Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Humans as suppressed pack animals

A wolf pack averages about seven or eight members, though they can go up to twenty, including two alphas (most people think it's just one). Alphas are, most scientists believe, born that way, or at least with a propensity to become alphas. To be sure, if the pack lacks an alpha, someone will step into the role, and if there's two with a propensity, one will probably back down; alphahood isn't an all-or-nothing thing, it has gradations. But evolution does seem to have built wolves with a tendency to make about one out of every five to ten pups have a predilection to become an alpha, because that's what works best for wolves -- forms the strongest, most cohesive packs, therefore the packs most likely to take prey and avoid predators and survive to have more pups.

Many mammals have similar structures and similar corresponding tendencies, though the numbers vary as does the intensity of the tendency towards pack structures. Most primates have some sort of social pack-like structure and many of them are, as much as wolves, dominated by alphas.

Anthropologists generally agree that humans share this tendency at a fundamental level. Many aspects of human social behavior are attributed in part to the effects of a natural tendency towards pack formation, hierarchical structures, and similar social behavior. But humans are noted for their large forebrains which possess the capability, to some extent (just how much is widely disputed), of overriding such tendencies. Overriding them does not always produce happy, well-adjusted humans, though.

We have thousands of years of civilization pushing us, more and more, into patterns of living and behavior which go against some of those innate tendencies, often leading to maladjusted, unhappy people and antisocial behavior. You sometimes see a bit of atavistic throwback behavior, though. Watch a football team huddle and tell me you can't see them in loincloths gathered around a fire banging spears in preparation to go drive off the other tribe from their hunting grounds so they can hunt gazelles.

One of the things where we're farthest from our social-animal roots is the more that it's wrong to have alphas. Most of us are expected, in our work and personal lives both, to be strong, confident, decisive. Not to take any guff from anyone. To get out there and to go boldly. We're supposed to act like we're all alphas. And at the same time, to be conciliatory, cooperative, deferential, and non-presumptuous, to respect everyone else's rights to self-determination to an almost pathological level, as if none of us is an alpha.

But millions of years of biology have hardwired us. The simple fact is, most of us are not alphas. Most of us, in some secret part, crave having a decisive, strong alpha somewhere to submit to, freeing us from all the societal pressure to be something we're not built to be. Most of us never express this feeling out loud, and many never even realize it in themselves, never name it. This is one source of the modern existential angst that leaves so many feeling a vague but unshakeable dissatisfaction with life.

And the alphas amongst us don't have it any better. Society is just as quick to call them bossy, pushy, presumptuous, and arrogant, and demand they be conciliatory. Though a disproportionate number are drawn by alpha charisma to positions of authority, many of them cannot because of the vagaries of workplace and politics, and chafe in an unsuited role of compliance and conformity. And they find themselves thronged by non-alphas who find them compelling (pun intended) without, in many cases, knowing why, longing for their strength and company and yet in most cases bent by societal pressures away from accepting either.

The fact is, we're built with this proportion of alphas to non-alphas for good reasons. We'd all be happier if we acknowledged this facet of our natures, and while we might not want to let it rule our lives, we should probably take it into account at least somewhat, rather than structuring our entire society willfully ignorant of it.


litlfrog said...

I've never seen evidence to suggest that alphaness is inborn; I always assumed that being an alpha was the outcome of a struggle rather than something mostly inherent. If it's a largely inborn quality, I have a difficult time imagining how to openly acknowledge alphaness in modern society. The qualities that I see as most valuable are not best expressed by whoever got the best genes for defending a primate tribe.

HawthornThistleberry said...

Though I do believe it's very likely there is a genetic element to alphahood, that isn't really necessary for this argument. In fact, it's not necessary that it be fixed early in life, or indeed at all. All that is necessary is that it be something that does not change quickly. If you are, right now, more dominant, or more submissive, or nearer the middle, or whatever you are, you've been that way for a while and will not likely change very easily, quickly, or drastically. That's all that's needed, and I think most psychology theory will agree with that.

Once you have that, considering how society is structured, it therefore follows that there will be times, probably many, when life demands of you that you behave in contradiction to this internal, and in my view fundamental, aspect of personality. I argue that this aspect is fundamental by comparison with other animals in which it is more clearly so, and following the general principle that humans are not nearly as removed from our biology, from our mammalian and primate heritage, and from our hardwired survival instincts, as we tend to think we are, not by a long, long way.

I don't suggest that we should start doing Myers-Briggs testing and then using it to engage in eugenic selective breeding programs! Merely that we'd all be a lot better adjusted if we made a few changes in social attitudes. We shouldn't denigrate the vast majority that are not leaders, calling them "weak-willed", promulgating an entire culture which depicts being part of the tribe as being sad and miserable, a "cog in the machine". There's nothing wrong with wanting to cede authority and go along, as long as its done by consent and through acceptance of one's true nature. We also shouldn't denigrate the minority who are strong-willed and decisive by calling them bossy or pushy, or assuming they invariably act out of selfishness, greed, or egotism to the detriment of those around them.

In a way, it's a civil rights thing. Used to be we forced men and women into fixed roles based on gender: men will be oppressive patriarchal breadwinners, women will be soft weak home-keepers. When we rebelled against that, we went through a larval stage where for a time we embraced the equally-oppressive opposite: women must never be home-keepers, they are required to go out and conquer the world. Then we realized that what was wrong wasn't the roles men and women were in; it's that they were forced into them, whether they fit them or not. The right thing is to let everyone choose for themselves. If a woman wants to run a megacorp, let her. If a man wants to bake brownies, let him. If a woman wants to bake brownies, let her.

Used to be that the evils of oppression, slavery, tyranny, and subjugation were rampant and nearly everyone was forced either to be an oppressor or an oppressed, a dominant or one forced to submit to a dominant. When we rebelled against that, we went into a larval stage where we embrace the equally-oppressive opposite: that no one must ever be either dominant or submissive, that everyone is required to be always both-and-neither, that any stink of dominance and submission is a sign of selfishness and egotism on one side, of weakness and self-disgust on the other. This attitude is pernicious, like most societal mores; it expresses itself in a million subtle ways contributing to an indoctrination of forced equality-of-sameness, not the superior equality of diversity.

It's time we outgrew this larval stage and realized that it wasn't the dominant and submissive roles that were wrong, it's that people were forced into them, whether they fit them or not. The right thing is to let everyone choose for themselves. If someone wants to cede leadership, to go along and be part of the tribe, let him, and celebrate how that fits into the tapestry of the tribe. If someone wants to seize control and lead those who want to be led, let him, and celebrate it. And those who do both or neither, the same. So long as everyone does so by their own choice, made freely and informedly, with no harm being done to others by the choice, that is the freedom we need.

litlfrog said...

I don't particularly disagree with anything you say here; I just don't see generalized "dominance and submission" as terribly useful terms in describing human behavior.

HawthornThistleberry said...

David Brin wrote on a similar subject in his blog.