There has been a lot of talk lately about alpha males and beta males.
Roger Stone, Donald Trump’s former campaign adviser, said on Lou Dobbs Tonight that Trump is “demonstrating alpha leadership.” Dobbs said that Trump has a problem with women, who tend to prefer the “beta” leadership of Obama.
Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer, claimed in a Youtube video that he was “the true alpha male.”
After buying a gun, Christopher Harper-Mercer wrote, “Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?” He later killed ten people, including himself, at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
The terms “alpha male” and “beta male” originated in the field of ethology, the study of nonhuman animal behavior. When studying groups of animals, ethologists noticed that the organisms arranged themselves in social hierarchies. “Alpha” is the term given to the highest-ranking organism(s). In a given hierarchy, the alpha might be a male (“alpha male”), a female (“alpha female”), or both (“alpha pair”). Next in line are the betas. These individuals act as second-in-command to the alpha. If the alpha dies, it is a beta who takes his or her place. Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy, are the omegas, who are little more than scapegoats.
At some point, these terms were generalized to human populations. That’s not surprising, as humans are also animals with social hierarchies. But as you may have already noticed, there is a discrepancy between the way ethologists apply these terms to nonhuman animals and the way bloggers and pundits apply them to humans. If that’s not immediately clear, reread the preceding paragraph. Notice that as technical ethnological terms, “alpha” and “beta” refer only to social status. If we are told only that a particular organism is the alpha male, all we know is that he is the highest-ranking member of the hierarchy. We know nothing about his traits. Maybe he used brute strength to become the alpha, or maybe he outsmarted his competitors. There are no inherent differences between alphas and betas. Remember, when the alpha dies, it is a beta who becomes the new alpha. This would not work if betas were inherently different from alphas.
This lexical nuance is lost on most writers who capitalize on the trendiness of the alpha/beta meme. An alpha male may be as high-ranking as Donald Trump or as low-ranking as a blue-collar worker. A beta male may be as high-ranking as Barack Obama or as low-ranking as a barista.
When applied to humans, the terms designate not social rank but personal traits. Alphas are big, strong, loud, and aggressive. Betas are smart, sensitive, soft-spoken, and cooperative. In other words, alphas embody the traditional concept of masculinity. They use their size and strength to get what they want. They are the jocks. Meanwhile, the nerdy betas rely on intelligence to get ahead.
The erroneous equation of alpha status with specific traits is understandable because in most of the animals observed, the alphas are, in fact, big, strong, loud, and aggressive. There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Stronger, more aggressive organisms are more likely to survive in an environment where survival depends on hunting and fending off predators.
But let’s not forget that whether a behavior is adaptive or maladaptive depends on the environment to which we must adapt. As the environment changes, what counts as adaptive behavior also changes.
And O how our environment has changed! By adapting to the environment, we have also changed it, building cities that would have bewildered our ancestors, and in many ways bewilder us. The environmental conditions that compelled our species to divide labor along lines of biological sex no longer exist. We don’t have to hunt; we have grocery stores. So men don’t have to be macho to survive and women don’t need a man to survive.
The problem with the popular use of the term “alpha male” is that it encourages maladaptive behavior via the glorification of an outdated model of masculinity. It ignores the reality of life in a modern Western democracy.
Being loud and aggressive may have conferred an adaptive advantage for our ancestors, but in modern society these same traits are maladaptive. Being loud and aggressive will probably get you thrown in jail. Being intelligent and sensitive will get you ahead, as evidenced by the success of men like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and President Barack Obama.