I have a sort of close friend/relative who deeply believes in the alpha male thing. He believes it so much he frequently behaves horribly, and probably due to his alpha beliefs, at least in part, has become an alcoholic. He suffers from wild delusions of grandeur coupled with abject self-abasement and shame, a not uncommon formula. He is also as abusive to others as he is to himself.
So I have a personal stake in this issue. And also the alpha male thing is very good example of how far cultural beliefs can stray from reality and thus cause great harm to society as well as individuals caught up in falsehoods of that sort.
Alpha status, even based as it is on bad science, became a semiotic—something that can be communicated with signs to other humans—and in that capacity became a fetishized semiotic that took on a life of its own.
Anyone who has given thought to culture must surely be aware that all of the world’s cultures are filled with mistaken semiotics like the alpha male thing. In US culture, pretty much anything that become “a thing” is a fetishized semiotic, or a fetishized semiotic bundle.
If our entire culture can see through the alpha male thing, and by extension, the alpha female thing, we will save a great deal of time and avoid a great deal of suffering. In Buddhist terms, “empty” semiotics are impermanent things (dharmas) that have no “own being,” no “inherent nature.” They are reified concepts that become part of a transitory culture and are doomed to oblivion, especially if they are demonstrably false like the alpha male thing.
As individuals, I don’t think we can do all that much about which way our culture flows, but we can do a great deal about how our own minds flow. FIML practice would help my friend, but he is too drunk to do it and too lost in his delusions to even glimpse an exit from them. He is a sad example of someone trapped in a prison of his “own device.”
The alpha thing came from narrow wolf studies extended to dog training and then to human males, then females. It began in the 1940s and has held sway over parts of US culture to this day.
Here is a quick refutation:
The debate has its roots in 1940s studies of captive wolves gathered from various places that, when forced to live together, naturally competed for status. Acclaimed animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel dubbed the male and female who won out the alpha pair. As it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise: wolves in the wild, says L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, actually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units, in which the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring’s status is based on birth order. Mech, who used to ascribe to alpha-wolf theory but has reversed course in recent years, says the pack’s hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead.(Dog Training and the Myth of Alpha-Male Dominance)
As for my friend, I hate the sin but not the sinner. I know he doesn’t read this site (doesn’t know about it), but maybe by getting these ideas out there they will by “a commodius vicus of recirculation” “bring him back” if not to Howth Castle or Adam and Eve’s place, at least to a better place.
Edit 8/20/04: Here is a counter-argument on dog obedience versus wolf cooperation:Wolves cooperate but dogs submit, study suggests.