a true alpha male -- 12/2/20

Today's selection -- from Mama's Last Hug by Frans de Waal. Alpha males are the ones with the greatest empathy:

"In animal research, the alpha male is simply the top-ranking male of a group. The term dates back to wolf studies of the 1940s by the Swiss ethologist Rudolf Schenkel, and it remains in use. In political parlance, however, it has come to denote a certain type of personality. Ever more business tutorials instruct us on how to become an alpha, emphasizing self-confidence, swagger, and purpose. Alphas are not just winners, it is argued -- they beat the hell out of everyone around them and remind them every day who won. They don't let up. A true alpha goes it alone and crushes the competition, like a lion among sheep. These tutorials promote a cardboard version of the whole concept, however, not just for human society but also in relation to wolves and chimpanzees. Alpha males are not born, and they don't achieve their position based purely on size and temperament. The primate alpha male is a much more complex and responsible being than a bully.

"Merciless tyrants do sometimes rise to the top in a chimpanzee com­munity, but the more typical alphas that I have known were quite the opposite. Males in this position are not necessarily the biggest, strongest, meanest ones around, since they often reach the top with the assistance of others. In fact, the smallest male may become alpha if he has the right supporters. Most alpha males protect the underdog, keep the peace, and reassure those who are distressed. Analyzing all instances in which one individual hugs another who has lost a fight, we found that although females generally console others more often than do males, there is one striking exception: the alpha male. This male acts as the healer-in-chief, comforting others in agony more than anyone else in the community. As soon as a fight erupts among its members, everyone turns to him to see how he is going to handle it. He is the final arbiter, intent on restor­ing harmony. He will impressively stand between screaming parties, with his arms raised, until things calm down."

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Frans de Waal


Mama's Last Hug


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2019 by Fans de Waal


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