Andrew over at Evolvify has a post up on The Pick-Up Artists' Alpha-Male Narrative Myth. He doesn't like when people use an evolutionary just-so story to justify modern behavior, particularly pick-up artists:
Here’s where I do object: The hackneyed use of evolutionary psychology and pop-paleoanthropology to craft narratives of our evolutionary past, then use them to justify behaviors or strategies. Among PUAs, this is commonly manifested in a narrative that goes something like: “Humans evolved emotional responses that influence attraction in the paleolithic. During this period of human evolution, we lived in tribes. Because of the protective advantages, resource advantages, and social advantages of tribal leaders, women evolved an attraction to tribal leaders, a.k.a. alpha-males. Therefore, men should act like alpha males to attract women.”
Thankfully, I don't appear to have run afoul of this problem in my posts on masculinity:
Side Note: Lately, John Durant of hunter-gatherer.com has been writing about sorta similar things in the context of masculinity. While John’s recent posts have reminded me of my intent to write about this subject, I haven’t seen him construct this narrative. So… unless I missed something, the timing of this post is mostly a coincidence.
Andrew then points out that hunter-gatherer tribes tend not to be hierarchical (his emphasis):
There is no good reason to believe that humans evolved in hierarchical tribes between tens of thousands to two million years ago. To the contrary, there is a mountain of evidence showing that humans evolved in largely egalitarian bands that punished attempts of dominance with social sanctioning, banishment, and death (Boehm 1999). Yes, that’s basically saying that alpha males got offed by their social group — not exactly a benefit to reproduction.
And then he points to intelligence and humor being traits that may have been better strategies.
So here are my thoughts back to Andrew.
First, as I've written before On (Sexual) Inequality, hunter-gatherers weren't egalitarian when it came to Darwinian success:
Keep in mind that based on various genetic analyses, we now know that about 40% of past men left behind modern descendants, whereas 80% of past women have [see statistical note below]. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have been egalitarian in many respects, but when it came to reproductive success, they were anything but egalitarian.
It is a fact that a wider group of women and a much smaller group of men dominated the human gene pool. The men at the top of that sexual hierarchy are, by definition, alpha males. If you don't want to call that a hierarchy, then fine -- but that doesn't change the fact that there is quite a bit of inequality in the historical reproductive outcomes of men.
Second, whatever strategies those alpha males did to successfully reproduce, are, by definition, dominance strategies.
The following are all dominance strategies: height, intelligence, humor, athletic prowess, health, kindness, creativity, wealth, status, violence, deception, honesty, and more.
The word "dominance" sounds violent, but violence isn't the only way to dominate other people, which is a mistake that a lot of critics of masculinity (or game) make. They reduce "alpha" to a series of chest-beating exercises, which is absurd. In fact, if you actually read any of these game blogs, none of them that I've ever seen recommend that a good way to achieve dominance is by getting into a fight with a rival male. They tend to emphasize things like good story-telling, confidence, and body language.
Let's be clear: intelligence is a dominance strategy. It is a way to dominate people. Intelligent people find ways to get other people to do what they want. Same with humor. Just because these aren't violent doesn't mean they aren't about social dominance.
Third, even using a stereotypical view of "alpha dominance" (violence), it seems like violence was a sound reproductive strategy in a typical hunter-gatherer tribe.
Hunter-gatherer tribes tended to be quite violent. See Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Regardless of whether there was an explicit dominance hierarchy within the tribe, there sure as hell was a lot of violence, particularly inter-tribal violence. So even if there was no Big Man in an internally-egalitarian tribe, being violent could have been selected for as a sexually desirable trait due to warring with other tribes.
Additionally, hunter-gatherer men are quite violent towards animals. It's called hunting. There's tons of evidence that the greatest warriors and hunters got more girlfriends. Needless to say, inter-personal violence will get you thrown in jail today.
Fourth, sexual selection can happen very quickly, and the hierarchical agricultural era may have left its mark on us.
When behaviors are closely related to sexual reproduction, evolution happens fast. Therefore, I wouldn't be surprised if the agricultural era left its imprint on human sexuality more than on human diet. See Khan, Ghengis.
Overall, I agree with Andrew's caution towards just-so stories. However, dominance and inequality are deeply-rooted parts of human nature, particularly male human nature, even if hunter-gatherer tribes appeared egalitarian.
Alpha males existed. They were not "offed by their social group". And in fact, we are disproportionately descended from them -- and the women who had sex with them.
Statistical Note: As I've done more research, the fact is that women were twice as likely to have left descendants than men. So it could have been that 70% of women and 35% of men left modern descendants, not necessarily 80% and 40%. Here is the highly-technical original paper: Genetic Evidence for Unequal Effective Population Sizes of Human Females and Males.