Why the 'alpha male' stereotype is wrong
Big and strong? That's not what makes an alpha male, says primatolgist Frans de Waal.
Frans de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist. He teaches at Emory University and directs the Living Links Center for the Study of Ape and Human Evolution, in Atlanta, Georgia. He is known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997) and The Age of Empathy (2009). He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.
FRANS DE WAAL: The alpha male literature, at the moment, in the business world is all about bullying. It's like, 'I'm the biggest, and meanest, and strongest, and I'll beat you over the head.' It is basically also seen as a personality characteristic, too "Do you have an alpha personality?"
I'm partly responsible for the term "alpha male" because I wrote Chimpanzee Politics very long ago, and it was recommended by Newt Gingrich to the Republicans to read. I don't know what good it did, but the term "alpha male" became very popular after that. And for example, the last election, 2016, the word was used all the time to explain the behavior of certain candidates, especially the one who won the election. And so "alpha male," the term, has been used over and over, and I think in a very narrow sense. It's always been used in the sense like, who's the biggest and the strongest?
Now, for me, that is not really what the alpha male is about. I think being big and strong has benefits. And certainly, in a chimpanzee society, being big and strong is a way to get to the top. But then once you're at the top, I usually distinguish two kinds of alpha males. I consider the bullies, those are the ones who frighten everybody, and terrorize everybody, and beat them over the head, and win the fights, and so on. And the leaders, the ones who mediate in conflicts, they stop conflicts, they are consoler-in-chief; if someone is distressed because they have lost a fight or whatever, they go over there. In human society, you can see that kind of role also. For example, the pope will go to a village that has been destroyed by an earthquake, or the president will go to a place that had been hurt by a hurricane. So the consoler-in-chief is extremely important. And the mediation role of settling fights and keeping the unity of the group, basically, the unifier of the group, is a very important role as well. And so that's the leader side.
The bullies usually end poorly. In the wild, in chimpanzees, we have bullies who get expelled or even killed by the group. And I think their reign lasts fewer years. So for example, a good alpha male, one of them in the wild lasted for 12 years. And I think the reason these males sometimes can be in power for 12 years is because the group likes them, and so the group has no reason to support a challenger. If there's a challenge coming along who challenges that alpha male, and he's a very good leader, they're going to defend him. They keep him in power. So it's almost like a democratic mechanism right there. And if it's a bully, then the first thing they do if there is a challenger is support the challenger. And so that's why also in chimpanzee society, the alpha male very often is a good leader and is a unifier. And I think it's always very unfortunate if people reduce the position of alpha male to being the strongest, and the meanest, and the biggest.
- The cultural notion of an alpha male as a strong, mean aggressor is rampant but wrong. The reality is more complex.
- Frans de Waal notes two types of alpha males: Bullies and leaders. In chimpanzee society, the former terrorizes the group while the latter mediates conflict.
- The reign of alpha male bullies usually ends poorly in the wild. Chimpanzee bullies get expelled or even killed by their group, while leader alphas are somewhat democratically kept in power, sometimes for as long as 12 years.
- Frans de Waal (primatologist) – You're such a social animal - Big Think ›
- Why Computers Won't Takeover the World, with Steven Pinker - Big ... ›
Young people could even end up less anxiety-ridden, thanks to newfound confidence
- The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
- Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
- Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
The future of learning will be different, and now is the time to lay the groundwork.
- The coronavirus pandemic has left many at an interesting crossroads in terms of mapping out the future of their respective fields and industries. For schools, that may mean a total shift not only in how educators teach, but what they teach.
- One important strategy moving forward, thought leader Caroline Hill says, is to push back against the idea that getting ahead is more important than getting along. "The opportunity that education has in this moment to really push students and think about what is the right way to live, how do we do it and how do we do it in a way that doesn't hurt or rob the dignity of other people?"
- Hill also argues that now is the time for bigger swings and for removing the barriers that limit education. The online space is boundary free and provides educators with new opportunities to connect with students around the world.
Remaining silent is being complicit.
- Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
- Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
- Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
On Friday, the moon will pass through the Earth's outer shadow, known as the penumbra.
- Two lunar events will occur on Friday: a full moon and a penumbral eclipse.
- A penumbral eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth's outer shadow, causing the moon to appear slightly darker.
- The eclipse will only be visible to some countries, but the Virtual Telescope Project is providing a livestream.