Friday, October 22, 2004

Alpha Male: Last Word

One of the best presentations at the Poptech conference this week, and you can understand my bias, was by Professor Frans de Waal, who studies the social intelligence of primates. He written many books about his studies, in particular is known for his book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (1982). He’s the C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University and the director of the Living Links Center for the advanced study of ape and human evolution at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

He talked about how the alpha male chimp tends to have one of two models of leadership, one being a bullying model and the other being a populist leader model.

He made a case for how a wannabe alpha male wanting to replace the head of the group will be very aggressive and fluff out his fur and run around lunging and attacking others to get “elected” so to speak. Once he’s in a position of leadership, he will either show this bully style where he simple puts down all challengers, or a more successful method, is to be the populist leader where, by helping weaker clan members – females and children – he builds a coalition who help him stay in power. It’s also very important for him to be allied with a former older Alpha Male. I wrote about this here, just off the top of my head, from things I’d witnessed in business, and it was fun to hear Professor de Waal confirm this – that savvy alpha males do just this in the wild, align themselves with an emeritus alpha.

As a populist leaders the alpha male does a lot less of the aggressive posturing and a lot more helping those who are weaker. The clan then holds him in a high position of leadership and works to keep others from usurping him. This is a lot easier way to stay on top than having to be the club-wielding tyrant.

His analogies with apes and politicians were at times pretty amusing, and almost totally dead on.

He talked about a lot of other great stuff, but I'd rather refer you to his many books. Check it out.