The Myth of the Middle Class Alpha Male, Part 3.5

A reader (I forgot to ask him if he wanted his name used) forwarded me this clip of an NPR show called Radiolab, in particular a clip that he said speaks directly to my Myth of the Middle Class Alpha Male series.

Putting aside the annoyingly nebbish yuppie cadences of the presenters, it makes some great points that speak directly to things I was going to mention in Part 4 of the series.  So consider this both an illustration of things described in parts 1-3 and a preview of part 4. I’ll elaborate on the parallels in part 4.

Brian Hare tells us the story of Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist and clandestine Darwinian who lived in Stalinist Russia and studied the domestication of the silver fox. Through generations of selectively breeding a captive population, Belyaev noticed not only increased docility, but also unexpected physical changes. Why did these gentler foxes necessarily look different than their wild ancestors? Tecumseh Fitch has a hypothesis, something about trailblazing cells and embryonic development. And Richard Wrangham takes it a step further, suggesting us humans may have domesticated ourselves.

9 Responses to “The Myth of the Middle Class Alpha Male, Part 3.5”

  1. Not really.

    If you look at pictures of the fighting nobility of the Middle Ages, they look remarkably like the upper middle class yuppies of today. You would think fighting Knights of the Middle Ages, and the nobility in general of that time, would be large and violent looking. Yet nothing of the sort.

    If you look at the drawings you see slender framed, fair skinned, and refined men who aside from dressing in extravagant finery would easily fit into any Manhattan coffee shop today.

    I was always extremely intrigued by that fact.

    All this merely goes to prove that what makes an Alpha – someone able to flourish in ruthless surroundings – is not physical qualities but qualities of mind and spirit, i.e intelligence and character traits like ruthlessness and endurance which need some level of intelligence to exist.

    The high status men of all historical societies, the upper classes, even the warrior classes and fighting men, have always been men with a relatively high level of intelligence combined with qualities of mind or spirit that usually come with high intelligence. Look at the Samurai, etc, and it is of course no accident that the European nobility had a love of finery and poetry and other such pursuits which make for refinenment, etc.

    Reality is SO much interesting than theory – yes, we have a nice theory which says Alphas SHOULD look and be a certain way, but reality shows us a very different story. I love these little ironic twists!

  2. Size does matter when judging someone alpha John. Sure someone who is not of large size can compensate for it with other things like money, great social skills, lots of connections, a great career, intelligence, etc, but size does matter as well. Not just that, but size may even LEAD to those other things. Look at all the studies showing the effect of height. How people defer to it. How people of height on average earn more money and hold jobs of higher status and are more physically intimidating and are assumed more competent. How tall people on average do better in job interviews against equally qualified shorter candidates. In almost every election but one the taller candidate won. Read Robert Cialdini’s influence for an array of stats explaining the positive effects of height. Here’s an article by an economist discussing height: http://www.slate.com/?id=2063439

    That’s not even taking into account other things that add to size like muscle mass.

    Reality is SO much interesting than theory – yes, we have a nice theory which says Alphas SHOULD look and be a certain way, but reality shows us a very different story.

    Unintentional irony, thy name is John. Your comment is much more an illustration of theory than it is reality. Its got a ton of holes in it, to the point I’m not even really sure where to start in responding to it. It reads like one of those thought experiments I read by human biodiversity commenters, with too many false premises masquerading as fact and gaps in logic to really know how to even begin addressing it.

    Starting with the idea that alphas of hundreds of years ago looked just like genteel Manhattan yuppies? How would we even know that for sure one way or the other? And if you want to examine the effect on size on being alpha, you have to look at how big the alpha males of the past were compared to other men of THEIR era, not look at how big they are compared to men of TODAY. They are competing against men of their era, not against men of our era. Resources were scarce back then. There weren’t supermarkets and restaurants on every block, there weren’t convenience stores, there weren’t fridges, there weren’t preservatives. There weren’t gyms and supplements and easy access to huge amounts of protein for muscle building like there is today. As a result, people of the past were on average much, much shorter thanks to less access to food and nutrients. So even if what you say was true, that the typical build of an alpha male in olden times was equivalent to that of a Manhattan yuppie today, that physical build would mean something TOTALLY different in that era than it would today. What today would be considered an average build would be considered a far above average build back then. Most people, even nobility, simply didn’t have the resources required to be what would be considered huge in today’s society.

  3. “What today would be considered an average build would be considered a far above average build back then.”

    Right, and that’s assuming we can even take his assertion at face value. I’d like to see those pictures.

    In the Civil War era, men were just a little over 5 feet and very slight-looking, due to poor nutrition, I’d guess. The “strongmen” of then looked like a slightly above-average suburban gym member nowadays.

  4. I think I found one of those drawings of one of those old slightly built European alphas.

    http://home.comcast.net/~kenconway/images/henry.jpg

  5. it looks to me as though the “meta-principle” here is that Alpha-ness is situationally determined and what counts is one’s ability to figure out the situation and respond to it. Maybe John would enjoy Mark Twain’s classic “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” which reveals some of the abilities necessary, like good luck for instance.

    The thing about the docile fox is that it has repositioned itself (over generations) for captivity. As opposed to escaping back to the environment for which it originally evolved.

    The interesting question is what situation would produce Alphas who are adaptable to the future, an environment we can no longer predict.

    Prairie Mary

  6. Your theory regarding the myth of the Western middle class alpha male possibly ties into my own theory of sociopathy, if you think that sociopathy and alpha-ness are correlated.

    http://planetgrok.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/my-armchair-theory-on-sociopathy/

    It would thus make sense that less developed countries would have levels of alpha that the West has not seen in centuries, since these traits are genetically selected for in less civilized cultures.
    .-= PlanetGrok´s last blog ..My Armchair Theory on Sociopathy =-.

  7. This is a very interesting discussion. There is evidence to suggest that modern humans are on average larger than their ancestors because of improved nutrition but it may be more accurate to say that the average man has benefited from it even moreso than the alpha males of the past. The historical record is replete with examples of alpha males past that possessed above average height and size. Genghis Khan was said to be between 5’10” to 6′ tall eventhough Mongols were said to be on average taller than their Asian neighbors of the time. Musashi Miyamoto, the famous Japanese swordsman, was believed to be about 6′ tall in a time when the average samurai was only 5’4″. Why does it matter? His height would imply a longer wingspan/reach which provided him with an enormous advantage in combat wielding a katana. The fact that he perfected the use of two swords, one in each hand, made him almost twice as lethal and virtually untouchable. In the ancient past, whether we care to believe it or not, size did matter because it offered obvious advantages in combat and that was one key determinant in the acquisition of alpha status.

  8. “annoyingly nebbish yuppie cadences”

    Oh god! I stopped listening to NPR 10 years ago, could no longer stand the pedantic and pretentious tone and the oh-so-centrist smugness. But these guys managed to annoy even more with cutesy clowning and stupid noises. What a disgraceful way to cover science.

    What surprises me about evolutionary science is that so many scientists appear to presume that genes map to characteristics in a simple way. Evolution isn’t design, it’s a billion year hack, and we should expect all our aspects to be tangled up.

    Selection for any trait X should cause apparantly unrelated changes. Duh.

    Another thing that bugged me about the show was these two guys talked about the change rate in years, not generations. It’s like they have *no* real interest in the topic they’re covering.

    Wrangham is right, we are domesticating ourselves. But since life is fairly safe and there’s so little murder, almost all our selection pressure must be coming from women’s choices.

  9. Captain Kirk4 on March 11th, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    I don’t think the social system of Gorillas or Rams where only the largest, most muscular 5% of males got to breed was in practice in medieviel times. Our closest ancestors the chimps already display a trend away from this extreme polygamy. I believe Leadership, or psychological verbal intellegent dominance is what makes the Alpha. The ability to rally other men around him and inspire them. I can think of one example of an Alpha male in post war American history who despite being only 5′ 2″ tall was able to rally multiple individuals around them with verbal ability, dominate the other men, have a harem of women who he was even able to talk into going out and commiting murder; Charles Manson. Tom Leykis is fat and putrid looking, yet one listen to his radio show and no matter what the topic, his oral skills are able to out debate 99.9% of the callers no matter what the topic. He always appears to win the debate even though you might sit back a few hours later and think things through and say “you know what he might have overlooked a lot and be wrong, etc.” An Alpha always appears to be right in the momments that count.