The big, bad, alpha male. An aggressive, domineering, competitive, and scrappy tough guy. He’s got loads of gumption, and he takes guff from nobody as he fights his way to the top. He’s married to the most beautiful women, drives the most expensive cars, is the most competent and professional of all of us, and is a feature of everybody’s life. We all got one or two of these guys tucked away somewhere in our lived spaces. Maybe you even believe you are one.

But what is this “thing” that we call alpha male, and how on Earth are they formed?

The term alpha male was first coined by a wolf biologist named Dr. Mech. Dr. Mech came up with the term to describe the dominance and aggression that wolf biologists originally observed in wolf packs, many decades ago.

Dr. Mech noted, based on observations, that in any pack of wolves, there would be a “leader” that would, owing to its greater strength and aggressive drive, rise to the top and dominate the weak. He called these dominant males “alpha males,” called the behaviour “natural” (because it was observed it a “natural” environment, or so he thought).

The rest is intellectual and popular history.

Nowadays, every aggressive, dominant, “superior,” competitive male justifies their attitude and behaviour by calling themselves an alpha male. Google “alpha male” and you will see. Alphas wear the term “alpha” like it is a badge of superiority and of highest honour.

The only problem is that “alpha” behaviour is not a natural wolf behaviour at all. In fact, nowadays, Dr. Mech, despite having coined the term, says there is no such thing as an “alpha” male. Nowadays, Dr. Mech says it is was all a big mistake. He says that “alphas,” whether male or female, are really just the male and female “breeders” of the pack, the mom and pop so to speak. You can see him explain it for himself in this video.

So what was it that made him coin the term alpha male if it was wrong? And, what happened to lead him to change his mind and recant the term altogether?

As it turns out, he coined the term “alpha male” because there is such a thing as “alpha” behaviour, though maybe “alpha” is not the best word for it. There is a very specific situation where wolves get snippy, aggressive and fight it out to establish a pecking order.

This situation, this sort of behaviour, is observed only in zoo environments. In zoo environments, which is where the earliest wolf research was conducted, individual wolves were brought together from disparate packs, sometimes with or after great trauma, for the purpose of scientific study. It is in these unnatural environments, in the alien and jail-like confines of a zoo laboratory, that alpha behaviour developed. As Mech says, “When one puts a random group of any species together artificially, these animals will …compete with each other and eventually form a type of dominance hierarchy.”

However, as Mech and others have since observed, in their natural environments, adult male wolves act a lot differently than your typical alpha dog. In the natural world, in their natural environment, there is no “top dog.” In natural environments, instead of going alpha, male and female wolves simply hook up, settle down, have babies, protect their family, and act like responsible parents. This, says Mech, is “exactly the same way as human families are formed.”

As the original, new pairing wolves raise their pups, they feed and care for them just like any other animals care for their young. As the pups grow and develop, their parents naturally guide their activities, and the pups naturally follow….The parents then automatically fall into the leadership role in the pack as they guide the pups throughout their territory. This leadership role, however, does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead. David Mech

It should be clear at this point why Dr. Mech originally coined the term, and why he later on recanted with such force. He coined it because he observed it in zoo wolves, originally mistaking the behaviour as natural. Later on, when he and others finally observed wolves in their natural environment, he could see it wasn’t natural behaviour at all. So, he recanted the term. Now we know, there’s no such thing as the alpha male wolf in the wild. In the wild, there is only the mom, the pop, and their canine family unit.

It’s only in unnatural situations that you get the typical alpha behaviour.

In other words, “alpha males” are not natural at all.

If anything, alpha behaviour is a symptom of the emotional and psychological trauma that wolves must feel when they are ripped from their homes and families and deposited with random wolves in a random location.

In this context, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that alpha behaviour in wolves is unhealthy aggression caused by a massive disruption in the natural and emotional life of the wolf

If this true, as it very well may be, this has some interesting, and perhaps uncomfortable, implications, the most obvious of which is the critical importance of the environment in determining an organism’s behaviour.

As the whole “alpha wolf” debacle clearly demonstrates, the type of environment an organism lives in is critical. Leave the wolf alone in the natural world and the wolf settles down and lives its own life with its own happy family. Rip it from its home, confine it in a zoo laboratory, drop it in with bunch of strangers, and take away its ability to hunt — in other words, traumatize it and put it in a toxic environment — and it starts to exhibit the toxic, emotionally disturbed behaviour typical of the traumatized “alpha” male wolf.

This is something to think about, I suppose. The next time you or someone you know claims the status and owns the behaviour of your typical “alpha” male, instead of admiring them as “top dog” by default, maybe ask what type of environment ’twas created them that way. You never know. You might come away with a different opinion of what being “alpha” is really all about.

Next up: Toxic Environments and the damage they do

Additional Reading

David Mech — Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?

Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)

Just another loud mouth sociology professor, teaching sociology courses at Athabasca University. Check me out here at the Socjourn, over there at The Conversation and at academia.edu.

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