Ding Dong the Alpha Male is Dead

The big strong “alpha”

Growing up in the small 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, I have terrible memories of abuse heaped upon me by all those in my life who were stronger than me. And since I was a small child, weaker than all of my peers, 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 an accumulation/debt based social structure and it is that social structure that was (and is) the cause of the bullying.

“What’s that?” you say, raising your eyebrows, “Social structure is the cause of your suffering?”

“Why yes,” 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.

“But how can social structure and environment cause people to bully weak and defenceless children,” you wonder?

To answer that question let us turn to animal behaviour, in particular, the behaviour of wolves. As it turns out, and as you probably would never have guessed, the “simple” animal behaviour of the wolf is 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 behaviour; but, if you put them in another type of environment, you get another type of behaviour 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 behaviour, and the man who coined the term alpha male. He coined the term alpha male to describe the dominance and aggression that he observed in his wolf 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 aggressive drive, rise to the top and dominate the weak. He called these dominant males “alpha males,” called the behaviour “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 behaviour by calling themselves a naturally violent, aggressive, and dominant “alpha male.” It is a badge of honour for some. They justify their behaviour by pointing to the “natural” behaviour of the adult male wolf. “I am an alpha male,” they say, pounding their puffed up chest, “and alpha males are good, and natural.” Dr Mech, after all, says it is so.

The only problem for all the men claiming to be alphas is that Dr. Mech does not say this anymore. Nowadays, Dr. Mech says there is no such thing as an “alpha” male. In fact, Dr. Mech says it is all a big mistake and 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 us get it straight from the horse’s mouth. As Dr. Mech says:

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.


Notice in the video how Mech points out that it is unnatural social structures that cause “alpha” behaviour! In case you did not get that, let me say it again, Dr. Mech says that “alpha” is a pathology created by unnatural packs. Watch the video and you will see Mech (in an inappropriately understated fashion, given the global negative impact of his original error and the significance of his retraction-bombshell) recant his position. In the video, he says that when male wolves are taken from their families and thrown into artificial packs, they behave aggressively and develop a dominance hierarchy (i.e. they become “alphas’). To be clear, it is the artificial laboratory/prison that creates the alpha male. In their natural environments, adult male wolves act a lot differently. They do not develop alpha behaviour. Instead, they settle down, protect that family, and act like responsible parents.

If this revelation has not blown your mind even a little bit, you are not understanding the implications. Just about every bully in the world, be they on the schoolyard, in a government office, in a corporate boardroom, on a workplace floor, in a patriarch’s home, is going to invoke, with more or less sophistication and more or less awareness, Dr. Mech’s “alpha” wolf idea to justify their domineering and aggressive behaviour, saying that is it natural behaviour. They will primp and puff and tell themselves, and anybody else that will listen, that their aggressive, competitive, domineering behaviours are natural and good. But now, they cannot do that, at least not without sounding ideologically misinformed. Now, if they say they are alpha males, it is clear, they are saying more about the environments that elicit that behaviour, then the behaviour itself. It’s the environment, or as a sociologist like myself might say, a particular social structure, that causes alpha behaviour.

It has been a while now since Dr. Mech admitted his methodological mistake and recanted his erroneous alpha-male suppositions. Unfortunately, however, things have not changed too much in the popular, and perhaps even scientific mind. Agents of Consciousness (parents, teachers, Hollywood, the media, etc.), still, mostly inadvertently I presume, believe, distribute, and teach this erroneous alpha male mythology. What’s worse, Dr. Mech is having a hard time getting his error purged from the scientific record. Surprising to all who believe universities are always about the truth and nothing but, his publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, refuses to allow him to retract his false statements!

Why are they doing that?

This is just speculation, but I am going to say that it is because they, whoever “they” are in this instance, find the concept a useful excuse. The idea of the “alpha male” provides a critical underpinning for the toxically aggressive, domineering, and exploitative behaviours of bullies, and their enablers, everywhere. It was the teachers who were not protecting the children in their care that excused the bully told me when I was bullied that “boys would be boys,” it was natural, and I should just accept it. This is what sexist patriarchs say to the suppressed females they manipulate and abuse. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is what capitalists tell the workers they exploit. The elites are just this world’s “alphas,” and their power and privilege is as natural as the wolf behaviour they idolize and fetishize. The “alpha male” shtick is what bullies all over the world say. The University of Minnesota is preserving a patented falsehood because that falsehood gives bullies a scientific-sounding excuse for their “alpha” behaviour.

Be that as it may, I do not want to spend too much more time on this issue. I do think, however, there are a few things to consider as we examine the issue of bullies, toxic males, and Dr. Mech’s revision and recant.

Number one, we should consider the fact that “alpha male” behaviour is not natural, biologically superior, or “alpha” at all. Alpha males and their “alpha” behaviour arise from unnatural environments. Thus, the behaviour is more likely the result of emotional stress and the trauma of being detached from the pack, and not an internal, evolutionary, or aggressive superiority.

Number two, considering the fact that alpha behaviour is not natural male behaviour, all the “alpha males” out there in the human world cause a lot of unnecessary, and unjustified, global suffering. There is nothing salutatory about the aggressive “alpha” schoolyard bully, the dominating patriarchal husband, or the hyper-competitive capitalist mogul. Indeed, as time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that these individuals, whether they be bullies on the schoolyard, capitalists accumulating their wealth (Sharp, 2016), or presidents in high public office, represent toxic anomalies, even psychopathology (Ronson, 2011). It is not healthy, natural behaviour at all. IT is toxic and harming the planet. Indeed, it is plausible to argue that alpha males are not exemplars of species fortitude, but sick, and suffering, puppies. When you rip adult male wolves from their pack and isolate them in a prison laboratory, you harm them, which causes “alpha” behaviour. In this context, “alpha behaviour” is a symptom of the emotional trauma caused by that harm, and not an example of evolutionary superiority. It is probably the same with humans. Human alpha behaviour is the symptom of deep emotional and psychological trauma caused by toxic environments (toxic social structures) at home, at schools, at work, down at the Lodge, etc., and not a sign of evolutionary superiority.

Number three, and finally, you need to consider the fact that science does not always function as an equal partner with truth. I’m a scientist but I have to admit, sometimes science is ideology. In this case, science is being used, just like the Catholic Church was used during the medieval era, to justify an elitist, sexist, racist, and bullying social order. This is, of course, not the first time science has been used for nefarious purposes. However, I do feel compelled to point out that at least in this context, it is not the scientist Dr. Mech who is at fault here. The scientist has wilfully recanted. It is the administrators at University of Minnesota press that are refusing to modify the scholarly record.

And that is all I have to say. I started out by talking about bullying and ended up talking about science and ideology. Along the way we have seen the common excuse used to justify the existence of bullies, i.e. that they are tough, strong, “alpha” type males, is based on methodologically flawed, and now recanted, science. Based on Mech’s more modern observations, it seems more likely that alpha males are actually sick puppies than species exemplars.

In an ideal world ruled by scientific truth, the story would end here, but it does not. People, even respected university presses, continue to hang onto the notion of the alpha male not because it represents a natural truth, but because, as I speculate, it provides a perfect, ready-made excuse for aggressive, predatorial, and greedy behaviour. From school bully through oppressive patriarch to capitalist billionaire to modern day toxic el Presidente, the myth of the alpha male is an excuse for bad behaviour. It is worthwhile reconsidering our ongoing acceptance of this myth not only because it is not true, and not only because alphas cause a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because alphas themselves may be sick and disturbed products of toxic social settings. If that’s true, it is high time we stopped worshipping the sick puppy and following their toxic lead. Instead, we should reintegrate/reattach them to their packs (their families) and offer guidance and therapy instead.

Article originally published May 22, 2012

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I talk sociology, psychology, and human spirituality. Follow me here or at https://athabascau.academia.edu/DrS

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