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  1. Politics
15 May 2000

It’s not just monkey business

Alpha man preens and postures and goes in for aggressive behaviour in his quest to stay on top. Soun

By Margaret Cook

The 20th century has spawned a disproportionate number of megalomaniac tyrants: Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Marcos, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, to name but a few of the most notorious. We tend to think of these figures as aberrations. I remember being told that Adolf Hitler’s behaviour derived from a syndrome so rare – paraphrenia fantastica – that he was the only person known to have suffered from it.

The condition isn’t uncommon at all, though the people I’ve mentioned represent extreme versions of it, and so I’ll give it a new name – the alpha male syndrome.

We find the original alpha male in nature, among chimps. Within the relatively small communities in which these animals live in the wild, there is a male leader who dominates the group. He achieves his top position gradually over a number of years, by competing successively with all those who are above him in the “pecking order”.

He begins with the female echelons, seldom fighting, but showing off and acting the lout until they back off. When one chimp is unequivocally king, peace may reign after a period of unrest; but he expects deference from all the members of the community, with grooming on demand, exclusive mating rights (especially with the most attractive females), first choice of nesting sites and the best food available. He is the smartest, the sexiest, the biggest, the most aggressive. This is the true alpha male.

He is a familiar type among humans, too; and though his worst excesses are found in the absolute monarchies or military dictatorships of ancient history, we risk allowing something of the same to happen today, even while we fool ourselves into thinking that we live in democratic countries. For our inherited behaviour patterns prompt us all to defer to great power; just like our ancestors and the chimpanzees.

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No doubt, this tactful, self-effacing abasement at one time conferred the wisdom to save our skins rather than heroically challenge a stronger rival. Unfortunately, in a modern context, it allows a dangerously powerful man to go unchecked.

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The person who most clearly understood this deeply ingrained response, and who ruthlessly exploited it, was Hitler. His ideology of the supremacy of the German race and the graded inferiority of all others was vicious and ugly; but his ideas were attractive to a people who had suffered humiliation in the First World War, and had been destabilised economically following the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Hitler had a thorough grasp of the indolence of the minds of most people, who would much rather follow a strong leader who promises them everything than get up and do the job themselves. He worked on the theme of national identity, and held his people in thrall with the promise of restoring past greatness. Hitler’s National Socialist Party showed strength and magnificence in public displays of colourful uniforms, military marches, martial music, banners and slogans – all of which were the exact equivalent of aggressive animal displays, used to gain ascendancy.

Hitler used violence on the streets to overcome other parties and, having gained the position of supreme power, he extended the conflict to Europe and beyond. A profoundly flawed and aberrant personality, his power-lust was a throwback to a pre-human era.

Yet even modern and moderate leaders, once in power, transform into a more primitive form of life. Thus, the electorate in a democratic country is well aware that high-minded promises made in opposition, or in the run-up to a general election, seldom materialise. Moreover, the alpha male who is in power will, even in democracies, find excuses for a display of military might: Vladimir Putin in Chechnya, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in Iraq and Bosnia, John Major in the Gulf, Jack Kennedy in Cuba and Vietnam.

Western political systems are based on personal confrontation, the lifeblood of ambitious males from time immemorial. Indeed, the entire process – from the early selection procedure to leadership elections – is a series of competitions; the advent of television and the press has meant that alpha male display has had to take on a far more sophisticated form. The trumpery show of the US presidential elections is a glaring example of this. So is the myth of the Kennedy dynasty, which lives on, fuelled by memories of the youthful charisma of the central figure, JFK, with his elegant wife and lovely children – even though he was a philanderer of pathological proportions, propelled to power by a forceful, wealthy, unprincipled father with extensive criminal connections, who was living out his own thwarted ambitions through his sons.

Kennedy’s astounding sexual appetite is not unusual in the narcissistic male leader (indeed, in the ancient emperors, a gargantuan libido was taken for granted) and finds a parallel across the world in China, where Mao Zedong enjoyed a stream of country maidens, well into his old age.

If we want to stop the alpha male taking over our political arena, we must automatically disqualify from selection anyone who shows those trademark characteristics – greed, vanity and the overwhelming desire to get to number one position, at no matter whose expense. And to stop the ordinary male, once in power, evolving into an alpha sort, we should limit to one person’s authority, in time, space and application.

We need to break out of our primitive patterns and devise methods of governing that are less destructive. If only we can overcome our genes with our brains and our acquired moral sense, in order to create a world of local, self-regulating, interacting, non-competitive, non-jingoistic communities. An achievable nirvana?

Margaret Cook, the author of A Slight and Delicate Creature (Orion), is now working on a book about human behaviour