Eric Trump recently suggested that when his father, Donald Trump, bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without consent, it was an example of “two alpha guys in a thing.”
In addition to shedding some light on how Trump’s son views his father and manhood, it’s also interesting because “alpha males” aren’t actually a thing.
As the writer Saladin Ahmed pointed out, the concept of an “alpha male” wolves that assert dominance over their pack through aggression comes from a debunked model of lupine social groups.
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) October 12, 2016
David Mech introduced the idea of the alpha to describe behavior observed in captive animals. Alphas, he wrote in his 1970 book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” win control of their packs in violent fights with other males.
But, as he outlined in a 1999 paper, he’s since rejected that idea in light of research into the behavior of wolves in the wild.
In nature, Mech writes, wolves split off from their packs when they mature, and seek out opposite-sex companions with whom to form new packs. The male and female co-dominate the new pack for a much simpler, more peaceful reason: They’re the parents of all the pups.
Mech writes on his website (with the lovely title Wolf News and Info) that his original book is “currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it.”
Another Twitter user, Mike Westphal, pointed out another paper on the misuse of the phrase “alpha males” to describe breeding roosters.
— Mike Westphal (@mfwestphal) October 12, 2016
In the 2003 book “Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals,” the biologist Marlene Zuk points out that social groups of hens do have “pecking orders.” That is, hierarchies among the females with dominance asserted through pecking.
But roosters are not part of those social groups, Zuk writes, and the idea that the top hen is somehow an “alpha male” bizarrely misgenders the dominant bird.
All of which is to say: Humans who enjoy the idea of “alpha males” might want to keep in mind that there isn’t really any such thing. And to the extent the term has any meaning at all, it describes the behavior of captive, lonely creatures.