Yo, dudes: Alpha males are a myth, according to actual experts on wolves

Manosphere misogynists like to tell themselves fairy tales about women. Their favorite such tale, repeated endlessly, is one called “The Cock Carousel” – sometimes referred to in expanded form as the “Alpha Asshole Cock Carousel” or the “Bad Boy Cock Carousel.” (Hence that Rooster-riding gal you see in this blog’s header about half the time.)

Despite the different names, the story is always, monotonously, the same: In their late teens and twenties, when they’re at the height of their sexual appeal, women (or at least the overwhelming majority of them) have sex in rapid succession with an assortment of charismatic but unreliable alpha males and “bad boys” who make their vaginas (or just ‘ginas) tingle. Then, sometime in their mid-to-late twenties, these women “hit the wall,” with their so-called sexual market value (or SMV) dropping faster than Facebook’s stock price. As Roissy/Heartiste puts it, in his typically overheated prose:

So sad, so tragic, the inevitable slide into sexual worthlessness that accompanies women, the withering tick tock of the cosmic clock stripping their beauty in flayed bits of soulletting mignons like psychological ling chi. A sadistic thief in the night etching, billowing, draping and sagging a new affront to her most preciously guarded asset.

While many women try to pretend they’ve still “got it,” even at the ripe old age of thirty, they inevitably have to either get off or get thrown off the “cock carousel.” At this point the more savvy women glom onto some convenient “beta male” who, while somewhat lacking in sexual appeal, will at least be a good husband and provider for them – and in many cases the children they’ve had with alpha male seed. Those women who don’t accept the new reality are destined to end up alone and childless, surrounded by cats.

To borrow the phrase South Park used in its episodes about Scientology and Mormonism, this is what manosphere men actually believe. Not only that, but they claim that this fairy tale is based on real science.

So who are these mysterious alpha males that get the women so excited? As one guide to pickup artist (PUA) lingo puts it:

In animal hierarchies, the Alpha Male is the most dominant, and typically the physically strongest member of the group. For example, in wolf packs, the “alpha wolf” is the strongest member of the pack, and is the leader of the group. This position of leadership is often achieved by killing or defeating the previous Alpha Male in combat. Alpha wolves have first access to food as well as mating privileges with the females of the pack.

Social status among human social groups is less rigidly defined than in the animal kingdom, but there are some recognizable parallels. Although people don’t often engage in physical violence to achieve dominance, there are still recognizable leaders in different fields who have wide access to material resources and women.

Because the qualities of the Alpha Male (such as social dominance and leadership) are attractive to women, many PUAs have adopted these ideals as models of emulation. In fact, the term “alpha” has come be shorthand for the qualities of an attractive man, and it is a common refrain among PUAs to be “more alpha” or to “out alpha” competitors.

There’s a certain logic to all this. But unfortunately for the PUAs and other manospherians the notion of the Alpha male is based on bad science. The notion of Alpha dominance, as the definition above notes, came originally from studies of wolf packs. Even if we assume that wolf behavior is somehow a good model upon which to base our understanding of human romance  – as manosphere men and evolutionary psychologists tend to do – the science behind the Alpha male wolf has now come completely undone, with many of those who promulgated the theory in the first place decades ago now explicitly repudiating it.

The problem, you see, is that the studies underlying the notion of the alpha male wolf, who aggressively asserts his dominance over beta males in order to rule the pack, were all based on observations of wolves in captivity. In the real world, wolf packs don’t work that way at all. Most wolf packs are basically wolf families, with a breeding pair and their pups. When male pups reach adulthood, they don’t fight their fathers for dominance — they go out and start their own families.

As noted wolf behavior expert L. David Mech, one of those who helped to establish and popularize the notion of the alpha wolf in the first place, explains on his website:

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 book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”

So the dominant male wolves – those whom manosphere dudes would still call the alphas – achieve this position not by being sexy badasses but simply by siring and taking responsibility for pups. To use the terminology in the manner of manosphere dudes, alphas become alphas by acting like betas. That’s right: alphas are betas. (For more of the details, see this paper by Mech; it’s in pdf form.)

Also, they’re wolves and not humans, but that’s a whole other kettle of anthropomorphized fish.

Posted on August 22, 2012, in alpha asshole cock carousel, alpha males, bad boys, beta males, evo psych fairy tales, heartiste, MGTOW, misogyny, PUA, worst writing in the history of the universe and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 991 Comments.

  1. emilygoddess - MOD

    So you decided to counter one shitty argument with another? (Protip: the existence of social hierarchies does not mean the Greek Letter model applies)

  2. I don’t see where my counter is shitty? Care to elaborate? To be clear, I consider my counter the wolf pack / primate group distinction. It demonstrates that wolf research would have far less effect on human research than primate research does.

    As for my last paragraph (which is what I think you took issue with), while your protip is no doubt a true statement… I don’t think it really makes any difference here. I think the Greek letter system makes sense in any hierarchy (as would using the English letters A, B, C). Even in hierarchies that have multiple heads, or are in flux, rank still makes sense. The larger the group gets and the more subgroups that form, the more complex the ranking system becomes. However, individuals and subgroups would always have a dominance rank in relation to each other, it just becomes a whole lot clearer when conflict takes place (or in another sense, it “gets sorted out”).

    Whether you want to use numbers, or letters to designate these ranks, whether you split them up evenly or say “1,2 and everyone else”, none of it really matters. The ranks still exist in the background, and most primates (including humans) seem to be intuitively aware of their existence, and behave accordingly. I just think it’s a little silly, arguing that it’s irrelevant just because you don’t like some pseudoscience that is vaguely related to it. It’s like saying astronomy is full of shit “because of astrology”. Why not just argue against the invalid points themselves, instead of taking aim at an entire scientific concept (at the risk of falling short and appearing just as unscientific as the people you were arguing against)?

  3. Hi, Chris, biologist here to ask you why on earth you care to necro such an old thread with something so… silly.

    David’s article was well within the bounds of its purpose: namely, highlighting that talking about alpha and beta males with respect to people and the group dynamics of the human reproduction ritual.

    Basically, MRA tripe about “Alpha *bleep*s, beta bucks” is about as accurate as a broken thermometer.

    To me, it seems like your argument to counter the argument that “Human dating dynamics are more complicated than the incorrect and outdated model formerly used to describe the pack hierarchies of wolves” is “But…but…but there are still hierarchies!”

    In reality, we’d be way better off arguing this from a sociological perspective, instead of a purely biological perspective, because even though humans seem to act a lot like our fellow species in our taxon, there are still huge differences.

    Even within primates, there are huge differences in how group dynamics work. The two most obvious? Chimps versus bonobos. They only diverged from each other about 2 millionish years ago (which is pretty darned recent) and both show fission-fusion ‘societies’.

    But, there tends to be one ‘alpha’ chimp, and chimps tend to be in smaller groups, and so on and so forth.

    Bonobos? Not so much. Bonobos are kind of fascinating, everyone.

    So, just for the context, you’re arguing we should be comparing humans to other primates (who are in a separate genus) when even the social structures of different species within the same genus can be completely different.

    … Seriously?

    Now, I’m not a sociologist and I’ll admit that the most experience I have with sociology is a couple undergrad courses, but I can still tell you that human behavior and the functional heirarchies for humans seem incredibly flexible. Like, I’m totally the boss if I’m in a room of undergrad statistics students, but if I’m in a room of adjunct faculty I’m definitely not the “Primary” individual, much less the “Secondary” or even “Tertiary”.

    The use of a fixed lettering system for humans, when we are so highly mobile in positional roles and in our group assortment, just seems really silly, and kind of useless.

    Unless you happen to be referring to heirarchies depending on training (where using the title of the position would make sense) or heirarchies depending on institutionalized or widespread racism, sexism, ableism, and all that type nonsense, in which case I really don’t think most good people would be proud to go,

    “YEAH! I’M AN ALPHA BECAUSE I’M THE MOST RACIST SONOFAGUN THAT EVER LIVED! YAY ME!

    If you’re still stuck on the rating system in dating interactions, than I would kindly like you to direct me to the papers that claim that such a rating system is actually useful and not just the misleading drivel used to rouse the irate and willfully foolish dudebros (who can’t be bothered to actually attempt to be genuinely nice people) into believing that the reason they are so overlooked is because chicks dig alphas and not ‘nice’ guys like them.

  4. Also, any support for an overall classification of traits that begets “Alpha” status would be a useful appendix for your report.

    Also, any support for anyone in research actually finding the development of such a scale actually useful would be nice.

  5. @Chris:

    Article argument summarised: “Alpha is a term used in dominance hierarchies for wolves. However, it turns out dominance hierarchies in wolves don’t work how we thought, therefore every other social hierarchy with the alpha concept is also incorrect”.

    Nope. Better summary: “‘Alpha male’ is a term that MRAs use to explain human behavior by referring to dominance hierarchies in wolves, as if it were a law of nature. However, dominance hierarchies in wolves don’t work the way we thought, therefore arguments that use the ‘alpha male’ concept in reference to wolves as if it were a law of nature are revealed to be bullshit.”

    I do see the utility in people wanting to pretend these hierarchies don’t exist, but the effort required to do so must be substantial in this age of information.

    We don’t have a problem with hierarchies. Hell, feminism is founded on the notion of patriarchy and a complicated hierarchy of privilege. No, the issue is with arguing that those hierarchies are inevitable, necessary, or necessarily good. Also with the MRAs absurdly simplistic idea of hierarchies, as if there existed a class of human called “the Alpha” that all women were universally attracted to.

  6. Aaaaaand Kirbwarp says it all much simpler and prettier.

    Yay, Kirbywarp!

  7. As for your second comment, Chris, you act as if all social groups have an ordering, and that that ordering is transitive. Human interactions are complex; if you’re judging the more powerful or higher-ranked person by who wins an argument or makes a decision, you’ll find that not only does that order constantly change over time, but that even within a short period you’ll get situations where “A > B > C > A.”

    In short, you’ll find that trying to define group dynamics solely by power struggles and dominance hierarchies will fail. Especially if you’re trying to match every group dynamic to a “Alpha Male”-esque hierarchy… You’d have to do some hefty mental gymnastics for that.

    Defining the world in terms of power struggles is a self-fulfiling prophecy anyway. It implies an inherent antagonism towards everyone around you; act in accordance with that and you’ll find that antagonism reflected right back at you, which you’ll interpret as power struggle.

  8. Aww, thanks Contrapangloss. You had some good biology background and a couple pretty good lines as well!

  9. I can see this topic is going to balloon in multiple directions very fast, I don’t have time to address every point. But I will address ones that I found most interesting, or that seem to mistake what I was saying.

    To me, it seems like your argument to counter the argument that “Human dating dynamics are more complicated than the incorrect and outdated model formerly used to describe the pack hierarchies of wolves” is “But…but…but there are still hierarchies!”

    So, just for the context, you’re arguing we should be comparing humans to other primates (who are in a separate genus) when even the social structures of different species within the same genus can be completely different… Seriously?

    Nope. My argument was that if anything, human concepts of alpha/beta model (even the pseudoscientific ones) would be more based on chimp/gorilla/orangutan social behaviour than wolf. I’m not sure who would try to use wolves to explain human dominance hierarchies, but I’d raise the same issue with them. Consequently, I didn’t think that anything to do with wolf behaviour would impact human study (in the way the author seemed to think it would). I’m arguing that the conceptual model of primate social structure is (and was) always more appropriate for human studies. e.g. just because other primates have different social structures, doesn’t mean we approach them as completely separate ideas. I think using previous studies on primate hierarchies to understand how our own might have formed or evolved is incredibly useful (as is using research on any primate and applying it to another). Of course there are differences, that is exactly what a model is initially applied to find.

    The use of a fixed lettering system for humans, when we are so highly mobile in positional roles and in our group assortment, just seems really silly, and kind of useless.

    If you’re still stuck on the rating system in dating interactions, than I would kindly like you to direct me to the papers that claim that such a rating system is actually useful

    Also, any support for an overall classification of traits that begets “Alpha” status would be a useful appendix for your report. Also, any support for anyone in research actually finding the development of such a scale actually useful would be nice.

    They could be useless in some contexts, but without doing research into that area I can’t see why someone would feel the need to dismiss the model on principle alone? I don’t think artificial pecking orders (in office/organisation environments) would benefit from this model much at all. However, in situations where there is no explicit power structure and people are left to “intuitively” organise themselves based on their feelings, I think that framework would be useful to apply. There are still a great many situations where social groups organise themselves intuitively, and that is the area in which humans act most similar to other social animals. Of course hierarchy modelling would be *most* useful in studying larger groups of people, which doesn’t seem popular at the moment (cost and variable management I assume). Human mating studies seem to prefer small isolated interactions, though often still using a dominant/subordinate approach to categorising behaviour. This makes sense in terms of modelling the simple cases before moving onto more useful and realistic group modelling.

    Now I’m sure you can understand, I don’t want to do much research into a topic that you might *really* have no interest in. So I’ll do a little to help the discussion, but I’m not going fall into the trap of writing a referenced report for random people on the internet when a) foremost I was criticising an existing claim, b) that claim itself wasn’t backed up with much scientific reference. (to be clear, the claim here seems to be that alpha/beta dominance models have no utility in human research, and the only reference was that wolves are no longer believed to conform to such a model)

    These 4 studies generally focus on social dominance and it’s link to mating behaviour. The first 3 contain pairwise interactions that would follow the alpha/beta modelling approach. However, as mentioned earlier, I’d prefer to see research on larger hierarchies, to really flesh all the interactions out.

    http://spp.sagepub.com/content/2/5/531.abstract

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090513805000966

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090513813000615

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090513813000603

    The next 2 focus on dominance and prestige, their effects in human competitiveness, social rank, and their links to primate dominance hierarchies.

    http://www.akademiai.com/content/u7r20548438417k7/

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23163747

    To be clear, I’m not too fussed on the “alpha / beta” labelling, I honestly don’t care what terminology researchers want to use. My issue is the concept of dominance hierarchies, defining superior and subordinate relations within those hierarchies, and the influence those systems have on group and individual behaviour (I wrote more about this in the part about non-linear dominance hierarchies in my next reply). Research need not use linear hierarchies (since they rarely exist like that), nor do they have to use the labels alpha/beta, the concepts remain very much useful though.

  10. Nope. Better summary: “‘Alpha male’ is a term that MRAs use to explain human behavior by referring to dominance hierarchies in wolves, as if it were a law of nature. However, dominance hierarchies in wolves don’t work the way we thought, therefore arguments that use the ‘alpha male’ concept in reference to wolves as if it were a law of nature are revealed to be bullshit.”

    Makes sense if the people you are talking about are referencing wolves. However, I find it hard to believe that anyone is BASING a human alpha/beta hierarchy concept off a wolf pack (as opposed to the study of primates, or animals in general). I couldn’t find any reference to people actually basing the concept on wolves in the article, though here is the part I found which attempts to tie it in:

    “The notion of Alpha dominance, as the definition above notes, came originally from studies of wolf packs. Even if we assume that wolf behavior is somehow a good model upon which to base our understanding of human romance – as manosphere men and evolutionary psychologists tend to do”

    However, the definition above it doesn’t claim it “came from” wolf studies at all, it’s not “based” on. It simply uses a wolf pack as a salient example for readers to visualse what alpha status means in an “animal hierarchy”. I guess most people are familiar with wolf-packs, and less familiar with the primate groups? That the example has been debunked, makes no difference to the concept of animal hierarchy (although it does call for a better illustrative example).

    No, the issue is with arguing that those hierarchies are inevitable, necessary, or necessarily good.

    I don’t think you’d have to argue that such systems are inevitable, necessary, or good, in order to take advantage of their existence? Does anyone argue they are “good”, or do they just argue that they are pragmatic / most closely model the world?

    you’ll find that not only does that order constantly change over time, but that even within a short period you’ll get situations where “A > B > C > A.”

    I don’t think that non-linear hierarchies are much of a problem, personally. Nor do I think that group dynamics are “defined” by a dominance hierarchy, rather they are affected by it. As a quick guess, I’d say that you could assign “alpha” tag to behaviour exhibited by A in relation to B, but not A in relation to C (where C would be showing those traits instead). Then if ABC dominated over the rest of the group, their group would have the alpha label, and the rest could be tagged beta in relation to them.

    Though to put the question back to you: instead of describing a dominance/status system as made up of superior and inferior relations (i.e. alpha/beta parties) how would you identify parts of the system? To my mind, superior/inferior is a very helpful way of identifying relations inside a system of status or dominance. I’m just wondering if you have a robust alternative, or are just generally arguing against the study of dominance relations in human interaction?

    Defining the world in terms of power struggles is a self-fulfiling prophecy anyway. It implies an inherent antagonism towards everyone around you; act in accordance with that and you’ll find that antagonism reflected right back at you, which you’ll interpret as power struggle.

    I find it a bit contradictory that you’d claim this, yet only a few paragraphs earlier, state that feminism is founded on the same notions. Surely, you can’t hold both views and will have to choose one? I’m guessing you’ll concede the utility of “analysing and defining power struggles”, rather than dismiss feminism?

  11. To go back to the great ape point. Certainly it would make ‘more’ sense to use them as a model than wolves, as we are much closer relatives. But gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans all live in very different ways.

    “Orangutans are shy, solitary animals that are active during the day (they are diurnal). They live alone in large territories. This is probably due to their eating habits; they need a large area in order to get enough food and too many orangutans in one area might lead to starvation.

    The only long-lasting orangutan social group is the mother and offspring, who live together for about 7 years. When mating, the male and female orangutan stay together for only a few days.”

    Gorillas : “Gorillas are social animals who usually form harems: One silverback male lives together with several adult females and their offspring.However, in mountain gorillas about 40% of groups contain several adult males who are closely related.
    As groups contain more females than males, many males are ‘left over’. They roam the forests on their own. Such loners make up 5-10% of the gorilla population. Mountain gorilla males occasionally form all-male groups”

    and chimpanzees :

    “Individuals may switch groups on occasion, but close, supportive, affectionate bonds also develop between family members and other individuals within a community, that can last a lifetime. Chimpanzee family bonds are very strong, especially mother-daughter bonds. Mothers and dependent young up to age seven or so are always together. Some individuals travel together more often than others—such as siblings and pairs of male friends. Contact is maintained between members of the scattered groups by means of the distance call: the pant hoot.

    Females disperse from the natal group once they are mature and spend most of their time alone, with dependent offspring. Males usually remain in natal groups, cooperate in defense of the community range, and spend long periods of time in proximity to other males. Males will sometimes form coalitions with each other to support each other during conflicts with other groups.”

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