A meander through dominance, gender norms, and mastery
I recently waded into the archaic but fierce debate about alpha males, with a tweet that pointed out that true alpha males are actually peacemakers, not brutes or tyrants. What I didn’t say there is that, to the extent that the concept of alpha male is useful at all, humans don’t have alpha males (or females) like other species do.
Framing female confidence and autonomy in terms of what is absent feels like a tremendous loss to me. It is often taken for granted that relationships between the sexes are, always have been, and always will be antagonistic. This needn’t be the case.
That said, we are different, men and women. I have considered our differences at some length, especially with regard to the ways that men and women compete (see Competition part I, Competition part II, and my invited journal article on the topic). The games that women play are often less explicit and less public than the ones that men play, but that doesn’t render them any less serious.
Many social organisms have simple linear dominance hierarchieswhich are differentiated by sex, but humans do not. Our social groups are too large, the rules of our interactions too varied by culture and time and circumstance. Those rules are sometimes explicit; more often—in both sexes—they are implicit, unspoken. And what rules there are tend to be pushed against by the young, and by others who reject tradition in hopes of a different future.
I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s, where and when much of what American culture had to say about gender norms was changing rapidly. But there was still ample evidence of earlier, more restrictive times. Even as a child, I pushed mightily against the traditional gender norms that persisted. And I was lucky to have parents who didn’t mind. My mother enjoyed having me in fancy dresses far more than I enjoyed being in them, but she quickly abandoned any thoughts of me wanting to play with dolls or have tea parties. And my father, who before I came along assumed that throwing the ball around and building fences and doing math would be something to do with a son, was thrilled, so far as I could tell, to be doing those things with a daughter. Were my parents ahead of their time? To some degree, yes. But they were also riding the wave of modernity, embracing the freedoms of the moment. They saw that their daughter had both interest in and aptitude for traditionally male dominated activities, and why on earth would they put a stop to that?
Now we are moving backwards, embracing restrictive gender norms and using them as evidence that people are the sex that they are not. I am a woman, and a biologist, and I know, because of the latter, that we are part of a lineage that has had two and only two sexes for at least 500 million years (and it may be more like two billion years). I also know—again, as a biologist, specifically as an evolutionary biologist—that what we call “gender” in humans is what we call “sex role” in other species; that some other species do things very differently (pregnancy in male seahorses, anyone?), but this does not comprise evidence that humans can do the same; that no mammal can change sex; and that what makes you male or female, at the fundamental level, has nothing to do with how you feel, or what you look like, or your levels or ratios of sex hormones, or your chromosomes. Rather, what makes you male or female is your gametes—your sex cells. I see the sophists and their grade-school-level philosophy coming already, but here it is, again:
Females are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for rare developmental or genetic anomalies, produce eggs. Eggs are large, sessile gametes.
Males are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for rare developmental or genetic anomalies, produce small, mobile gametes. In animals, that’s sperm; in plants, it’s pollen.
Very occasionally, people feel so at odds with the sex that they are that it is important to them to present to the world as the opposite sex. Most of what is passing for “trans” now, however, is not that. It is a confusion, a muddle, a betrayal of reality and of reason and of humanity and of the very individuals who are being encouraged in their beliefs. It is the opposite of empowering.
I was a girl who liked to play ball and build things and do math, and I grew up to be a woman, because that’s what girls do. I insist on the reality of the binary nature of sex, and the inability of humans, as mammals, to change our sex. And I reject high-tech solutions like puberty blockers as solutions to “problems” that, for most people, are not persistent problems at all, but explorations in a journey of discovering who they are. Discovering yourself as you go through adolescence, seeking new ways to be, rejecting who you have thought yourself to be in the past, this is all normal and human. People both ancient and modern have gone through this—our long and winding childhoods are much of what make us human. What we are doing now is entrenching a confusion: "ah, I believe this right now, and I am certain that I will believe this forever, and so I will employ technological fixes in order to fix this moment, this belief, in place, as the forever mode."
It won’t work, though. It almost never works.
The complexity of human childhood is matched by the complexity of human social structure. All of that was a long-winded way of circling back to dominance hierarchies and whether humans have alpha males.
We don’t have alpha males (or alpha females) in the way that other primates do, or in the way that wolves, or elephants, or dolphins do. Even those other highly social, long-lived creatures, with their long childhoods and generational overlap, three generations often living together and learning from one another, are far simpler than us.
The groups that humans live in are so much larger, and the number of things that we do orders of magnitude vaster, that simple linear hierarchies can’t drive or organize our social systems. We don’t merely inhabit niches; we create new ones everywhere we go. Other organisms—like the beavers that I wrote about last week—modify their environments in ways that transform whole landscapes. But they always do so in more or less the same way. Humans are unique in having moved into new landscapes, and new kinds of landscapes, over and over again, and having invented new ways to solve problems in every domain.
In a small band of thirty or forty people, there may well be a leader, and we might call him—or very rarely her—the alpha. He is the boss when it comes to making decisions that affect the whole group. But even in that relatively simple scenario, he is not the most dominant in every domain. In fact, in such a group, if the group is to be maximally successful, we expect every individual to be best at something or somethings, and to have breadth, too, being very good (but not absolutely the best) at many other things that someone else in the group is master of.
If I am the best fire starter, and rope maker, and finder of salmon streams, and you are the best finder of kindling, and knot tyer, and fisher of salmon, which of us is alpha? We are both necessary. We are both dominant in some domains, and not in others, but both of our skills are necessary to do the emergent things that need doing.
This is one of the modern human predicaments. All of us should be and can be dominant in some domain, even if that domain is very small. Even if, with billions of human beings, aspiring to be the best may be far-fetched. Comparing your skills and behaviors not to others, but to your own self, is the route to mastery. And mastery of skills and self is ultimately what human dominance is about.
For more about how humans master our environments, while also being at considerable risk from the very hyper-novelty that we have ourselves created, consider A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century.
That is: if individuals A, B, C, D are all of the same sex, it would be possible to rank them in terms of dominance in a single line: A > B > C > D. Many other kinds of dominance hierarchies exist, however, and humans do exhibit several of those, under various conditions.
See the chapter on Childhood in A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, but also, if you want to wade into the anthropological evidence and literature, check out The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, by David F. Lancey, 3rd edition out last year.
I'm almost seventy, and my whole life has been one of embracing roles and then abandoning them for others that became a better fit. I thank my Lord that I was born before surgical and hormonal interventions existed to make the embracing of roles permanent, or at least not completely reversible. The human body is somewhat plastic and the human mind seems infinitely so. Locking oneself into ANY role seems to be tragic at worst, and a waste of time that could be better used elsewise at best.
It's interesting to wonder how much of this relies on pop science and the simplification of evolution. I've made several comments in your comment section showing my disdain for pop science before.
It reminds me of such ideas as "women be shopping" because of genetics, as women were the gatherers in nomadic tribes, so of course women would like to gather materialistic items as it was instilled within them via evolution! It seems so simplistic and really seems like a non sequitur in my opinion.
The same seems to happen here with the idea of alpha male, or heck even with people like Liver King and his central tenets, but that all works out if you obfuscate the fact that our ancestors didn't have access to pharmaceutical-grade anabolic steroids (at least as far as I am aware. I'll be on the lookout for cave paintings depicting bodybuilder competitions and anthropologists discovering tanning oil).
It's very easy to take bits of science and either co-opt it or bastardize it to make it palatable for the lay person, and there's a ton of damage in doing that, as can be seen with the gender ideology stuff.
I do find it rather interesting that gender ideology has itself regressed, once arguing that gender was not inherent to one's behavior or hobbies. But apparently now one's gender is justified by those same mechanisms.
But as cultures change so too do the lifestyles and behaviors of those in it, such as the man/woman paradigm, and I think part of the gender ideology survives on the fact that gender is now argued to be a "social construct" because that makes gender ephemeral, and thus the ideology can now sustain itself because of its ever changing definitions.
I think that's part of what James Lindsay's intent was in the Oxford Union debate, taking the side that "woke has not gone far enough" in order to make the argument that within wokeness is imbedded the belief that wokeness can never go far enough, and thus becomes a self-sustaining ideology: