Empathy, Capitalism and the myth of the ‘alpha male’.
The alpha male stereotype is widespread among, well, alpha males, and exists not as result of biologically determined characteristics but as a justification for aggressive, competitive, loud, selfish and (often sexually) dominant male behaviour. This justification is based on quasi pseudo-scientific principles largely drawing from evolutionary biology ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy and outdated political economic theory misapplied to social life. Not only is it a myth used by the erstwhile ‘masters of the universe’ in the City of London to justify their dominance, it is sexist (ignorant of social roles in matriarchal societies), unscientific without any grounding in empirical work and simplistically individualistic as it shifts the explanations for status and power differentials onto biological inevitability and individual characteristics, rather than unmasking unequal social relationships based on class, gender or ethnicity. Alpha male behaviour is a choice exercised by ‘those who can’ based on their privileged backgrounds and attributes (often white, male, educated and elite) over ‘those who have not been able to’, who have to overcome class, ethnic and gender barriers. The alpha male also misses our capacity for empathy, without which it truly is an alpha dog eat beta dog world. It is this last that is the most damning critique, as it assumes selfishness and self-interest are the only driving forces for successful (capitalist) societies.
What are alpha males? The term comes from studies of animal behaviour (ethology), e.g. in chimps (de Waal 1982) and Wolves (Mech 1999). It denotes the animal of the highest rank who achieves this status often through physical prowess. They often get to eat first and mate first, and in some species they are the only one allowed to mate. Sexual conquest is thus an important aspect of alpha behaviour. Animal behaviour in animals, for some, provides models and explanations for human behaviour on the basis that we are evolved animals only differing from, say, primates because of our higher cognitive functions. It is thus tempting to extrapolate from primate behaviour to human behaviour on the basis that behaviour in human social groups are affected by evolutionary, and genetic, processes. E.O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology’ was term akin to ethology in that it was an attempt to explain social behaviour in humans (altruism, nurturance, aggression) by appealing to underlying evolutionary mechanisms and thus the theory has more than a whiff of biological determinism about it.
In humans, we label alpha behaviour often as that which is about ‘getting the girl’ due to confidence, charisma and competitiveness. Women are supposed to like this display and ‘swoon’ in the presence of an alpha. Whether this is true in sexual politics I leave to women to decide. However alpha characteristics, if seen as the basis for sexual success, can also be seen to be the basis of success in politics and economics. Silvio Berlusconi displayed, or thought he did, alpha traits bringing Italian politics into the bordello by treating Italian voters like paying customers being screwed by the puttana of politics. Those that consider themselves as alphas may earn more, compete more or attain higher social status than their beta brothers.
Alpha males may conceive of their actions as originating in and being determined by (and thus excused by) evolution, often implicitly invoking the reptilian brain and the force of genes upon behaviour and traits. Many alphas from the world of politics, business and economics are not steeped in ethology or would be aware of its origins. However an appeal to evolution is nonetheless often present. What is missed is that evolution has further acted upon the human brain and we now have the limbic brain and the neocortex which together, it is argued, constructs the ‘Triune Brain’ (MacLean 1990). In other words the reptilian territorial selfish brain has the empathic, communitarian brain and higher cognitive functioning brain to balance any primordial tendencies. Alpha also misses what epigenetics tells us, i.e. that it is the interplay between environment and genes (and cultural life) that influence behaviour. We are not as genetically predisposed to do anything, as much as we like to think we do.
Alpha theory suggests an ‘essential’ human nature based on genes and evolutionary biology. The idea of an essential human nature has a long track record. However, an essentialist view of human nature (if it exists) does not necessarily mean that it includes a drive for naked self-interest, and aggressive competition. The modern confusion can be traced to some Enlightenment philosophers overplaying the selfishness and utility maximising aspect of behaviour. The Hobbesian ‘nasty brutish and short state of nature’ and Adam Smith’s utility maximising rational actor merely reflected what was emerging under industrial capitalism rather than what could be in other more empathic civilizations (Rifkin 2009). Human nature was invoked to be naturally selfish. We were naturally rational actors seeking our own self-interest to maximise our utility in the market. This we now know to be nonsense. It is a fact that modern adherents to Smith’s views on the workings of the market forget that in his ‘theory of moral sentiments’ that Smith understood that men could still feel empathy for their less fortunate fellows. The actual selfishness of the capitalist was mistaken for inevitability based on an essentialist view of human nature and the invisible hand of the market rather than as a result of a particular form of social relationships, which had evolved at that point in history in that society (i.e. the industrial revolution of the West).
An modern exponent of this determinist nonsense in the field of psychology is John Grey. His book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ exaggerates the differences and lends credence to theories based solely on biology. He recently explained the behaviour of ‘alpha males’ as resulting from testosterone. Men, he suggests, are hard wired for violence and polygamy. This relates to the workings of the reptilian brain. However, as already noted we also have the capacity to be ‘soft wired’ to be empathic and communitarian. Susan Gerhardt (2011) argues it is culture and child rearing practices that results on changes in brain function towards or away from empathy, violence and selfishness. This is based on scientific neuro-scientific research, such as that carried out by Baron Cohen (2011). Hard wiring is a misleading term as it suggests a form of determinancy, reducing the possibilities for change.
Research now suggests that we are soft wired with ‘mirror neurons’, which results in our ability to experience another’s plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves (Rifkin 2009), we can then empathise with others. We are not hard wired for aggression, violence, utility maximisation and self-interest but soft wired for sociability, acceptance, affection and companionship. However, we have built up social institutions and economic structures as if the former were true. These selfish structures are going global. These structures are also designed and run by alpha males for alpha males and justified by appeals to human nature and the inevitability of violence, aggression, utility maximisation and self-interest as the engines for creative social development that capitalism has wrought.
Alpha males lack a sociological imagination. They are unable to link their personal stories to the structures of society at the time they live in. For them, continuing unemployment is simply a personal failure not a result of changing labour market structures; obesity is a personal and moral weakness unrelated to increasing fossil fuel dependence (car use) and the availability of cheap calorie rich foods and our ‘lock in’ to high carbon systems; the lack of female representation at the top is down to female unsuitability to leadership in market employment conditions rather than market conditions being designed by alpha males for alpha males; black people are poor because they lack a work ethic not because of institutional and cultural racism; countries are underdeveloped because they lack a capitalist ethic rather than as a result of past and current imperialism. Seek always to blame the individual, emphasise personal responsibility and ignore power relationships and structures, which are rigged in one’s favour. Once one accepts the notion that success may be down to a combination of individual effort and abilities, fortune and socio-economic structures, justifying huge disparities in reward as being based on one’s work ethic and abilities without addressing socio-political structures, becomes untenable. Empathy is a luxury for the weak in this context, for to empathise would mean examining the real reasons for success and failure in one’s ‘peers’ to gain an understanding of the hopes and ambitions and the barriers to fulfilling such in an unjust world.
Alpha males behave in that way because we let them do so and because they have the power to do so. It is not inevitable. It is often a self-justificatory myth for boorishness and exploitation of the weak members of society. It has no scientific basis. We are not ruled by our hormones, our genes or our reptilian brains. We have culture and society to civilise ourselves. Culture and society are human constructions and are therefore open to change. Alpha males have big sticks and they make the rules, but they can be forced to put the sticks down and we can refashion society in a way that reflects more communitarian ethics and behaviour.
Now it may be that the alpha male is a straw man, that in reality powerful men do not exhibit traits of dog eat dog über competitive, devil take the hindmost, who dares wins mentality. Tony Soprano may have exhibited love and empathy for his children but everyone else became merely pawns in his acquisitive game but Tony Soprano is still a fictional character.
Do alphas exist in real life? If an alpha is a highly rewarded individual, at the top of the social stratum and who justifies that position by reference to their own individual endeavour then we may suggest that the erstwhile masters of the universe may qualify as alphas. Toynbee and Walker (2008) interviewed City ‘High Fliers’ in an attempt to understand their justifications for their salaries and bonuses. Their responses certainly indicate their attitudes as alphas, they objectively are high status and they control the reward structure. No doubt their access to females is unlimited. Competition and charisma would be prized characteristics among this group. It was clear from their responses that they saw that their success was down to them and their individual effort. Initially the reasons given for success was globalisation (a structural reason) but as Toynbee and Walker continued it became clear that personal moral reasons were the basis for success. They thought of themselves as ‘better’: “we work harder and aspire the most”, fairness is not a valid question, “it’s a fact of modern life that there is a disparity…people say its unfair when they don’t do anything to change their circumstances”, “people don’t want to achieve”, “you won’t find a teacher who works as hard as we do” (p27).
Empathy at the socio-political or corporate level is hard to find. Aspects of neoliberal capitalism and globalisation is pitting all against all as nations try to out compete each other in a race to the bottom in terms of wage reductions, pension reductions, flexible working (i.e. rotational unemployment) and extensions of working lives. Somehow we have accepted that working longer for less in a less certain world is a good thing because not to do so risks losing jobs to India and China (Jones 2011). The structures of globalisation are such that competition not cooperation rules social lives. We are now working for the economy rather than for the community. It is not the alpha males in Greece who have to bend the knee to austerity, they still have their yachts and villas. The existence of the odd rich alpha victim to globalised capitalism only serves to show that the system they operate takes no prisoners. Many of those who go down keep the riches they earned when in power.
The lack of an empathic civilisation and the rule by global elites is not natural or inevitable but we somehow believe it to be so. Meanwhile the alpha looks on, secure on his yacht or in his gated community in ‘Richistan’ (Frank 2007), laughing at the poor people while justifying his ‘right’ by ‘might’. Because he can. Because he’s ‘worth it’.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books.
de Waal, F. (1982) Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among Apes. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore
Frank, R. (2007) Richistan, A journey through the wealth boom and the lives of the new rich. Random House.
Gerhardt. S. (2011) The Selfish Society. Simon and Shuster. York .
Grey, J. in McVeigh, T. (2011) What drives alpha males to keep on having affairs? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/22/alpha-males-sex-scandals
Jones. D. (2011) Fixing Britain. The business of reshaping our nation. Wiley. Chichester.
Kryznaric. R. (2012) Six habits of highly empathic people. RSA Events. http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2012/socialbrain/habits-highly-empathic-people/
MacLean, P. (1990) The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role of Paleocerebral Functions, Springer.
Mech, L. D. (1999). Alpha status, dominance, and division of Labour in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77: 1196-1203.
Rifkin. J. (2009) The Empathic Civilisation. The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. Polity Cambridge. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Empathic_Civilization and at RSA events http://www.thersa.org/events/video/animate/rsa-animate-the-empathic-civilisation
Toynbee, P. ad Walker, D. (2008) Unjust rewards. Granta, Cambridge.
Wilson. E.O. (1975) Sociobiology, the new synthesis. Harvard University Press.