A well-worn cliche in strength training and bodybuilding circles is the Alpha Male: the dominant leader of the group.
Alpha stems from the theory of the pack-leading Alpha Wolf, which was famously observed by animal researchers studying pack wolf behavior.
Over the years the term has been used to describe many positive characteristics of masculinity — being bold, confident, and protective — but also more negative traits — being violent, brutal, and domineering. more negative traits, like violent, brutal, and domineering. So it’s possible that the way a person uses the term “alpha,” especially in mainstream circles, offers insight into their underlying opinion of men, manhood, and masculinity.
Alpha really jumped the shark in recent years when it was appropriated by marketers, douchebag pick-up artists, and even politicians as a flippant way to excuse destructive, selfish, and just shitty behavior that no father would ever want exhibited by their son.
Not surprisingly there are now full-throated debates about “taking back alpha.”
Return to what alpha was “meant” to describe: a confident, capable pack leader who fought his way to the top, and used his overwhelming strength to protect not just his position but also the weakest of the pack.
Seems like a worthy endeavor.
Except… that, too, is still based on bullshit.
David Mech, one of the original lupine researchers who helped popularize the alpha concept in his 1968 book, The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, has largely distanced himself from the research that gave rise to the concept.
When Mech and his team first observed alpha wolf behavior they were studying wolves in captivity, where they didn’t have to hunt for food or fight rival packs for territory. They were merely broken prisoners, waiting to be fed.
But when future studies shifted to observing wolves in the wild, alpha behavior was NOT evident.
This has led to Mech’s dramatic change in position:
We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.”
So, according to the guy behind the Alpha male concept, a term that’s been used to describe the leader of the pack, the most capable, even the most ferocious and aggressive really just means… a parent?
However, there’s a cool silver lining that offers a wonderful example of real integrity.
Mech’s original book sold well. Presumably, it made him good money and helped establish his career. In fact, 50 years later it STILL sells. The only thing is… Mech doesn’t want it to sell. He’s made numerous pleas to the publisher to STOP publishing it. Much of his current work is about debunking the theory and distancing himself from it.
So a researcher writes a very popular book, but then, as more research comes out, he realizes it’s wrong.
Rather than ignore or bury the new, better information, he admits the errors and limitation of the original research and publicly renounces his own work, distancing himself from the very theory that made him relatively rich and famous.
Think of all the similar stories like this, where there’s some truism or bit of info circulating that, it turns out, is actually based on total crap, a study that may have been flawed, or one that’s since been disproven. If we’re honest, we know that a lot of researchers won’t actually adapt or change their stance. There are plenty of PhDs who are still, at the end of the day, hucksters. But this is the opposite of that. This is what research and the development of science and knowledge should be all about.
If that kind of integrity isn’t “alpha,” then what is?