Friday, November 1, 2013

The Only Gorilla in the Room

Being an alpha male is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Ask any alpha male gorilla or elephant seal, if you dare. It is very stressful. (Not that I speak from personal experience or anything.) The alpha male must constantly patrol his territory (which usually includes a harem) to drive away other males who are either sneaking in for amorous visits with females in the harem, or directly challenging his leadership. I have read that alpha male elephant seals lose about half of their weight during the breeding season under the midnight sun.

The alpha male never becomes a dictator, however, because he is constantly challenged by other males. Also, the social group as a whole benefits from a diminution of hostilities within the group. A group that has a greater amount of altruism within the group will therefore prevail over groups that have excessive internal strife. One group prevailing over another because of altruism? This sounds like “group selection,” which was a reviled concept when I was in graduate school. Recently, Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson (no relation), and Martin Nowak have re-introduced group selection to the scientific conversation, particularly as it relates to the evolution of altruism. I am still trying to understand how a group can become altruistic in the first place, but once it does, it will clearly prevail over other groups.

But what happens if there are no male challengers? Then the alpha male can do whatever he wants without fear of reprisal. And what if the group controlled by this alpha male rules the entire species? This would seem to be a formula for disaster. Of course, it never happens in nature.

But it appears to be happening in our species right now. The United States is the only world superpower, a fact of which we constantly remind the rest of the world. The United States can pretty much do as it likes in the world without fear of reprisal, though we could get ourselves into a lot of diplomatic and economic trouble if we took excessive measures. We are, as a country, the only gorilla in the room.

One example of this is the recent revelation that the United States has been spying on the leadership of many of our European allies. No, not just on suspected terrorists in Europe, but on leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany. While the member states of the EU each consider a continued Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. to be in their interests, the EU coalition leader has expressed hesitation (see the Deutsche Welle article). Even under the leadership of a president who has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States seems to be acting like the ultimate alpha male.

And nothing can stop us. If we insist on acting like an alpha male, we can bring the world down into chaos. I doubt that this will actually happen, but the evolutionary and other forces that prevented alpha male gorillas and alpha male Genghis Khans from dragging the world down into chaos appear to no longer be operating. We can express regret that our actions have unfortunate consequences (such as one of our drones killing a 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother picking okra) but it is only our choice, not a necessity, that will keep us from shattering what little international goodwill there now is in the world.

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