Everything you thought you knew is WRONG!
“He’s a complicated man / But no one understands him but his woman.”—Isaac Hayes, theme from Shaft
Pretty much everything you think you know about the alpha male is wrong. Our understanding of who they are and what they do has been seriously revised by the last two decades of ethological research. Two things strike me as especially fascinating:
- Alpha males are just as good at following as leading—viz., they’re exceptionally good at working with others and deferring respectfully to the superiority of others. If they’ve got a problem, it’s with horizontal (as opposed to vertical) relationships.
- Alpha males are basically cops. They keep the peace within the group. And the biggest ongoing threat to social peace in most primate communities isn’t angry young men, by the way; it’s mothers. Yep, mom’s Public Enemy #1! A typical scenario runs something like this: two young primates are playing; one of them gets too rough and hurts the other; hurt playmate starts crying; hurt playmate’s mom freaks out, runs over,and smacks the one who hurt her kid; now that kid starts crying; and his mom freaks out, runs over, and smacks the mom who hurt her kid. Now you’ve got two adult females in a full-blown brawl. Within seconds the grandmothers and all of the aunts jump into the fray.
Fights like this can quickly escalate, splitting a group in two, which is bad for everyone because smaller groups are less able to defend themselves against predators and other groups. Anyhow, that’s where the alpha male comes in. The job of an alpha male is to step in and break up the fight before it escalates. And he never plays favourites, even if one of the moms happens to be his sister.