Andrew over at Evolvify has a post up on The Pick-Up Artists’ Alpha-Male Narrative Myth.  He doesn’t like when people use an evolutionary just-so story to justify modern behavior, particularly pick-up artists:

Here’s where I do object: The hackneyed use of evolutionary psychology and pop-paleoanthropology to craft narratives of our evolutionary past, then use them to justify behaviors or strategies. Among PUAs, this is commonly manifested in a narrative that goes something like: “Humans evolved emotional responses that influence attraction in the paleolithic. During this period of human evolution, we lived in tribes. Because of the protective advantages, resource advantages, and social advantages of tribal leaders, women evolved an attraction to tribal leaders, a.k.a. alpha-males. Therefore, men should act like alpha males to attract women.”

Thankfully, I don’t appear to have run afoul of this problem in my posts on masculinity:

Side Note: Lately, John Durant of has been writing about sorta similar things in the context of masculinity. While John’s recent posts have reminded me of my intent to write about this subject, I haven’t seen him construct this narrative. So… unless I missed something, the timing of this post is mostly a coincidence.

Andrew then points out that hunter-gatherer tribes tend not to be hierarchical (his emphasis):

There is no good reason to believe that humans evolved in hierarchical tribes between tens of thousands to two million years ago. To the contrary, there is a mountain of evidence showing that humans evolved in largely egalitarian bands that punished attempts of dominance with social sanctioning, banishment, and death (Boehm 1999).  Yes, that’s basically saying that alpha males got offed by their social group — not exactly a benefit to reproduction.

And then he points to intelligence and humor being traits that may have been better strategies.

So here are my thoughts back to Andrew.

First, as I’ve written before On (Sexual) Inequality, hunter-gatherers weren’t egalitarian when it came to Darwinian success:

Keep in mind that based on various genetic analyses, we now know that about 40% of past men left behind modern descendants, whereas 80% of past women have [see statistical note below].  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have been egalitarian in many respects, but when it came to reproductive success, they were anything but egalitarian.

It is a fact that a wider group of women and a much smaller group of men dominated the human gene pool.  The men at the top of that sexual hierarchy are, by definition, alpha males.  If you don’t want to call that a hierarchy, then fine — but that doesn’t change the fact that there is quite a bit of inequality in the historical reproductive outcomes of men.

Second, whatever strategies those alpha males did to successfully reproduce, are, by definition, dominance strategies.

The following are all dominance strategies: height, intelligence, humor, athletic prowess, health, kindness, creativity, wealth, status, violence, deception, honesty, and more.

The word “dominance” sounds violent, but violence isn’t the only way to dominate other people, which is a mistake that a lot of critics of masculinity (or game) make.  They reduce “alpha” to a series of chest-beating exercises, which is absurd.  In fact, if you actually read any of these game blogs, none of them that I’ve ever seen recommend that a good way to achieve dominance is by getting into a fight with a rival male.  They tend to emphasize things like good story-telling, confidence, and body language.

Let’s be clear: intelligence is a dominance strategy.  It is a way to dominate people.  Intelligent people find ways to get other people to do what they want.  Same with humor.  Just because these aren’t violent doesn’t mean they aren’t about social dominance.

Third, even using a stereotypical view of “alpha dominance” (violence), it seems like violence was a sound reproductive strategy in a typical hunter-gatherer tribe.

Hunter-gatherer tribes tended to be quite violent.  See Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Regardless of whether there was an explicit dominance hierarchy within the tribe, there sure as hell was a lot of violence, particularly inter-tribal violence.  So even if there was no Big Man in an internally-egalitarian tribe, being violent could have been selected for as a sexually desirable trait due to warring with other tribes.

Additionally, hunter-gatherer men are quite violent towards animals.  It’s called hunting.  There’s tons of evidence that the greatest warriors and hunters got more girlfriends.  Needless to say, inter-personal violence will get you thrown in jail today.

Fourth, sexual selection can happen very quickly, and the hierarchical agricultural era may have left its mark on us. 

When behaviors are closely related to sexual reproduction, evolution happens fast.  Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the agricultural era left its imprint on human sexuality more than on human diet.  See Khan, Ghengis.

Overall, I agree with Andrew’s caution towards just-so stories.  However, dominance and inequality are deeply-rooted parts of human nature, particularly male human nature, even if hunter-gatherer tribes appeared egalitarian.

Alpha males existed.  They were not “offed by their social group”.  And in fact, we are disproportionately descended from them — and the women who had sex with them.


Statistical Note: As I’ve done more research, the fact is that women were twice as likely to have left descendants than men.  So it could have been that 70% of women and 35% of men left modern descendants, not necessarily 80% and 40%.  Here is the highly-technical original paper: Genetic Evidence for Unequal Effective Population Sizes of Human Females and Males.

9 Responses to “The alpha-male narrative myth?”

  1. CPR says:

    The fact that some men left more descendants than others doesn’t mean they were dominant or "had more girlfriends." It simply means that in a multi-male/multi-female breeding species, like us, bonobos, and chimps, that some males’ sperm won out over others’ for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons could be read as some watered-down version of "dominance" (intercourse closer to ovulation, provoked more orgasms in women, simply had more sex), yet none of these implies an absence of essentially egalitarian social mores. You really should read the Boehm book referenced in your piece. A better understanding of sperm competition would also uncover aspects of this issue I think you’re missing.

  2. Charbear says:

    It seems that actually both of you are right: generally speaking, women prefer men that are aggressive to OUTSIDERS, but non-aggressive to their "own". So, to your point John, yes, men that were able to defend their own were granted the opportunity to mate. But, humans need to live cooperatively. So the man that was able to also properly serve his community was also rewarded. Of course, "cooperatively" 30,000 years ago and "cooperatively" today are prob 2 entirely different things (I don’t see paleoman calling his paleowifeyat Bed, Bath and Beyond and asking for the exact shade of their throw pillows so he can coordinate the new drapes).

    But this leads me to ask — what, exactly, IS "alpha"? It’s one of those very ethereal terms that people throw around but there’s no consensus for what it means. in fact, it seems that the same person can use "alpha" to mean 2 different things (I’m pointing to you, John, and the whole debate about "alpha" and Newt Gingrich ;-) !) I think that "alpha" has turned into the new F-word: able to be used as a positive; a negative; a verb; an adjective; etc. You write: "The following are all dominance strategies: height, intelligence, humor, athletic prowess, health, kindness, creativity, wealth, status, violence, deception, honesty, and more." With the exception of violence and deception, this just seems like a list of cool stuff (a list that, BTW, most are admirable in women as well!) I’m not trying to pick on you. This is a great opportunity to really define "alpha" and masculinity. Before any serious discussion can be made, the terms need to be defined.

    And finally, I get your defense of "game" — the gist of the method (like you say, good story-telling, confidence and body language) are fine (albeit kinda retarded that guys need to pay cash money to learn the obvious, but I digress). However, I’ve been to plenty of Game websites and even though they don’t advocate getting into fights with guys to show their dominance, they DO have a really strong tendency to devolve into some demeaning chest-thumping in regard to women (their liberal use of the word "whore" to pretty much describe any woman that has a.) slept with any man, and b.) slept with the bloggers; their liberal use of the word "bitch" to describe women). So understand that it IS a form of dominance, just not man-on-man dominance (there’s a gay porn reference in there).


    • Anonymous says:

       I would agree with that. Violence as a positive would mean domestic violence against women and children was also rewarded. Highly unlikely. Instead self control over fear would have been a better alpha trait, it would have made one a better hunter, better fighter and better lover.

      A man who can’t control his violent urges is a failure in hunter gatherer communities.
      Violence only becomes an alpha trait in agricultural societies where the soldier or warrior (person who fights other people), could be supported and rewarded by a king/chief/or priest.
  3. Nathan Matthews says:

     One factor was left out of the dominance "strategies": luck (i.e. random chance).  Going out on a hunt and being among the remaning guys that come back to camp has a bit of luck involved in it .

  4. Tuck says:

    By your aside concerning Genghis Kahn, I presume you’re referring to this:

    "Genghis Khan, the fearsome Mongolian warrior of the 13th century, may have done more than rule the largest empire in the world; according to a recently published genetic study, he may have helped populate it too.

    "An international group of geneticists studying Y-chromosome data have found that nearly 8 percent of the men living in the region of the former Mongol empire carry y-chromosomes that are nearly identical. That translates to 0.5 percent of the male population in the world, or roughly 16 million descendants living today. "

    Not very egalitarian…  And one should note that the Mongols weren’t really "agriculturalists", but were pastoralists.  Much closer to the HG model.

    • Big Marty says:

       Who’s to say that Y-chromosome came from Genghis Khan? Its only because he was the leader that people assume he was the Kasanova who left millions of descendents, so to use this assumption as an argument that leaders are reproductively successful is circular reasoning.


      For all we know that chromosome could have belonged to some omega runt who was riding all round him when Ghengis and the boys were out conquering some new lands. Newt Gingrich anyone??

      • Jean says:

        I didn’t go back to confirm, but IIRC – the study referenced was a GENETIC FINDING, not an extrapolation. 

        Meaning, the genes of our mild-mannered hero Genghis Khan were confirmed, and then samples taken from the population, and the genes compared.

        The conclusion was, Genghis Khan made a lot of babies. Had a LOT of wives. Likely did a lot of raping, too.  His seed got around.  :-)

        We can argue ethics of the METHODS all day and night, doesn’t mattter: Had sex. that IS, ultimately, THE sign of Alpha – reproduction. 

        (We’ll omit the obvious shortcomings of sex for recreation alone, using various birth control methods. Sure road to take Alpha qualities and make them worthless…  and actually, a logical extrapolation of such behavior, given the Roissy-memes of "alpha-cock carousel" to "Beta-Herb provider", we find that the human race has gotten too smart for its own good, and is, in fact, NOT breeding for Alpha-esque traits – but a slave/follower mentality, enforced by female hypergamy gone wild only to find she’s past her market expiration date – and takes whatever she can get so she isn’t "alone", or on her own, or as the cynical say, finds her bastard children and career and life aren’t what she wants to do by herself, so she finds a provider to torment for her bad decisions.  those who DO produce bastard children at least do pass along some Alpha qualities – but how many of the are TRUE alphas vs. actors? Given PUA teachings, who knows? I personlly think most men aren’t really interested in jsut racking up numbers – I’ve had only a handful of GFs, and yet found after the second, too much of it is mechanical, similar to one PUAs comment that he didn’t bother any more – too much like buying a soda from a vending machine: Insert coin X, get respnse B; Insert coin Y, get response C; Insert Coin Z, hit the button, walk home with whatever soda he wanted.  That means no actual intimacy – just sex. No humanity. Insecure environment for her, secure for him – always more fish – and likely no offsprign regardless. Induces neuroses in her, and I think doesn’t do him any real good, either.  But it’s been my experience with that second girlfriend, the meshing of body, mind, and spirit, CANNOT be overstated or overrated. For those that haven’t experienced it, I can’t tell you; probably as close to heaven as you can come. Even when you fight, you’re not fighting HER, and she isn’t fighting YOU. Methods rather than arguing goals.  Maybe I sound like a beta-herb myself for that, but – no one before or since had that sort of intimacy with me, even though I’ve known others longer, and done more with them – the arguments break down into man (me) wrong – even if it’s "what time is it."  That knowledge hurts even more than the other problems that developed. So KNOW YOURSELF, and if you just want numbers – don’t make it a secret! Seriously, Cassanova made no secret of his intents, or numbers, and he STILL has a place in the history books – and is not alone. Ben Franklin as well, Genghis Khan, Attilla the hun, Thomas Jefferson, just as examples. Pre-selection, long list of "satisfied customers", and women will TALK about your abilities – Mine do! Sometimes TOO MUCH.  :-P   I still have a small pool of GFs, and obviously would’ve preferred smaller still…    My point being, Alpha/beta/omega doesn’t matter without offspring, and the best relationship involves someone who KNOWS you; if you have to change, or hide parts of yourself, or "adjust" parts of your life, it is an act, and will eventually grind you down.  This isn’t the "Don Juan Forums" advocation of "Be the best YOU you can be," but rather the hiding of, or example, your politics (Say, conservative) to date/marry a "rabid liberal" type of girl. And Political discussions are now tabboo, becasue she has to WIN the argument, or you’re insulting, belittling, and controlling her – so you beta up and shut up….  My advice is to remember that immediate list, because that is WHAT SHE IS DOING TO YOU. Emasculating you, slowly, like training a dog to bark on command – and next step is "spouting the party line" or agreeing with her on command. And then it grows from politics, to foods you eat, to who does what chores, when and how…  Etc, etc, etc.  Next thing you know she’s pickign fights, cuckolding you for someone more "exciting", or serving you with papers – because you DID WHAT SHE WANTED.  WTF? 

        But I ramble, and the point was to indicate that intimacy trumps numbers, and you need to identify it.  and intimacy isn’t a euphemism or sex, either – quantity of sex can make for offspring, but won’t guarantee happy love life or life.  Quality with a (or more) woman, the intimacy of knowing each other in all three planes, THAT makes for a good life, and easy life together. And some of us are dumb enough to not know what we have until it’s gone.)

  5. JohnF says:

     Actually humans are very reproductively egalitarian compared to other species, the typical ratio between reproducing males and females are typically much more extreme. There’s also the argument that a lot of the inequality comes from the agricultural part of humanity’s history, because that’s the first time when huge power concentration became possible (and hence, monopolizing women). Not that I think that invalidates your argument, females of any species being non-hypergamous seems like a nigh mathematical impossibility.

  6. TerryM says:

    How about some citations for this astounding claims you’re making? You have cited one source and made some massive assumptions and interpretations about what that particular article found.

    Don’t expect anybody with a background in logic, philosophy or science to take any of this seriously.

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