out of print and amended, the publisher refuses to allow him to retract his false statements, a fact made even more surprising when you find out that the publisher is the University of Minnesota Press.
Isn’t that interesting. I bet you thought that the people who publish science books are all about presenting the truths of science to the world. I bet you thought that you could just trust them to do the right thing. I bet you thought they would simply let Dr. Mech amend his error and change his tune. After all, he is the one that coined the term. Well, if you believe that stuff, you are wrong. For some reason the University of Minnesota is forcing us to keep reading what amounts to a patented falsehood.
So what are we to conclude from all of this. Well, here are a few ideas for your consideration.
- Alpha males are sick puppies. Dr. Mech said it himself. Alpha males are the result of unnatural and toxic social conditions. Alpha males are not a natural phenomenon. Alpha males arise when humans interfere with the natural order (you can put that in your Lodge pipe and smoke it).
- The archetype of the glorified alpha male causes unnecessary global suffering. Every person that has ever been bullied, exploited, oppressed, or been beaten down has been the victim of some toxic individual using this toxic archetype to justify their toxic behaviour.
- Alpha males suffer as well. “Alpha” wolves are not healthy wolves. Their behavior is pathological and unnatural, probably caused by the emotional trauma of being ripped from their families. The same is true for humans I’m sure. Adults whose natural inclination is to settle down with their families suffer incredible emotional and psychological anguish and disjuncture as they are ripped from their natural environments and put in toxic social situations.
- Science is ideology. At least in some cases, science becomes an ideological support for an elitist social order just like the Catholic church was during the Medieval era. This is not a new insight. Even before Feyerabend penned his famous talk saying science was a religion, people were questioning the worshipers. The sad truth is scientists, for all their presumed ivory tower superiority, make mistakes. Scientists also (wittingly or unwittingly) participate in social, political, and economic ideology. Nobody, not even scientists, are perfect.
- Hollywood is ideology. This might seem as if it is coming from left field, but you should also recognize that Hollywood (which is largely owned by a bunch of rich “alpha males”) props this ideology. Every Marvel super hero movie that’s made is an orgiastic homage to the illusionary (and delusionary) alpha male archetype.
- Sports is ideology. Professional sports, at least as they are practiced today, are nothing more nor less than evangelical events organized to get people to honor, worship, and reward the “alpha”. When you go to a sports event you are, wittingly or unwittingly, giving energy to the unfortunate global delusion.
Now, there’s a lot going on in this intellectual space right now and a lot more could be said about Ideology, Society, Science as the ideology’s handmaiden, and the desperate need for basic Sociology to be taught in the K-12 curriculum so that we can all understand what really makes us tick, but if there is one thing I want you to take away from this article it is this — it is not genetics, it is not “soul”, it is not god (not that I have any issue with any of those things, you understand), and it is certainly not “the force” that determines who we are, what we are like, and how we behave. It is the “natural” and “social” structures of our societies (structures that – it should be strongly emphasized – we build) that determine our behavior! And that’s a big deal because this very basic sociological truth has vast implications for you and this world. This one basic truth, when fully elaborated in a sociological fabric of truth, helps you understand bullying, gender, economics, and a vast range of human phenomenon and human behavior. As you can see, no serious student of human nature should be without a basic understanding of Sociology.
Check out the “Adam Ruins Everything” debunking of the Alpha Male myth. Good Job Adam and team! Their video clearly borrows the ideas in this article, without credit, unfortunately. I think this is a “true” statement since when I tried to post on their Youtube feed a link to this page, along with some supportive comments about the video, and additional information, they deleted my comments. In the academic world, hiding where you get your ideas is known as plagiarism. In the world of video, credit is supposed to be given where credit is due.
 Paul Feyerabend, “How to Defend Society against Science,” Radical Philosophy.11 (1975).
 Michael Sharp, The Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt. (St Albert, Alberta: Lightning Path Press., 2013).
Written by Michael S.
Michael S. (Dr. S.) is a scientist, sociologist, author, mystic, and mystical poet whose interests are human psychology, human society, spirituality, consciousness, global pedagogy, and global transformation. He’s busy writing about a dozen books all of which are aimed at enlightening the people and transforming the planet in line with the purpose, and for the benefit of, all. Visit his academic profile or his academia.com website, read some of his scholarly papers, view his video Money Moksha, and read his economically enlightening book, Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy.