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Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American behavioral biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics[…]
Primatologist Frans de Waal inadvertently popularized the term “alpha male.” Now, he’s debunking common stereotypes to explain what an “alpha male” really is — empathetic and protective.
7 min

All social animals establish hierarchies, but being an “alpha male” is not merely about strength or intimidation, according to primatologist Frans de Waal. An alpha male often can be a figure admired for empathy and protectiveness. 

De Waal criticizes the misconception of the term as synonymous with “bully.” He further explores the concept of gender, arguing its flexibility and highlighting the existence of significant individual variability in behavior among primates. De Waal emphasizes empathy as a key factor in social cohesion, suggesting it might hint at morality among primates. 

Despite our advancements, he believes humans are fundamentally similar to primates emotionally and socially.

FRANS DE WAAL: All social animals have social hierarchies. If you put six puppies together, they will fight over who's the highest ranking. If you put six goslings together, if you put kids together in a daycare center, they will do the same thing. All young animals, they will try to establish their rank order. But usually the first position is the most important one and that's the one that they compete over.

People sometimes ask me, what does it take to be an alpha male? And they think the answer from a primatologist would be, what it takes is to be the strongest and the meanest and the most intimidating. But that's not really what an alpha male usually is. An alpha male is usually also admired. They protect the underdog, they break up fights, they have a high level of empathy. So, yeah, you may want to be an alpha male but if you're surrounding people don't see you as that, it's not going to happen.

I'm Frans de Waal. I'm a primatologist and a biologist and I'm the author of the book "Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist". I've been working with primates I think about 50 years. Mostly with chimpanzees, with bonobos but most of my work is on social behavior.

The term alpha male came originally from wolf research and I just referred, I think, to the highest ranking male wolf. But to apply the term as people do today, people, usually with an alpha male, they mean a bully. Someone who beats you over the head and lets you know every day that he's the boss. I'm partly responsible for that because I wrote this book Chimpanzee Politics and used the term alpha male quite frequently. And then the Republicans in Washington, they picked up on the book. It reached also the business community who started producing books of how to become the alpha male of the company and let everyone know that you're boss and stuff like that.

I feel very conflicted because the term alpha male for me is not a negative term. People always think the alpha male is a sort of personality. No, the alpha male is just a top male and he can be a very nice guy or he can be a very nasty guy. That is actually irrelevant, if he's at the top, he's the alpha male.

And I think people overestimate male dominance mainly because they think purely in physical terms but primate societies are political systems and physical power is only one part of the whole equation. People don't realize that the alpha male chimpanzees, for example, you have to have supporters, you cannot do that on your own. It means that a high-ranking female can have an enormous amount of power because if she can rally all the other females behind a certain male, she has all the power there. And then, in addition, you have bonobos who are very close to us too, equally close as the chimpanzee where the alpha individual is a female.

And most of these differences between the sexes are actually smaller than we think. We sort of, in our mind, we blow them up, but they're actually if you measure them, they're not so great. Robert Martin is an anthropologist who said that the difference between the sexes is a bimodal difference. What he means there is that the differences are statistical and that there's a lot of exceptions to them. For example, Donna is a chimpanzee that I've known since she was three, so very little. And already at that age, she was different from the rest. She was a female clearly, but she liked to wrestle. And when she grew older, when she became adolescent, she grew big shoulders, a lot of big hair, a big head. She started to look like a male. And she associated with the males, she hung out with them. So, that's one individual. And I've known quite a few individuals also among the males who don't exactly act like males or females who don't act like females. And so, individual variability is basically the material of evolution and that diversity I think that's the same sort of diversity that we see in human society.

Sex is biological sex defined by genitals, hormones, chromosomes. Gender is much more flexible, gender is more masculine, feminine and everything in between and is, of course, very much a cultural construct in the sense that social norms make how you have to behave as a male or how you have to behave as a female and those are the gender definitions and they change with time, they change with society. So, we have all that variability. And in the other primates, I've never seen that that's a problem. So, that's something where we could learn something from them is that they take an individual like Donna as she is, they're not making a big fuss about it because they're much less normative than we are and much less ideological, of course, than we are. And so, I've never seen that these individuals who deviate a little bit from the common patterns that they get into trouble over that.

Many people consider empathy as the core of human morality. You cannot have an interest in other people and wanting to help them if you don't have empathy for them. And so, empathy is the glue of our society and our moral systems would be basically impossible, I think, if we had no empathy. I'm not saying that chimps and bonobos are moral beings the way we are, but they clearly have that capacity of being interested in the state of somebody else. I think a leader needs to pay attention to the group dynamics, make sure that everyone has a voice in the group and that you, like alpha male chimpanzees, that you protect the underdog against potential violence or potential abuse.

I think humans are psychologically exactly like the apes, so socially and emotionally we are like apes. We are intellectually more developed. We have language, of course, we are technologically more developed. But many of the basics of our social relationships, both in terms of the hierarchies that we have, the friendships, the attachments, in all of these ways, we are very close to the primates. We're very similar to them. And so, certainly in that area, the apes can tell us something about us because there's basically no distinction.