Friday, May 10, 2024

The future of the alpha male

[This is a guest essay from my altered-ego D.L.'s blog, Lasken's Log ( originally posted on 5/10/21, featuring thoughts on Biden vs. Trump.]

Early Hollywood films often featured cute baby chimpanzees who mimicked human behavior with infantile gestures, grimaces and clownish antics.  But, although there are plenty of adult lions, elephants and giraffes in early movies, there are no adult chimps.  Adults were retired to "reserves" far out of the city.  Chimp handlers knew why, but the general public did not.  

That changed over recent decades as a series of horrifying attacks by adult chimps on humans were reported in the media.  Adults can weigh up to 200 pounds and are generally twice as strong as the average adult human male.  The attacks entailed faces and genitals torn off, hands amputated and other targeted attacks that appeared designed, not necessarily to kill, but to permanently debilitate the victim both physically and psychologically.  The victims typically were taken by  surprise.  Often the chimp had been raised by the victim from babyhood, or the victim might be a friend of the owner who knew the chimp well, or thought so.  The trigger for many of the attacks appeared to be jealousy, or a sense of betrayal.  One woman brought a birthday cake to a captive adult chimp (removed from her custody for dangerous behavior) in the company of two other chimps.  One was so jealous of the cake that he bit off the womans lips and nose and destroyed one eye.  A man who brought a toy to a chimp he knew lost his genitals when he tried to take back the toy.  It is now illegal to own a chimp as a pet.

While our society was learning about the nature of adult chimps in captivity, scientists were learning about chimps in the wild.  Search "chimp attacks in Africa" and you'll find beautifully shot narratives by producers like Discovery and Planet Earth-BBC Wildlife depicting a murderous species, often out to expand its territory.  In one program, a band of adult male chimps, led by its alpha male (the dominant male animal in a particular group- Webster) silently creeps through the forest, stalking a neighboring colony of chimps.  The alpha, who not only determines the group's behavior but defines its virtues, deficits and moral tone, brings the group to a halt as the "enemy" comes within earshot.  The males huddle together in intense, intimate concentration.  The group attacks and manages to capture a baby chimp from the neighboring group, which they kill by pulling off its limbs, after which they sit in a circle, gnawing on the limbs and sharing them with each other. 

More recently, the Netflix documentary "Chimp Empire," directed by James Reed, presented an intimate look at chimps interacting in which they appear surprisingly human. In fact chimps are our closest relatives.  Human DNA differs from chimps' by only 1%.  In contrast, human DNA differs from dogs' by 75%.  The difference between apes (like chimps) and monkeys (like capuchins) is 7%, meaning that we are closer to chimps than chimps are to monkeys.

Chimps pre-date us by about 5 million years, so we are likely spin-offs from them, appearing about 300,000 years ago. Maybe it was the chimps who drove us from the forest.

[Note: Our DNA is likewise only 1% different from the chimps' nearest relation, bonobos.  In the 70's and 80's, bonobos were touted as "flower-children chimps" because of their uninhibited displays of affection- including social conventions like handling each other's genitals or rubbing them together- and the lack of male combat.  The hippie association was dropped after researchers noticed that many males were missing thumbs, which had been bitten off by females in this matriarchal alternative to chimp patriarchy.]

As with humans, not all chimps are murderous.  A Discovery UK episode tells the story of two peaceable chimps, Hare and Ellington, who, though members of a large warlike group, spent their days together in tranquil strolls through the forest.  One day Ellington was beaten and mauled to death by members of the group.  Hare then wandered alone, depressed and distracted, finally finding his place taking care of baby chimps orphaned by his group.

Are we like chimps in behavior as well as DNA?  A study of human history suggests that we are.  Many anthropologists speculate that homicidal impulses in our ancestors explain the absence today of any other types of humans than our own.  There is fossil evidence that there were other types of humans, notably Neanderthals and Denisovans.  Genetic analysis indicates that we interbred with these humans, but we also witnessed their extinction.  There is no evidence that we intentionally eliminated them (an action we would now term "genocide"), but the question remains, where are they? 

We are proud of our hunting heritage, but unlike, say, lions, who after millions of years of hunting and eating impalas and giraffes have not caused the extinction of those animals, human prey tends to disappear.  There is plenty of evidence that needless killing of fauna and megafauna has recurred throughout human history.  A prehistoric example that is generally left unsaid in deference to a need to idealize early North American cultures (science writer Jared Diamond is one of the few to refuse the idealization) all large mammals on the North American continent- like giant ground sloths and wooly mammoths- disappeared shortly after the arrival of the first humans, 10,000-12,000 years ago. The later settling of the American West by Europeans provides further examples of animals slaughtered in numbers far exceeding people's need to eat them.  When Europeans arrived in North America, passenger pigeons comprised up to 40% of the bird population, their migrations filling the sky.  "Sportsmen" would fire straight up and revel when dozens of birds fell to the ground.  From an estimated 3 to 5 billion pigeons when the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Rock, their numbers fell in two hundred years to zero.  The American bison (commonly called the "buffalo") numbered around 30 million before Europeans came.  Horace Greeley wrote in 1860 that, "Often, the country for miles in all directions had seemed quite black with them."  The railroads sold tickets for bison killing excursions to New Englanders looking for adventure.  When herds of bison ran across the prairies near the tracks, rifles were issued to passengers so they could shoot them from train windows.  The train did not stop to recover the mounds of carcasses for any sort of use.  Today the bison is designated "near threatened."  "How the West was won" should be rephrased as, "How the West was cleared of lifeforms that suggested humans are not the dominant species."

Back to genocide- the modern term for humans intentionally killing (or attempting to kill) entire groups of other humans- we often treat it as a recent aberration stemming from Hitler (the term "genocide" was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer), but far from being unique to World War II, genocide- which continued after the war and is ongoing today- has occurred repeatedly since the dawn of humanity, starting, possibly, with the disappearance noted above of any other sorts of humans than us, the Denisovans going extinct about 80,000 years ago, the Neanderthals about 40,000.  

Moving forward, there is archaeological evidence that the Indo-Europeans (from whose language group almost all current European languages derive) committed genocide in the course of their expansions starting around 4,000 BC. 

Something genocidal appears to have struck ancient Britain, as there is genetic evidence of a 90% population turnover in the 3rd millennium BC.  This could help explain how genetic analysis of "Cheddar Man," a 10,000 year old skeleton found in Somerset, England, could suggest that he had "quite dark skin and blue eyes" (The power of archaeology and genetics, NewScientist Magazine, 5/29/21).  We've been wondering for a long time who built Stonehenge.  Surprise!

In historical times, both the Athenian city-state and the Roman Empire, to take two examples, achieved much of their stature through genocide.  The list of genocides after the Romans is long, covering all continents.

The quest for empire and hegemony- straight from the chimpanzee playbook- seems a prime factor in human genocide.  Since the advent of large civilizations around 3,000 BC, it's been one alpha male ambition after another, producing brutal, genocidal empires that are then toppled by the next empire-building alpha, which is toppled by the next.  It seems never to have occured to people that one might just live happily munching leaves, replacing glory and bloodlust with the simple pleasures of a satisfied existence, not unlike the lifestyle of another of our close ape relatives, gorillas (whose DNA differs from ours by 1.75%).  

In fact the idea of just existing is repulsive to many people; we call it "vegetative," as if we know what it's like to be a plant.  We think we are supposed to manage everything, maybe even dominate everything, as our choice of comic book "superheroes" shows.  

I see the tendency in myself, at least in my childhood taste in fictional heroes, such as those from the TV series Star Trek.  Was it the spectacle of Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise and cutting edge of the human race, landing on one planet after another, subduing its inhabitants, always winning?  Or First Officer Spock (half-human, half-alien, a hybrid alpha) who matched Kirk's ability to dominate the environment but went beyond it by also dominating his inner self?   Of course Kirk and Spock were depicted in each episode as gaining the moral high ground by adhering to Starfleet's "Prime Directive," that none of the ship's missions would interfere with indigenous cultures.  That's why it's called science fiction.

Returning to the real world, President Trump was lauded by his tribe as the mean alpha, jumping up and down, hooting and fulminating throughout his four years as the dominant male of America.  The other night, when people watched President Biden address the nation about his $1.9 trillion covid relief plan, there was widespread relief that Trump had been replaced by Hare, the gentle chimp who cares about children (of course Biden is a facade; the wheels of war turn as relentlessly under Biden as under Trump).

Where does the chimp and human animus come from?  What happened in the ancient forests of Africa, to us and to chimps?  As William Blake phrased the question (though addressing a tiger):

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Scientists are not asking that question, but they are tangentially finding out interesting things about alpha males, in particular that there is a correlation between alpha males and a high level of the "flight or fight" drug serotonin, produced in a cluster of cells in the human brainstem called the raphe nuclei.  When the raphe nuclei send a large dose of serotonin into the amygdala- a brain center that controls our emotional state- the amygdala directs us to become alphas and run the show.  Submissive mice have been transformed into alpha's after injections of serotonin, and alphas have been demoted when their serotonin is decreased.  

Interesting, but the question becomes, why did the ancient raphe nuclei feel the need to squirt so much serotonin into men's amygdalas?  We get a shitload, which is probably why we can't stand a sky full of pigeons.

There's not much evidence to explain what humanity's raphe nuclei have been so agitated about, so once again we must guess.  My guess is that we and our chimp cousins experienced non-belonging.  The forest had rejected us in some fundamental way.  We did not fit.  Chimpanzees reacted to this ostracism by terrorizing each other into a structured existence calibrated for survival.  Humans fought back by becoming even smarter and more resourceful.  Some of the response was practical, bringing development of improved hunting implements and use of fire.  Some was psychological, as when ancient Egyptians built giant pyramids to inflate the standing of the ruling alphas and humble the slaves.  Some was suicidal, as when, in our time, we learned how to blow up and poison the planet, threatening the alphas along with everyone else.  Perhaps we secretly hate the Earth and resent Creation for sending us here.  

Genesis tells the story metaphorically.  After Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the Earth was revealed as inhospitable, requiring people to build artificial environments lest they starve or freeze.  We're not the only creatures who have to do this: birds build nests; beavers build dams.  But humans need to reconstruct the whole forest, the whole world. 

There is growing understanding that our quest to reform the Earth under the guidance of the alpha male (and an enabling Eve) has gone awry.  As the dream of a compatible Earth flounders, we turn to space- with its endless planets full of monsters to defeat, hellscapes to terraform and indigenous cultures to leave in pristine condition- hoping the effort out there will go better than it has here.

The question this essay asks is, what is the future of the alpha male who has guided us to this point?  We are acquiring biological tools that will enable us to recreate ourselves.  Through CRISPR technology we will be able to assemble our DNA into any combination of characteristics we want.  If we envision a new way, one that seeks co-existence rather than dominion, we could, if we choose, phase out the alpha male and seek a softer, more cooperative humanity.

The fly in the ointment is that the people in charge of our re-creation will likely be alpha males (and alpha females, since we fluctuate now between chimp and bonobo) who are motivated to make vast fortunes and dominate the humans around them.  The chimps will be in charge, driven by their terror of not being in charge.

What can we do about this?  Cut off the supply of serotonin?  It's unclear.  Stay tuned for Part II of this post: How to ensure that the new humanity is not as homicidal and generally berzerk as the current one.

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