Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 August 2021

Can we Ever Dump the Alpha (Male) Ape?

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

For countless millennia, the alpha ape ruled our ancestral clans. This system of “governance” began long before we learned to speak, let alone at our present level of subtlety and sophistication.

The alpha ape’s rule was total. He ruled by brute force and intimidation. He was the biggest, strongest and the meanest of the clan. He gathered the females to himself, in a sort of primitive harem. That way, his genes—not the other males’—passed down to posterity. This “natural” hereditary system selected for size, strength, speed, and the meanness and intimidation required to keep the other apes in line.

Whenever another ape (male or female), got out of line, the alpha male ape would impose “discipline.” The discipline could be as subtle as a growl and feint. Or it could be as overt and intimidating as a roundhouse swipe, a bite strong enough to draw blood, or a fight that led to a challenger’s ouster from the clan or even to his death.

Time and habit reinforced the alpha male’s rule. One by one, potential challengers took their lumps and knuckled under, until one—perhaps from outside the clan—saw an opening and tried his luck in physical combat. In physical encounters large and small, the rest of the clan learned, at least for a time, not to challenge the alpha ape, but to accept and suffer his rule by whim.

In those days death by combat was rare. Evolution favored preserving the genes of even second-best males. So when beaten, or even when sensing defeat, the loser would often run away and live on his own, apart from the clan, until time and chance weakened the dominant male enough for another challenge.

Civilization no doubt began with the advent of language. I like to think of three non-dominant, aggrieved males plotting and scheming together for some time. Eventually, they summoned the courage to hide behind a tree and jump the alpha male. They fought in tandem to wound or kill him or drive him away. That was the dawn of the “consent of the governed.”

How long did it take to get to this point in our social evolution? No one really knows. But science estimates that our evolution from apes to humans took from five to eight million years.

The very uncertainty—close to a factor of two—shows how little we really know. But one thing is certain: our species’ entire recorded history of five thousand years or so is but a millisecond in comparison. That time is far, far too short for biological evolution to have played any significant role in our recorded historical development.

Whatever progress we have made since our historical record began is due solely to social evolution. That process works much faster than biological evolution, but it’s also much weaker and more prone to reversal. Social evolution resides solely in our written documents and our social heritage—what we teach our kids—not our DNA. So it’s ever subject to forgetting, ignorance, deliberate falsification and backsliding.

You don’t need a course in evolutionary biology or anthropology to appreciate these facts. You just need to examine Andrew Cuomo’s or Donald Trump’s histories closely. Both men ruled in much the same way that alpha apes once did: by fear, intimidation and personal, emotional dominance.

Cuomo’s is the more interesting case because it’s subtler. At times, he apparently ruled his office by a modern proxy for combat: fits of screaming and unrestrained (or maybe feigned) anger. But what seems about to dethrone him is his apparent need for emotional-physical dominance of females.

Let’s be clear. No one was raped. No one was forced to bear an unwanted child of the alpha male. But Cuomo’s alleged sexual harassment and assaults mirrored the type of sexual liberties and dominance by whim that was characteristic of alpha-male rule from our biological evolutionary past.

Even more revealing were Cuomo’s reported responses to his victims’ protests. He, his lawyers, and his mostly male cohort dug up dirt on the victims, seeking to impair their public credibility, their public image and (eventually) their careers. He and his allies set out to destroy the victims’ public reputations. If you squint through your biological evolutionary lens, you can almost see the huge alpha ape hitting, nipping and growling at the smaller and weaker females to keep his harem in line.

Think about this seriously for a moment. For days, weeks—maybe even months—the energies of key people at the top of the government of the State of New York were diverted to tarnishing the public reputations of female staffers and others who had come forward to complain of Governor Cuomo’s personal behavior. What possible benefit, even in theory, could those efforts have had for the people of New York? The entire project had a single overweening purpose: perpetuating the dominance of the state’s alpha male.

Unfortunately, similar tactics for preserving alpha-male dominance are becoming routine today. Courtroom lawyers work overtime to destroy the reputations of witnesses, rather than just getting them to tell what they know truthfully. Lawyers even hire private investigators for that purpose.

Confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements are becoming routine in civil disputes, and also in connection with changes in corporate personnel. Donald Trump allegedly used such gag agreements, along with payoffs, to keep his porn-star conquests quiet. Thus, much of what goes on in our halls of corporate and civic governance is far easier to explain by atavistic resort to alpha-male dominance than by any conceivable principle of Reason, efficient business or democracy.

We are supposed to live in an open society. Our Prime Directive, second only to our equality credo (“all . . . are created equal”), is the First Amendment. Yet today mosts resolutions of disputes, whether in or out of court, are accompanied by artificial, privately-imposed oaths of secrecy. So are key departures of personnel from positions of corporate power. Increasingly, our leaders are striving to keep how they govern, how they select and fire underlings, and a lot else of what goes on in our society quiet.

Cui bono? Who benefits? Does society gain by keeping the costs of and reasons for financial settlements secret? the real reasons for changes in personnel? Do we learn collectively from the mistakes of our leaders? Or is the primary reason for these gag orders the continued dominance of the mostly male alpha apes who run things at the moment?

With this background, the dismal career of Donald Trump appears as a caricature of alpha-male rule. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep his college grades, test scores and tax returns secret. He gained his presidential nomination, ran his administration, and maintains his dominance of the Republican party through fear, threats and intimidation. In his case the threats are often explicit—to “primary” (used as a verb) or “destroy” any GOP hopeful who crosses him.

Trump also used one of the crudest and most puerile tools of male social dominance: inventing demeaning nicknames to his rivals, a practice that Dubya also used. Isn’t this practice more appropriate to the president of a fraternity than the world’s mightiest democracy?

At the end of the day, the alpha ape’s strongest instrument is fear. There is fear of the alpha ape himself, aka “intimidation,” and there is fear of outsiders, against whom the alpha male claims only he can prevail. (“Only I can fix it.”) Richard Nixon drummed-up fear of “Red China” and Communists. The Elder Bush invoked fear of Black predator-criminals. Today Trump and the GOP incite fear of Black Lives Matter protestors invading your peaceful suburbs, grossly exaggerated “defund the police” movements, socialists (tarred as Communists) taking away your liberty and jobs, and undocumented immigrants “invading” our nation and spreading Covid-19.

For evolutionary reasons, fear is our most powerful emotion and the one least governed by Reason. So fear often works in electoral politics. It works especially well for voters not accustomed to abstract thinking or comfortable with detail, for whom the complexities of modern epidemiology, finance or climate science are out of reach.

It would be bad enough if this reversion to evolutionary type were occurring only in the world’s most powerful democracy. But it’s not. It’s a global phenomenon that appears to be accelerating. From Erdoğan’s Turkey and Duterte’s Philippines, though Orban’s Hungary and Putin’s Russia, all the way to Xi’s China, the alpha male is making a comeback, consolidating power and undermining democracy. He is systematically weakening the independent judiciary, sidelining and even killing reporters, and marginalizing legislatures and every other check on alpha-male rule.

The worst case of all may be China, not the United States. For reasons having to do with their written language, the Chinese have always been among the most practical people on Earth. They may never have had anything like Western democracy. But until Xi Jinping came along, they had evolved one of the most rational and effective methods for succession of leaders in human history, incongruously within the confines of the so-called “Communist Party.”

Once the Plenum of the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party had nine members. Each of China’s two top leaders had to have served two five-year terms on that Committee before advancing. There the two future leaders’ character, leadership and every act were directly and intimately observed by the other seven members.

This system was the closest thing to an “apprenticeship” for top leaders in human history. It forced top leaders to be judged, thoroughly and in depth—and before their advancement—by colleagues who were intimately familiar with them in person, not just through others’ reports and media accounts.

But now Xi has cut the Committee’s membership to seven and declared himself China’s latest Emperor in all but name. Since China’s constitution is unwritten, that wonderful (and unique!) apprenticeship system lies broken in the dust. And the world’s most populous and soon-to-be most powerful nation is fast reverting to our collective alpha-male evolutionary past. Imagine the hubris and nonsense of it all: 1.4 billion people ruled absolutely by a single, solitary, inevitably flawed man!

Today, we humans face three existential threats. The first is global warming and consequent climate change—a problem of our own making. The second is the risk of a globally devastating (or species-self-extinguishing) nuclear war—also a problem of our own making. The third is a fast-evolving global pandemic, like Covid-19, which could decimate our entire species if it evolves to evade our vaccines.

It doesn’t matter that Xi may be smarter than most Western leaders. The complexity of today’s human civilization and of the seriousness of the existential threats we face require collective solutions. All hands must be on deck and all minds—especially experts’!—focused on the tasks at hand. Every effort or expense directed at keeping a single alpha male in power is a costly and potentially disastrous waste and distraction.

So how do we fix this? I can see only one strategy that, in both speed and scope, has any reasonable prospect of working on a species-wide scale. We must advance females into the top ranks of leadership, worldwide, as quickly and effectively as possible.

Here Angela Merkel is the paradigm. Sure, she had help from far-sighted and successful male predecessors like Helmut Schmidt. But she has deftly completed Germany’s transition from a morally bankrupt, forcibly divided and broken nation into a global exemplar. Today’s Germany is a shining example of climate-change-fighting energy conversion, acceptance and integration of migrants, successful international industrial competition, workers’ protection and advancement, economy equality, national financial soundness, reluctance to provoke or participate in military conflict, and the confession and rejection of past sins, including the Holocaust.

So Angela Merkel may be the single greatest human ruler since England’s Queen Elizabeth I. That fine exemplar converted England from a basket-case of internecine warfare to a powerhouse of global exploration, industry, science, commerce and trade. For completing Germany’s conversion from the bestiality (and extreme alpha-male rule) of Nazism to today’s exemplary nation, Merkel is undoubtedly one of the greatest human leaders of all time.

But there’s more to female rule than just two outstanding examples. Females have always been excluded from the alpha-male biological evolutionary scheme. So they are fully aware of its shortcomings, not just from studying history, but also from their biological evolutionary roots.

There are exceptions, of course. Catherine the Great of Russia is known today for her whim and caprice. Maggie Thatcher, England's first female PM, was renowned for adopting alpha male characteristics, including bellicosity and asserting that she was the boss. But it’s worth noting that, from the tiny fraction of female leaders of powerful nations in human history, two (Elizabeth I and Angela Merkel) were among the greatest in human history, and both within the last four centuries. Their greatness derived from the special biological evolutionary characteristics of females: emphasizing cooperation, compromise and equal treatment of citizens.

Evolution has given females the role of feeding, raising and defending the kids after alpha (male) apes returned from their grandiose campaigns wounded, sick or not at all. Being physically smaller and weaker than males, females have evolved to favor cooperation over individual power and the conflict that it breeds.

Cooperation—not the urge to dominate—is by far our species’ most valuable evolutionary advantage. It alone is why we humans dominate our small planet. Our much-vaunted individual brains and opposable thumbs are not what let us fly in the air and into space, for none of us could do that individually. What lets us fly is our ability to organize teams of thousands to work together. Only teams like that can design an airplane or rocket, let alone run an airline or space mission.

The value of female characteristics in governance is clear in the recent dis-election of Donald Trump. Were it not for the so-called “gender gap,” Trump would have won. We Americans would be well on our way to losing our democracy. We would also be suffering the most erratic, incompetent, hare-brained and disastrous regime of any developed nation in postwar history. And the great democracy that the rest of the world still regards with hope for leadership would now be in steep decline, at “Warp Speed” compared to ancient Rome’s.

Sure, a lot of groups and factors can claim agency in that recent escape from imminent disaster. Among them are our Black leaders and voters, especially Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. But the largest group—and the one with the clearest biological evolutionary qualifications—is women.

So women’s steady march to leadership is not just a matter of equality and “justice.” It could be a matter of human survival.

Every one of our species’ three existential threats requires cooperation, not conflict, to avert. In every one, alpha-male egos (“testosterone”) are an impediment, if not a poison. All three challenges require cooperation and suppressing—not coddling—individual dominance, jealousy and enmity for the sake of the common good.

These are female traits, not just in common parlance and understanding, but in our species’ biological evolution. On our understanding of these truths, the future of our species may depend.

Elon Musk—yet another erratic alpha-male paradigm—wants us to secure our collective survival with a colony on Mars. But that colony itself won’t survive if it leaves behind a blasted, polluted, warring planet beset by ever-evolving plagues. To avoid that sad fate, we need more women not just voting, but leading. Elizabeth I and Angela Merkel, though sadly rare to date, are fine examples to follow.

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