It goes without saying that the world is in really bad way right now. As I write this, nations all around the globe are struggling to contain a global pandemic that has already claimed over 100,000 lives, infected more than 1.6 million people, and left millions more financially devastated. In addition to this, entire countries are locked down as shelter in place restrictions attempt to slow the spread of a virus that is overwhelming healthcare systems and has already significantly altered the course of human history.
Covid-19 is everywhere. It’s on our televisions and radios; in our newspapers and magazines. It’s on the tips of our tongues when we talk to our friends and family, and in the back of our minds with just about every decision we make.
Right now the world appears to be stuck in this morbid state of doom and gloom. We’re afraid. And we should be. We’re living through a fucking scary time with no clear ending in sight. We don’t know how long shelter in place restrictions will be needed, if our jobs are safe, or even when we’ll be able to see our loved ones again. But we do know that while each of us is trying their best to get through this pandemic, we’re collectively at risk of being overcome by the gravity of our situation if all we do is consume negativity.
So rather than talk directly about how Covid-19 has reshaped our lives, I want to talk about the relationship between the pandemic we’re living through and a long-misconstrued societal belief whose etymology is derived from wolves instead.
About a year ago, I was visiting my Mum interstate. As we often do when I go home to see her, we were sitting around her kitchen drinking coffee and talking; catching up about all the little things that never seem to come up in conversation when we’re on the phone. I have no idea why, but for some reason our conversation on this particular day turned to the subject of masculinity; and in true Chris Nicholas fashion, my over confidence was on full display. As someone in his thirties who has experienced death, battles with mental health and masochistic behaviour, financial ruin, failed relationships, and family illness, I considered myself to be a man. I have taken a few big hits in life, and although I’ve been knocked down more times than I can count, I have always found a way to stand back up and face whatever life threw at me next.
But as Mum and I waxed philosophical about what it meant to be a man, she told me that she never really considered me to be a stereotypical alpha-male. The comment was supposed to be a compliment; and part of me took it that way. As a society, we often perceive an alpha character as a dominant individual with greater access to power, money, and respect. These people are often abrasive, intimidating, and sit at the top of a social status hierarchy.
When compared to these criteria, I wasn’t, am still am not an alpha-male. I like to keep fit, but am by no means the most powerful person I know. I’m prepared to fight for what I believe in, but I’ll never initiate conflict or be perceived as intimidating. And I have a couple of bucks in my back pocket, but I’m not exactly rolling around in piles of cash making frivolous investments without a care in the world. And yet, despite not meeting any of the criteria that society needed to consider me an alpha, Mum’s well-intentioned comment rankled me. Because if I wasn’t an alpha, then what was I?
So, I started researching what it truly meant to be an alpha.
The term alpha as society now knows it was first coined in during the 1940s by Rudolph Schenkel of the University of Basel in Switzerland as he studied a pack of grey wolves held captive in a zoo. During his study Schenkel observed as the wolves competed for status within their own sex, until over time, the pack established a clearly defined alpha pair, documenting his findings and sharing them with the world. Then almost thirty years later, the American scientist L. David Mech penned a book called The Wolf which built upon Schenkel’s findings and helped to popularise the concept of alpha and beta wolves within the pack.
Throughout their respective papers, both researchers noted pack dynamics that used competition to define rank. The duo used the phrase alpha to identify the wolves who used domineering, violence, and aggression to become the clear leader of a pack. The savage imagery that these papers presented was hugely appealing to popular culture, particularly in mediums such as film where an alpha could be defined as a win at all cost protagonist who would burn down an entire village just to serve his own selfish ends.
And so, thanks in part to these two studies (and a myriad of similar research papers), society began to use term alpha wolf as a term of endearment to define those members of our society that climbed the social, financial, or political hierarchy at any cost. Thanks to stylised film and television, it became cool to be seen as a badass who didn’t give a shit, and who used animalistic dominance to achieve their goals. Because these characteristics were typically given to male roles within movies, the phrase was adapted, and the alpha wolf became the alpha male. He was the asshole you hated for his ruthlessness, but admired for his success.
But it turns out that the studies used to define the hierarchy of man were flawed. The wolves in the two researcher’s studies weren’t in their natural environment while under observation. They were captives forced to coexist in a foreign climate that stunted their natural instinct. And so, operating in a high-stress situation, they turned on each other and used violence to determine their pack structure.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, researchers began to question the findings of Schenkel and Mech, tracking grey wolves in the wild to test their hypotheses. Until this point scientists had believed that independent and unrelated grey wolves formed packs each winter out of necessity. They thought that wolves lived in close proximity, and banded together during winter to increase their chances of survival, using dominance and violence to establish their pack’s structure.
But through this process of tracking the movements of packs, researchers learned that a pack isn’t a group of individuals drawn together by circumstance, it is a nuclear family of wolves that consists of two parents, and their children. The alpha of a pack is not the most violent, or aggressive. The alpha is simply a paternal figure who co-parents his offspring with his mate.
In his natural habitat, the alpha, like so many great father figures in our own species, treats his family with love, generosity and kindness. He’s notorious for playful roughhousing with his pups, and is even known to pay special attention to the upbringing of the runt of a litter. That doesn’t mean that the alpha is all warm and fuzzy though; wolves are still incredibly dangerous apex predators. And the alpha will ferociously protect his pack against a threat when he needs to. But, as renowned wolf researcher Richard McIntyre says:
The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf is a quiet confidence; quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what’s best for your pack. You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that.
Which means that not only did researchers like Schenkel and Mech get it wrong when they assumed that being an alpha meant being domineering (a viewpoint that Mech later recanted). But it also means that society has it wrong when we assume an alpha to be intimidating or powerful; or even that their purpose in life is to serve themselves. Those are the characteristics of an asshole. An alpha is calm, level headed, knows what is best for their pack, and isn’t afraid to put the need of others above their own. They show sensitivity and love to those they care for, and are willing to do violence only when necessary.
Perhaps if my mum were to compare me against these criteria, rather than the misguided version of an alpha popular culture has led us to believe in, her opinion about whether I am a stereotypical alpha-male might have been different.
You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do Covid-19…
And you’d be right for doing so. The truth is, the concept of being an alpha has as much to do with Covid-19 as you allow it to.
As I said at the top of this post, the world is a very scary place right now. We’re surrounded by a perpetual feeling of doom and gloom. We’re worried about our families, our livelihood, and our future. But through all this uncertainty, we as individuals have been afforded with the opportunity to do something great. And that greatness is to be calm, to lead by example, and to be who your loved ones need you to be during a difficult time.
The last thing this world needs right now is the version of an alpha that society has been misled to believe is true. We already have an overabundance of assholes who put their needs before everyone else’s even without the added stresses of a global pandemic. Instead, the world needs more true alphas; leaders within family and friendship units who recognise that we’re living in uncertain times, who understand what their pack needs, and who have the self-assuredness and confidence to support and nurture the people they care about.
Whether that support is making your partner a cup of tea, turning off the television to play with your kids, or just phoning to check in on your friend or relative who may be struggling, every little moment of kindness matters in a time like this.
Years from now future generations are going to learn about the Covid-19 pandemic in schools. They’re going to learn about the lives lost, countries locked down, and the stories of human compassion that kept us all together. When that time comes, imagine how rewarding it would be to tell them that during one of the defining moments of our generation, you had what it took to be a true alpha, and that you made a difference in the lives of those you cared about. That rather than being a domineering asshole who thought the world revolved around you, you showed kindness and generosity even when others around you may not have. That you kept people safe, made sure that they were loved, and played your small part in a global effort to overcome adversity.
I know that it may not seem like it right now, but eventually this pandemic will pass, and our lives will return to some semblance of normality. It’s just going to take some time. Until then, stay home, stay safe, support your loved ones, and be a wolf.
189 thoughts on “Alpha”
I am thanking you for reading and leaving a comment on my blog. I am enjoying reading your blog. Your posts are interesting and are great reads. I will be back for more!
This is good, still applicable today!! #bethewolf
Great writing, it seems to follow the recent thought that a true Alpha male is quite rare ~ where a pseudo alpha male, AKA a barking and aggressive “dog” are quite common and often is hiding weaknesses behind all the posturing that prevent great or true leadership. Enjoy this post.
I had kept this on my email to read later. Without question, this whole pandemic has consumed us. The virus used to scare me. I am at peace with it now. After 6 months of being in a state of disaster, more than ever, I detest the government that is filled with Schenkel alpha people who have abused their positions in government and seem determined to keep democracy out, instead bleeding taxpayers dry. But, we are in Africa, right? Are the politicians just being the true alphas but only to their own families in their natural habitats and we, the people, are merely the other wildlife inhabitants? The corruption, the stealing of the bulk of the R500billion supposed for the benefit of the people during Covid, has not “looked after” the pack of the asshole alphas for generations to come.
I am with you, Chris. In addition to being the true alphas within our families, we need the true alphas to head countries across the world. I just don’t know if it’s possible.
Unrelated to your post, I just want to thank you for your support. I truly and greatly appreciate everyone’s support but because I admire your writing, and you/your mind (based on the content/ideas here on your blog), so that small gesture of you liking my insignificant blog post (which is huge for me) encourages me to keep trying to write. Thank you very much! I appreciate you.
Just got around to reading this, really appreciate the message. Perhaps it extends by being a leader in your community, a leading resource on the web, a provider at home, a man that listens. Very well written and timely for everyone, male and female, as we’re all human beings locked into a crazy age that may go on for a while.
We live in an age of madness including toxic masculinity.
There are many men out there who believe that what makes a man is to be “alpha” male.
People’s perception of alpha male as a violent, controlling, aggressive, dominant person is admired by many men.
Yet, a TRULY confident man has a quiet confidence and doesn’t have to prove anything with aggressive shenanigans.
The insecure man is cocky and uses his aggression to make himself feel masculine.
What makes a real man is positive character traits such as humility, compassion, strength, and empathy. Unfortunately, some women are more attracted to the so-called alpha male.
interesting thought especially in times like these
I appreciate this post on so many levels Chris. I’m always happy to see toxic and limiting notions of masculinity debunked, and I love wolves and am happy to see the widely promulgated myths about them debunked too. But, more than that, I’ve been struggling a little. I’m unemployed because of the pandemic and living in a state with terrible leadership that’s led to high infection rates all around. I’m pretty good at keeping my head up, but man, it’s hard after a while. So, it was helpful to read this, especially the last part. I can, and will, be a wolf for my family and myself. Thank you.
I love this piece
Toxic masculinity is something that needs to be unlearned for mostly cis-men in order to coexist with others in a healthy manner. Unlearning will depend on if the ego can be moved aside. Good read.
Well written! I enjoyed reading this. It’s applicable to many societies. Unfortunately, there’s pressure on men to be this domineering asshole.
Great Post! Covid-19 has definitely revealed the Alpha in me in a lot of the ways that you laid out. It is funny too because when I think about Alpha’s and masculinity, the stereotypical ass hole man is exactly that a stereotypical ass hole. True masculine Alpha’s to me are men who pioneered what being a man meant to them, and left an example for others to follow. I think this is such an important message especially because of the times that we are living in. Men being men does not have to mean being rude or toxic, but the alternative to that is not being meek and weak either. Love this post looking forward to the next!
I so appreciate this insightful post and am happy that it was thrown in my path at this time. A couple of months ago, during a conversation with a dear soul brother of mine, he referred to me as an alpha. My initial take on that would have been to perceive his comment pretty much as you describe above- dominant and aggressive, but he continued on and said- “you’re a leader. And a teacher. It’s just who you ARE.” It resonated with me and I’ve pocketed it for inspiration ever since. As a nurturing, protective type of person, I will not deny the fire that burns within me when I see injustices occurring. Especially when it happens to those who are unable or ill equipped to defend themselves, a dormant aggression in my being springs to life- threatening to overtake any and all (including myself and my own will) in its path. This was a side of myself that I once felt a tremendous amount of fear and shame about, but with training I was shown a new way to interpret my “beasts within” and that is as super powers. And like ANY super power, they become weapons of negativity only if the holder of the powers has no control over them. I believe each of us has an alpha within and our journey here involves using each of our superpowers in a way that supports one another in uncovering it.
Your post illustrates how important it is to unpack our own cultural references and language. We often discover at much different history than we would expect. I highly recommend “A History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund, who plays with the imagery of wolves in a haunting coming of age tale. It’s marvelous writing, and it is another perspective on what we mean by “alpha” in a morally ambiguous universe. -D.O.
Wow. As a person who considers the wolf as her spirit animal, I am grateful to have had the chance to read your article. I admire how you can bring two different topics together and make it work. The interconnections between one’s intrapersonal relationship with the self and interpersonal connections with others inspires me to reflect on my duty and integrity as a wolf. Thank you, Nicholas!
Thank you for your encouragement. Yes, the COVID Pandemic is scary! I am glad they came out with a vaccine even though, for many people, it’ll take a while to get it. Still, it’s a step forward.
I’ve spent several summers at Yellowstone watching and photographing wolves, talking with Rick McIntyre and others, and I appreciate what you have to say about alpha wolves. Thanks for cutting through the cultural stereotype of what it means to be an alpha! And thanks for visiting my “giblets & flapdoodle” site.
I love it…. you put everything together very well. It makes me want to become more of Alpha
You have an amazing site and awesome good content wow I wish I could be that good one day
Very interesting read! Alphas don’t need to make sure everyone “knows” they’re confident and powerful. They just are. Once their dominance becomes tied to the way others perceive them, the power dynamic has flipped. I enjoyed this.
Joe Biden is an alpha, Trump is an jackass. Humans always try to stereotype themselves and each other (even Mum’s…😃 ) My husband is a very nice Beta Owl who is successful but insecure. There is an place for all of us in this crazy world. That was an excellently written post so, bravo! I like to think I am the ‘baby bunny’ that my husband refers to but really I am Donnie Darko…
I finally got to come back and read this. I believe it suits my son well. Ready to bend over backwards to be with and take care of family but woe to the one that causes problems. He’s quiet most times, but he has his father’s temper when roused. I found this to be a very well presented and thought out write. I’m glad I finally was able to read it all.
People rarely remember when using the term “alpha” to humans that the alpha wolf takes the most vulnerable spot in the pack. The alpha wolf protects the pack and that is why he has to have that aggression – he has to be the fittest. The alpha wolf leads and a leader is not the same as somebody who is willing to trampled on everyone and everything that gets on the way. Nice post, btw.
How reassuring to read a post by someone with great writing skills and the power to project positivity into our uncertain world right now.
In retirement due to chronic ill health, I find my cognitive function and eyesight too poor to read many paragraphs, but this blog post was sheer pleasure. I haven’t read either of your books, but I imagine them to be storytelling at it’s best.
Um… I think you must of pressed the wrong button…as it showed you were following my site…
But then you remedied that…
Well written, I like your thoughts on kindness and leadership.
I appreciate this clarification of alpha. True alpha, as you shared, sits better with my own way of being. And yes how healthy it would be if history talks about the kinder side of humanity when the story of covid is told.
I’m glad I decided to read your blog today. Masculinity is a tough topic to cover because of it’s nebulous definition. I find a sweet irony in watching the most brutish, emotionally immature men, celebrate their inadequacies. Gullible, naïve, and susceptible to manipulation, these men puff their chests and empty their wallets to believe they are in control. Hucksters like Andrew Tate hook them in with their hubris and validate all of their toxic notions of masculinity. The whole concept of an “alpha male” is nothing more than a marketing ploy to target insecurities and milk the teat of marginalized men. Oh… it’s too much to process at times. I’m glad that people like you exist to remind us that masculinity is a nurturing trait. Thank you for dismantling this myopic perspective.
I love the thoughtfulness with which you re-defined our modern definition of “alpha” by simply getting to the root of the research and where it originated. This type of critical, “first principles” thinking is something we(as a collective society) can benefit from. Thanks for writing and researching!