Alphas, Betas, and Human Beings

Alphas, Betas, and Human Beings


Brainstorming session.

Our line split with the chimps’ line about five million years ago and the chimpanzee and bonobo line halfway between then and now. To infer some simple three-way split on any behavioural vector over that sort of timeframe is crazy, we all could have played one another’s parts a thousand times over by now, but it looks today, within my paradigm, antisocialization theory, that we split by winning some sort of a war, by finding a way to rule the drying world and the savanna and thus relegating the cousins that became the chimpanzees to the shrinking rain forests. We split, we changed, and we became dominant, took over the world.

Now the general, hippy-dippy environment that produced antisocialization theory would like to see a continuum, that we got meaner and split from the root-stock, and if that’s a repeatable biological function, that today’s chimps perhaps also split from the rootstock by getting meaner, and the rootstock maybe resembles the bonobos, that is to say, only as mean as an animal needs to be who isn’t at war with its own, tough enough for nature but not apparently genocidal and specicidal like homo sapiens. If there were anything else to support this sort of a trend, then we might see the chimpanzees as a few steps down our road to antisocialization and wars.

As it stands, these are just tempting just-so stories.

I’ll elaborate, and build an edifice on these shifting sands, of course, because I’m trying to make thinking this way possible, trying to create a different paradigm. New ideas need a lot of preparation, decades of groundwork. Trivers has said that his first big theory and book was well purchased and even well read, but not understood. I think it took a long tome – oops, long time – to change the field, because it took a long time for people to understand it (was it “Social Theory?”). A long tome and then a long time, ha.

If anyone’s following my latest purges, you’ll see that I struggle; I think I have a brilliant new insight, and I write it down, irresponsibly publish, and then realize I’m using all the wrong words, or at least a few critical ones. Case in point, just lately I’m excited about this flash I’ve had about alphas and “betas” – and that “beta” word is probably the opposite of what I’m looking for, the Beta is like the Prime Minister if the Alpha is the king, right? I wasn’t looking for the second most successful randomly violent and oppressive male in the troop, I was going for the opposite of an alpha, not an alpha wannabe – I need to be saying “non-alpha” or “affiliative males” or something, right? I’m sorry. It’s the basic alpha meme still working in me – friggin’ genius figures out the alpha’s an asshole, but he’s pretty sure the asshole’s lieutenants are all right still, and so, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. No.

That wasn’t the idea.

The point was to say that a better definition of altruism is mostly non-alpha group members cooperating in such a way as to manage, limit and control the destructive power of the alphas, that the benefits are for the group.

Still in just-so storyboarding mode, my first attempts to flesh this out will follow my heart and postulate that altruism is not a group function, not only a non-alpha strategy against one’s own alphas but rather a status or class function that seems able to work across groups, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, or as with the global goals of political movements, rather than an inter-group competitive one, which inter-group competitive strategies I’ll postulate as alpha methods.

Back to our cousins. First, I got questions.

One, it’s clear that the bonobos have a hierarchy, isn’t it? Bonobos got alphas? I mean, my just-so story here says, “no, they don’t,” or at least they’re not the be-all, end-all of their social structure like they are with the baboons.

LOL – apparently the female alpha bonobo is the big Kahuna!

Two, same for chimpanzees, I guess, they got alphas? I know their aggression is portrayed as a result of male bonding and spare time, very much a group hunting party, but where is the alpha in that? Again, that’s inter-group stuff, the raiding parties and it’s what’s brought out in discussions of primate aggression, but I need to research, find out for sure if Sapolsky’s baboons’ champagne fountain of stress is observable among all the versions of chimpanzee as well – meaning not just humans and baboons. Well, having accidentally put it that way, I guess that’s my answer, so I’m just gonna push ahead.

Along that same just-so vector, bonobos as some degree of mean and dangerous, chimpanzees as more so and humans as the most, or the worst, this probably correlated to an increase in the relative power of the alpha within groups of these apes – whups, starting to sound a little Nazi, like it’s a good thing, leader worship insures world domination – nope, that’s not it. Alpha rule insures harsh nature. Alpha rule exists today among all sorts of creatures that cannot read or write or think not to eat their last bit of food the minute they’re hungry.

Alpha rule is well documented by Sapolsky, again, a champagne fountain of cortisol would seem to be the structure of baboon life. I think it’s a mistake to assume that structure is associated with increased cranial capacity, though. We’re fairly sure that it was something about the inter-group conflict that did that, I think mostly, the daunting task of gleaning friend from foe. Social hierarchy among primates would seem to be more foundational than the giant human brainpan – random alpha violence and all.

(Oh no, new disruptive thought: alpha-ism increases with human dominance of other creatures, providing our own predator audit on the old and sick, the weak links, when external predation is successfully controlled? Never mind! Later.)

This is a thought I would rather avoid, but that’s not a voice to follow if you’re lucky enough to notice it, so, what about this – altruism developed as a cooperative strategy among the non-alphas, eventually evolving to civilization and law, morality, religion, all the nice things in modern human life – art? Sure, why not? LOL. Unfortunately, despite all the great things the non-alpha’s strategy has produced, success in the original venture isn’t one of them. Law has not replaced the alpha or the primate social hierarchy. The truth may be somewhere on a spectrum between that the best examples of humanity’s highest moral achievement show that the non-alphas and their altruism are making inroads and on the other hand that this non-alpha strategy simply can also provide a terrifying level of organization for the alpha’s violence.

That’s an awful thought and it means it’s a very high stakes contest.

Perhaps, with this little bit of apparent success, now it is time to step it up and get conscious about it, if we knew what the goal of being good was, which we didn’t, we might have a chance at more progress. The current, Trivers’ defined version of biological altruism, that’s the opposite of the altruism we need in this shrinking world, altruism just for your existing social group, that is not morality, that is a recipe for war. In conversations about morality, altruism is much bigger, more global – and this idea, that it’s a hedge against alpha-ism, well.

That might be closer to the right order of magnitude. That might work. This is one we need to stop going to our archetypal “leaders” for, and start to think in terms of reigning those guys in instead.

. . . continued, probably, still thinking.


Dec. 5th., 2017


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