What is an 'Alpha Male'?
The analog to animals is incomplete and confusing
According Red Pill praxelogy expert Rollo Tomassi, there is no term in the lexicon of the manosphere that is more misunderstood than “Alpha.”
There are two reasons for it:
Every man’s ego wants to think of himself as “alpha,” and so understandably men refashion their personal definition of Alpha around their own characteristics, and
The term “alpha” is borrowed from zoology (the study of animals), which few men bother to understand, and the analogy breaks down when it is applied in the complex social context of intersexual human relationships.
There will always be women and men who are offended by comparisons between humans and animals, offended by the term Red Pill, offended by the concept of Alpha, and offended by the very idea that men might communicate with one another on the Internet using a specialized lexicon of terms that the uninitiated don’t understand.
This article is not for or about those readers.
Because it is my job to teach engineering leadership and teamwork in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, and there is no topic more timely, more salient, more controversial, in which my students are in need of more guidance, than the role of intersexual dynamics in the engineering workplace, it behooves me to offer some clarity.
In highly socialized animal groups, like wolves and many of the advanced primates, the Alpha male is the most free to do whatever he pleases. Through a complex combination of physical (i.e., potentially lethal) force, social agreements, and political alliances, the Alpha gains autonomy.
What does a male wolf, or gorilla, do with this freedom?
He eats what he likes.
He farts when he wants to.
And he mates with any female with whom he pleases.
This kind of autonomy comes from power, and most of the time we think of power as the capacity to control others behavior. There is some truth to that.
However, in The Myth of Male Power, Dr. Warren Farrell reframes the idea of “power” away from the popular conception as power to control others, and instead emphasizes an understanding of power as control of the course of your own life.
Power requires control over oneself, first
Thinking about power requires understanding that one cannot be Alpha — e.g., self-determined — without:
freedom from compulsion,
It is in this sense that the concept of Alpha ports well from the animal kingdom to the more complex, human, civilized context.
The Alpha Man is not the strongest, nor the most domineering, nor the most aggressive, nor the richest, nor the most charismatic, nor the most attractive.
In modern civilization, the Alpha is the man with the freedom to be himself.
Physical strength and fitness can help with that.
A dominant personality, and aggressiveness can help with that.
Money can help with that.
Charisma can help with that.
And physical attractiveness can help with that.
None of these qualities are sufficient to constitute Alpha in men, because they are only the resources with which a man can cultivate his personal freedom.
Ultimately, he must have the courage to apply those resources, take risks, have the courage to be disliked, move on from rejection, maintain his creative energy and sense of humor, and continue to lead a self determined life.
It is not attractiveness that makes a man alpha.
It is alpha that makes the man attractive.
What does this have to do with leadership in the engineering workplace?
Men who carry misconceptions of Alpha as a man who:
gives unconditional orders, or
bullies and intimidates others, or
coerces behaviors from others, or
can be dangerous in the workplace. At best, they are managers who might get a temporary boost in behavior or compliance by generating the fear of reprisal in others. Because they are confusing leadership with Alpha, and Alpha with “domineering,” they may harbor misconceptions about how to work in teams, how to lead diverse groups, and how to inspire others to reach greater creative heights.
When Alpha is understood as freedom over the trajectory of your own life, good leaders will both pursue that freedom for themselves, and empower others to do the same.
It is possible to be Alpha without being in a position of leadership over others. It is also possible to exercise freedom for oneself while intimidating and domineering over others, which can also be Alpha.
Nonetheless, there are additional lessons from zoology that help inform the question of Alpha for human males. For example, according to Frans de Waal, the alpha male in a chimpanzee troop has several obligations:
Maintain coalitions that favor your partners, and disrupt others.
Keep the peace by ensuring disputes are resolved without serious violence, and maintain impartiality.
Provide comfort by empathizing with others in the troop, and console those who have lost status or resources as a result of the dispute.
When alpha bullies fail to perform these duties well, they become vulnerable to political coalitions — i.e., partnerships of lesser males (or females, especially in the case of Bonobo’s) that will overwhelm and depose the alpha asshole.
Nonetheless, there are several aspects of the animal analog that break down. Because human beings have a capacity for abstract and complex thought that far exceeds even our closest animal relatives, our understanding of Alpha must necessarily be more complex. For example, in a chimpanzee troop, or a wolf pack, there can be only one Alpha, and the social hierarchy is linear.
By contrast, human societies are empowered by technology that affords an unprecedented freedom and autonomy with those people who have access to it and learn to master it. One $200 cell phone grants greater freedom to today’s Man than thousands of slaves might grant to the ancient Pharaoh.
Those freedoms are qualitatively different, but my point about the complexity of human social hierarchies, and the freedoms granted by technology remains. Modern social hierarchies are more fluid and dependent on context than animal, such that a Man might be self-determined and dominant in one context (e.g., World of Warcraft?), while lower status in others.
We all belong to multiple troops, or tribes. We achieve different status ranks in each of them. Exercise different freedoms, and for those of us in societies are organized around guarantee of basic human rights, we have the freedom to leave our tribes, or start our own. Within these different tribes, hierarchies might be determined by different performance characteristics such that high status among a group of nuclear physicists might grant extraordinary freedoms in that context, but amount to little in a tribe of NASCAR fans.
Given that human beings are trying to have a civilization, what will work best are the Alpha men capable of exercising their own freedom without coercion over others, without emotional blackmail, and although he’s capable of physical violence, the a modern Alpha Man very rarely needs to threaten it.