“Alpha” or “Omega” Male?

“Right is the might of the community.” -Freud

If asked which of these two pictures represent an “alpha male,” most people these days would pick Brock Lesner, but in doing so, they would betray a deep misunderstanding of human nature. There are two prevalent assumptions about human civilization that many intelligent people often come to, myself included, which seem to fit the general evolutionary paradigm as well as a more pessimistic, “realist,” and perhaps misanthropic view of human motivation. (These basically amount to the Marxist critique of religion).

Assumption #1: For much of human history and prehistory the “alpha male” was the strongest and most brutal male specimen of a given group, who would dominate the social structure by physical coercion, until, that is, a more powerful specimen successfully challenged his hegemony.

Assumption #2: Religions have always secretly been a means of political control and nothing besides; they were, much like von Clausewitz’s famous quote about war, merely “the continuation of politics by other means”–in this case the means of deception instead of physical coercion.

In many people’s view, these two forms of political control sometimes cooperated and sometimes wrestled with each other, but ultimately, these were the only forces organizing societies at all. I would like to challenge both of these assumptions here and propose that before Jaynes’ breakdown of the bicameral mind, society was governed by earnest and sincere religious conviction, and afterward, with the introduction of subjectivity and the possibility of deception, by shear cunning, treachery, rhetoric, and guile worthy of the salty Alcibiades. That is, the true “Alpha Male” was a cunning diplomat, rhetorician and military strategist, not a knuckle-dragging brute. However, the old religious certainty, not long dead, still exercises its power over mankind, who thirsts for direct contact with god, with truth, with an unquestionable authority that dispels all need for thought or choice, and it is this need that all politicians, prophets, and more recently scientists have been trying to fill ever since. The truth of this is what gives rise to the second assumption above, which to be sure has been true frightfully often in human history, but also what proves that it could not possibly have been true all or even most of the time. The same desperate urge for religious certainty, for authority of a divine and unquestionable nature, or even just for truth and objectivity of the most reliable kind available, governed the politician and the peasant, the king and the popper alike. “Not brute force but only persuasion and faith are the kings of this world,” wrote Carlyle.

The dominant male in a tribe of H. erectus was probably the strongest. But in the first semispeaking Neanderthal tribes, the dominant male might be the best speaker, the best able to give commands as the men surrounded prey during a hunt or in apportioning its results. It is common in social organizations of primates that the dominant male does more of the mating than is his numerical share. In some instances, as in the baboons, he does most of it. If such an organization existed in Neanderthal tribes, if the best speaker did most of the mating, it would leverage the evolution of language considerably. -Julian Jaynes

Today, the first assumption seems to be more prevalent among the less educated than the second, displayed especially in the arena of sport, where you will routinely hear people like Urijah Faber of “Team Alpha-Male” declare that his upcoming MMA fight will be a test to determine who is the “better man,” who is “the man,” or who is the “alpha male.” Lurking behind such attitudes is the assumption that in Nature the law of the jungle rules; that “might makes right;” that the most imposing specimen would always become the chieftain on the Pleistocene steppe; that respect was not earned but everywhere extorted. This would seem to be on solid footing given the social organization of higher ape species, but ultimately it doesn’t fit the archaeological or anthropological evidence. To be sure, martial prowess was highly prized throughout recorded human history, and likely made up a great deal of the criteria by which a king was selected (remember King Saul, who was a handsome man a head taller than any Israelite). However, the man’s diplomatic skill and religious appeal were likely much more important, even in a figure like William Wallace whose martial prowess borders on the legendary. What I am arguing here is that even before men knew what they were doing, even before subjective interiority or self-consciousness came about, man was not governed by the strong man of his tribe; that as long as man has been properly Man, and perhaps even before that, he has been ruled by something other than mere physical force. Man’s greater mental abilities have always been the key to his survival, not his strength. Thus it stands to reason that the leadership qualities of foresight, diplomatic tact, and rhetorical persuasion were more powerful determinants of a king than martial prowess or courage on the battlefield, and before the time of true subjective thought and rhetoric, nothing but religio-poetic persuasion, the highest and most organized form of thought of the time, ruled with impunity. The picture of knuckle-dragging warrior kings ruling with an iron fist should be pushed back to the day of the Neanderthal and perhaps further back still. That this picture still holds sway and gives rise to the attitude exhibited by Faber above is actually a hangover from man’s brief dip back into evolutionary time during the Dark Ages, when the light of subjective thought seemed to flicker and fade out. The “culture” of the time was that of Medieval chivalry, whose legacy of honor duels and wanton violence has not yet died, but lives on in our modern mythologies of power.

Though many disputes and decisions concerning a society can be resolved through violence, ultimately the most important ones will involve the collective action of the polis, which will not be cowed by the strength of one man. Though violence has been a ubiquitous presence in human history, the mistake is to assume that single individuals could ever wield enough of it to govern even small bands of people. Freud understood this well, writing that “such, then, was the original state of things: domination by whoever had the greater might–domination by brute violence or by violence supported by intellect,” adding smartly that “the superior strength of a single individual could be rivaled by the union of several weak ones.” Elaborating on this point, he writes that “violence could be broken by union, and the power of those who were united now represented law in contrast to the violence of the single individual. Thus we see that right is the might of the community.” Moreover, even Goliath must sleep, a truth which likely prompts modern dictators to survive by means of paranoia and shows of arbitrary violence more than overt displays of military strength. Furthermore, man has used projectiles, which all but negate the physical strength advantages of a single dominant male, for longer than he has been properly “Man.” Man survived by cooperation with his fellows, not by bloody competition. Freud was right that man is not a herd animal but a horde animal led by a chief, but the qualities of that chief were not superior strength and brutal discipline, but were instead true leadership qualities. Modern writer, speaker and mediator William Ury tells us that conflicts are solved by the “third side,” which is the community in which the disagreement exists in a subset of its members. As one of these quarreling members, you do not appeal to the “third side” by threats of violence, but by appealing to their needs and desires, be they of a religious, moral or practical kind. These appeals will involve the tactics of rhetoric, persuasion, and diplomacy, not strong-arming. In fact, the single individual has much more power in a relative superiority of intellect than of strength, for as Freud mentioned, the strength of one can be easily overtaken by the union of several weaker ones, while the genius, Schopenhauer enjoys reminding us, cannot be equaled or bested by a thousand dullards. This is one reason why Schopenhauer writes that  “it is not ferocity but cunning that strikes fear into the heart and forebodes danger; so true it is that the human brain is a more terrible weapon than the lion’s paw.” In deed, the true picture of the alpha male should look more like the following surly visages:

(Alcibiades and Dennett, respectively)

Our modern assumption, naive as it is, remains compelling because of evolutionary theory in conjunction with the known facts of primate power structures, and because of the cultural legacy of so-called knightly honor. This system of mores held that any insult, verbal or physical, should be reproached with blood-letting, and more often than not, with the coup-de-grace. As Arthur Schopenhauer summarizes it, “to receive an insult is disgraceful; to give one, honourable.” Thus, the honor duel was born, not out of some primitive return to the kind of competition between two rams bashing heads over prime mating territory, but out of a religious conviction that “might makes right,” as god always backs up the righteous warrior over the unrighteous. “The truth is,” Schopenhauer tells us, “that conduct of this kind aims, not at earning respect, but at extorting it.” Schopenhauer thinks that “the whole thing manifestly rests upon an excessive degree of arrogant pride, which, completely forgetting what man really is, claims that he shall be absolutely free from all attack or even censure,” adding in a footnote that “it is a very remarkable fact that this extreme form of pride should be found exclusively amongst the adherents of the religion which teaches the deepest humility. Still, this pride must not be put down to religion, but, rather, to the feudal system, which made every nobleman a petty sovereign who recognized no human judge.” Strangely, this code of the nobility was reinforced by the common man, who ostracized the accused or insulted man who did not seek immediate redress in a duel. Schopenhauer believes that this can “be traced back to the fact that in the Middle Age, up to the fifteenth century, it was not the accuser in any criminal process who had to prove the guilt of the accused, but the accused who had to prove his innocence.” Surely this juristic fact helped cement this cultural norm, but religion certainly provided its ultimate justification. Freud was right when he observed the following: “in the development of the ancient religions one seems to find that many things which mankind had renounced as wicked were surrendered in favour of the god, and were still permitted in his name; so that a yielding up of evil and asocial impulses to the divinity was the means by which man freed himself from them.” Regardless of its true origins, Schopenhauer is certainly right that “such a strange, savage and ridiculous code of honour as this has no foundation in human nature, nor any warrant in a healthy view of human affairs,” which he proceeds to backup with much evidence from ancient Greece and Rome, adding that “when Christianity was introduced, gladiatorial shows were done away with, and their place taken, in Christian times, by the duel, which was a way of settling difficulties by the Judgement of God.

Knightly honor asserts that it is better to be feared than to be respected on the grounds of being respectful. Schopenhauer admits that “not much reliance can be placed upon human integrity,” and thus, “the principle that it is more essential to arouse fear than to invite confidence would not, perhaps, be a false one, if we were living in a state of nature, where every man would have to protect himself and directly maintain his own rights.” But the important fact here is that we have never lived in such a state. Not a single ape species lives in this state! We are highly social animals and have never had to wander around on our own, defending our rights against other lone individuals. This doctrine of fear has governed universally, and still does, among different tribes with respect to each other, but not to individuals of one tribe with respect to his fellow tribesman.

The assumption that man was first governed by the fist and then by the crafty high priest actually gets the account completely backwards, and even when reversed does not represent a true account. There was a time when man was not capable of long-term schemes and deception, when he was ruled by the unchallenged voice (or voices) of his conscience, which he later called the gods. It was only after the breakdown of this bicameral organization of the mind, perhaps around the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. as Julian Jaynes claims, that it was even possible to have a Ted Haggard, Jim Jones, or Jerry Falwell, and by this time the rule by fear was being reintroduced, perhaps for the first time since we were apes. One may think that Hammurabi’s Code was brutal, but his was not a rule by fear, but rather a rule by religious authority. It was not until 1230 B.C. that we see rulers like Tukulti-Ninurta I, tyrant of Assyria, rule with an iron first, and not coincidentally, as Jaynes points out, the first time also that we see the king depicted next to an empty throne, instead of one seating his personal god. Jaynes writes that “the throne before which this first of the cruel Assyrian conquerors grovels is empty. No king before in history is ever shown kneeling. No scene before in history ever indicates an absent god.” To reconstruct the chronology here: Apes are governed by violence and fear. Bicameral man was moved by poetry and ruled by the stored admonitions of his father and his culture, which we now might call Super-Ego. Partly self-conscious man was ruled by an iron fist or some form of religious manipulation. Fully self-conscious man was first ruled by secular law and the force of the state, then during the Dark Ages again by religious manipulation and the forced dependence of feudalism, and finally he emerged on the other side to be ruled again by secular law and the force of the state.

The strange thing, however, is that in modern “civilization” we don’t heed Freud’s remark that “right is the might of the community,” but instead posit all power in the law and the state, which abstractly stands for the might of the community. The way this plays out in reality, however, is that while kids grow up and go to school they are not allowed to settle disputes among themselves, but must seek redress with authority figures in the bureaucratic hierarchy. The “third side” is told to go tell the principle instead of muster its moral authority to denounce a bully or intervene physically. This gives rise to the attitude displayed by Faber, as we all implicitly know that there is an authority more worthy of respect than the bureaucrats, but mistake this for the authority of might instead of the authority of Reason or the authority of the community. How do we expect our children to learn how to be responsible if we deny them the responsibility of settling their own disputes? We literally tell them that they can’t handle the responsibility, so why should they ever man-up and take it? Their only recourse to doing so is to either be a rat or a vigilante. Is it any wonder why most would prefer the latter option and to decide matters with their own two fists? The natural corrective tendencies, the natural tendencies towards communal justice, are barred in our school systems, whose rules make it wise to step aside when two people get into a fight, or to run to the principle, instead of to jump in and assist the righteous party. We are sadly placing our children in a rather primitive situation, which is obviously what leads them to view human nature in the unflattering light that we see in assumption #1; the view that man is just a glorified ape who doesn’t actually deserve this glorification. We would be wise to heed the words of Rollo May, who wrote that “as we make people powerless, we promote their violence rather than its control,” adding that “violence arises not out of superfluity of power but out of powerlessness.”

A topic of frequent discussion these days is the question of whether technology is weakening us. For example, perhaps our cell phones and calculators are removing our need and thus are ability to remember and manipulate numbers. However, it seems rather strange to me that a similar question never arises: the question of whether our social technologies, our laws and institutions, don’t similarly weaken us–in this case morally. With our morality encoded into laws, our moral thought crystallized into the canon of legal precedent, why is it that we do not worry about losing our ability to solve moral problems through deliberation, rhetorical persuasion, and collective action? The only time our society asks us to judge our fellows is during jury duty, in which great pains are taken to assure that each juror bears no relation to the case, the accused, or the accuser, but is as impartial and random as possible. Is this not a graphic indictment of democracy and the human ability to negotiate, to use diplomacy, to reason with each other in order to solve disputes? Our laws state that each person deserves to be tried by “his peers,” but this is hardly true: he will be judged by people who are in no way connected to him. Could this vote of no confidence actually contribute to our moral decay as a society? Could it be one reason why our courts are overflowing with preposterous cases that could easily be solved with a modicum of human decency, understanding, patience, and good will towards our fellow man? Why do we not worry about losing our ability to resolve disputes between ourselves in a civilized fashion, given that our “civilization” does nearly all of this for us now?

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7 Responses to “Alpha” or “Omega” Male?

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  3. Pingback: “Alpha” or “Omega” Male? Pt 2 – Winning | Think On These Things

  4. Pingback: “Alpha” or “Omega” Male? Pt 3 – Rise of the Nerds | Think On These Things

  5. Pingback: Freeze Sucka! Pt 2 – Two Kinds Of Fear | Think On These Things

  6. Recently learned that in chimpanzee hierarchies its not the biggest male, but the male with the most allies, that becomes the “alpha.”

  7. Pingback: Defending A Life Of The Mind | Think On These Things

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