There are no human alphas

Every now and again, I have heard folk with a limited and simplistic grasp of the social dynamics of primates and canines talking about humans as being divided into alpha and beta types; typically, such folk have a smug air about themselves which silently proclaims I, of course, am an alpha; and I've long suspected they are talking nonsense. I now (early 2008) suspect that there may, in fact, never have been any human alphas (in the genetically-determined sense that applies to at least wolves); and that this may even be a critical fact of how the human species arose.

Alphas and betas

The distinction they're describing is real enough in wolves: as I understand it, a pack of wolves is lead by a male and a female who express some genetic traits that make them aggressively dominate the rest of the pack, who do not express that genetic trait; the former are called alphas and the latter betas. Breeding is largely limited to this dominant pair: I'm unsure whether they breed with the others (but I suppose they do), but they oppose breeding among the others. The betas are usually close relatives of the alphas: by assisting the alphas, they are helping individuals with many of their genes to pass those genes on to future generations. Without alphas to lead them, betas fall to fighting and break up as a group: it is likely the domestication of wolves happened through humans discovering that they could dominate the betas of a pack whose alpha they'd killed; the betas even liked it and developed a strong loyalty to their new alpha; and all modern dogs are descended from such betas.

That is a grossly over-simplified description of the case for wolves: and, generally, when I've heard someone prattling about the alpha/beta distinction and smugly believing (usually him-) self to be an alpha, they're thinking that's roughly how it works in primates. I'm no primatologist, but my impression is that the story is significantly different among primates. My (very) limited knowledge of (non-human) primate social dynamics says that the cohesive (and long-term) social grouping is a group – known as a troupe – of females, generally fairly closely related to one another; they share the task of child-care, which makes it easier for each to forrage for food. Such a group will be accompanied by their children and a transient few males, one of whom (at any time) is the alpha, who mates with all the females but allows the others (who I suspect would be his close relatives) limited sexual access to one or some of the females in exchange for their help in fending off any other male who tries to barge in on the act. When another alpha male (typically with some companions) does manage to barge in on the act, he drives off the prior males and is apt to kill, or at least assault, the children of his predecessor; boys who are old enough to fend for themselves run away to avoid being killed.

I am not clear on whether alpha-ness is, in primates, a genetic trait or merely a behavioural mode that a male can adopt; most likely, there are elements of both. Some genes predispose towards adopting the pattern of behaviour, but being able to behave otherwise makes it easier to survive to be big and strong enough to get away with such behaviour. In any case, those without the relevant genes (or with fewer of them) can still learn to behave like alphas, when that works to their advantage; genes for being clever are more strongly selected for among the descendants of betas, because only the smart betas get away with having any descendants at all.

The crucial thing that those fantasising about being alphas (they generally seem to believe this is a genetic trait, so that they can believe they are born superior to non-alphas) neglect is that the primate alpha male is a child abuser, a murderer and a rapist: he violates some of the most basic taboos of every human culture. He forces sons to leave their mothers and go off alone into the wild to finish growing to the point where they can be like him. He is also so dominated by his instincts that he can't be subservient to another male and can't tolerate the presence of another male unless the latter is subservient to him. Consequently, I have long suspected that early humans worked out that they'd be better off with without alphas and systematically massacred them. My new hypothesis, howveer, goes further: and leads to the confusion that, if there were genes that predisposed males to be alphas, our last male ancestors with those genes were more like chimpanzees than humans. It was precisely because our ancestors excluded alphas socially (and hence from breeding) that early hominids were able to develop the greater social sophistication that fostered our growing intelligence and the emergence of sophisticated culture and technology.

Driving out the alphas

Consider our proto-human ancestors. They were large social primates, so we must imagine them living a life-style not hugely different from what we observe among contemporary non-human primates. We may fairly suppose they were somewhat more intelligent than apes. We may also fairly suppose that, sometimes, after the resident males had driven off some interlopers, the alpha died of his injuries, leaving the troupe temporarily alpha-less. I suspect one of the dead alpha's companions would take over his rôle but, lacking the raw aggression of an alpha, would tend to run away rather than face a determined attack by fresh interlopers. However, in the interval, the intelligent females in the troupe would likely discover that he's a lot easier to get along with; partly because they already have established relationships with him. They would likely be better able, with a non-alpha, to keep him from killing or driving off their children. Indeed the old alpha's companions are likely used to working together, so the others would probably also be less dominated by the one who took charge; or they might even continue co-operating without any one rising to dominance. In the absence of any alpha, the troupe would be subject to less violence than when one is around.

Even though such interludes of relative civilisation might be painfully short, intelligent females would be apt to work out that life would be better if they could make this state of affairs last. My conjecture is that, at some point, a troupe managed to persuade its resident males – the old alpha's companions and those of his sons nearing adolescence – to get along and not fight; maybe they also had sons who they'd kept in touch with since they'd been driven away, that they persuaded to join in. Such a troupe would have the males it needs to continue producing children and to drive off any invading alpha. The males would tend to drive off any other males altogether, but the females would prefer to allow more males to join the troupe, so long as they didn't behave like alphas.

Such a troupe might be subjected to the bad old ways by an invading alpha; but intelligent females would remember how it had been and would take care to build relationships with the other males, conspiring to restore the better life if the old alpha ever died after driving off an interloper; maybe even conspiring to drive him off themselves, or with the help of the more reasonable males.

Such a troupe might get driven back to the bad old ways by an alpha son growing up, child of the old alpha, who would be apt to seek to dominate the troupe like an alpha. Such a son would likely have his mother's backing to keep him in the troupe despite his alpha-ish behaviour, so the first troupes to try the alpha-free lifestyle would be vulnerable to this mode of falling back into the old ways. However, old mothers would learn: before long, troupes would learn to recognise the signs of an emerging alpha and his mother would find the rest united in driving him out.

To be sure, we should not imagine early primates being too refined about justice: but the basic violence of the alpha would inform the development of the taboos we have against sexual violence and violence against children. As such taboos began to get established, mothers would teach their sons not to behave in ways that might be mistaken for alphas; but to be always ready to fight to drive off anyone who did violate the emerging taboos.

A troupe living this new life-style would be better able to teach children more about the world (it's easier to learn when you're not cowering in fear) and it could function with a greater number of adults: the number of males would not be limited by how many some dumb alpha can feel comfortable around, so the number of females who could be sure of finding an acceptable breeding partner within the group would be larger. More adults means better defence against invading alphas; and an alpha growing up within the troupe has a harder time building a power base from which to take control. More adults can support more economic activity and more complex forms of economic activity; and can (produce and) support more children. Intelligence becomes a more advantageous trait in a more sophisticated socio-economic context.

If one troupe can do that, likely others would be discovering the same things over the same period of time, especially in so far as (and I've little idea as to the extent to which this is likely) there's movement of individuals between troupes, or troupes uniting and splitting in re-arranged forms. Boys growing up in such a troupe but driven out by an invading alpha would tend to be better at fitting in to another troupe trying the same thing. A troupe successfully managing to live this way would tend to grow until big enough that it can split and yet still have each part large enough to sustain and defend itself; such splitting would expand their collective geographic range and hence the resources available to them, so would be advantageous. In time, then, we can expect there to be many such troupes.

Any boy growing up with alpha tendencies, in so far as his family fails to tame him enough that he doesn't manifest those tendencies, is apt to be driven out and, thereby, excluded from the ancestry of subsequent generations. In so far as alpha-ness inhibits the ability to co-operate effectively with other males, it would be disadvantageous, even if so well socially controlled as to not be manifest. So any genes apt to predispose a boy to alpha tendencies get bred out of the population. By the time our proto-human population has accumulated enough genetic drift to lose the ability to interbreed with their distant cousins still living the alpha-dominated lifestyle, there are no genes that predispose males towards being alphas – and humanity has never looked back. Our cultures may allow individuals to dominate socio-economic and political situations, even at times to do so aggressively; but this is a far cry from the way alpha males behave in primate – let alone wolf – social groups.

If we have any genetic alphas, I would be inclined to look among the the psychopaths to find them.


I'm no expert on the nature of primates, so you should consult a real primatologist before even beginning to think about whether the above is anywhere near right; but I hope I have, at least, made a case for: how the benefits of peaceful co-existence may have prompted proto-human primate groups to develop taboos against brutality; and how such taboos could have been decisive in setting our ancestors on the road to producing the astonishing descendents we are. Also, please consult a real primatologist before spouting off about being an alpha.

Valid CSSValid HTML 4.01 Written by Eddy.