Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Natural Born Alpha

The question whether or not some guys are "natural born alpha", while others are genetically condemned to lifelong betatude has popped up on this and other blogs repeatedly.

You might have read about Genghis Khan's alpha genes spread all over his previous empire. Or about the 2D:4D digit ratio and how it indicates the relationship between testosterone and sexual/life success - all links between biology and alpha male-ishness, or not?
So is it true? Are you born into alpha status (or not)?
And who's to blame? Should we look at our (assumed) biological Dads to find out whether they inherited their alpha gene(s) or not?

Well, personality genetics is a very young field. So far there is no much to grasp onto. The simple idea of one gene - one behavioral (trait) simply doesn't hold for most of the things we are interested in (but: see below), and our techniques to derive inherited behavior from multiple genes interacting are far from mature. Concerning the question in how far genes control our behavior we are still much in the dark (which conveniently leaves lots of room for speculation).

But, there are a few results that give a glimpse of insight of what might be actually going on.

Your Dad doesn't count
That's just simple Mendelian genetics: Many traits are "hidden" and "jump" across an entire generation.
Human (males) are successful in reproduction by using either the "beta" K-strategy or an "alpha" r-strategy, so you can safely assume that at least some of your forefathers were not the husbands, but some sneaky alpha banging himself into your family.
As a direct result, your genes must be a good mix of beta- and alpha genes (waiting for the appropriate circumstances to unfold one or the other way).

Genes easily determine whole Personality styles
I am talking about the Serotonin Receptor Polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in particular. A DNA polymorphism means that there are two different versions of this gene among us. In other words, you either have one variant of this gene or the other (or a mixture of the two - one from each parent).
And with more than 300 studies so far, this mutation might be the best studied association of behavioral phenotypes with a (single) DNA polymorphism, and thereby the biggest success of personality genetics (so far): Although not entirely conclusive, most studies point to a direct relation between one form of the allele and anxiety-related traits such as pessimism, harm avoidance, neuroticism, post-traumatic stress disorder and (to some degree) even depression and suicide.
The avid read of this blog will notice that all of these (temperament) traits relate to men on the lower end of the social latter. This single gene seems to explain much of what we deem "beta": being stressed out, having no balls, being overly afraid and pessimistic (let alone being depressed) are certainly not attributes of an alpha male.

Genes alone don't make an alpha
As exciting as the above might seem to anyone defending a biologistic position in the "naturally born alpha" debate, there is at least one study giving great counter-evidence:
Rhesus macaques turn out to pass on a similar polymorphism in their naturally occuring poplations. And as you might have guessed, it makes a big difference for their social interactions (see also this post on the topic).
Yet, when monkeys were observed who got reared without their mothers - a common situation in zoos and breeding facilities - (some of) the genetic influence waned. It seems as if the environmental factor of being reared without a mother was potent enough to override the genetic fate of these individuals.

So, what can we take from all that?

Clearly, there is evidence for powerful genetic influences on your social behavior. It seems likely that evolutionarily preserved genetic programs are at work when we sort out our social rank. Yet, the influence is just what it is: an influence, a bias - far from actual determinism. It means that under identical circumstances one man's genes will turn him into a pussy magnet while another man's genes will prevent him from getting laid. Yet, one of us grows up under identical circumstances. Some of us might be naturally biased to be less fearful and pessimistic than others. But it might not take much to turn a man like that into an anxiety-ridden suicide candidate.

It is possible that the ultimate determination of social status occurs during childhood. Your peers and experiences during this time of "playful" social interaction likely forms your social (conflict) strategy in later years. If "fight" worked best for you, you might continue to sport aggression during the male-male interactions that form our lives. But if "flight" was your best choice in the sandbox, it might remain this way way into your adulthood.

Yet, social status is relative. And thereby adaptive.

If surrounded by cowardly men who tend to avoid confrontation by submission, a man who learned to "flight" growing up in a rough neighborhood might change his strategy. Likewise, a die-hard thug might stop taking on other guys when going to a high security prison.

Whether or not a "fake-it-till-you-make-it" strategy works might be a question on its own (although I have little doubt personally that it does), but the scientific evidence clearly goes against fatalistic attitude:

If you deem yourself alpha - be aware that this could be subject to change
And if you pity yourself for being beta or omega - taking action to change that situation will be the first alpha step in your life.


  1. my childhood was one where my size necessitated the flight strategy, eventually i put myself through the fire and starting fighting, and my beta days grew less and less frequent...i find the joy of having grown into the change far better than those who simply grew up alpha...they know no other way, they know only how it has always been, thus their appreciation for it is lower.

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  2. With reference to the last link,"taking action."
    In the comment thread 11Minutes asked me:
    "Where do you get stuck exactly?
    The moment you turn your conversation/relationship with them into a certain direction?"

    The answer is;the moment things turn.That is,I have great inhibitions in "turning" things.Become a fumbling idiot.Let me give you a recent example.A neighbor of mine (married) came over one day to drop something off.she had on a bathing-suit and a beach cover-up.Coyly,she invited me to go along with her to the local pool.I know that if I had made a pass at her right then and there it would have led to something.(she's been flirting with me for a while now).But I was too inhibited to do anything.What if things turn disastrous,I ask myself,then what?So nothing ever happens.I could give countless similar examples.I suspect its fairly common.

  3. @me again, again:

    You can think of a situation as you described as one giant shit test.

    Most giant-testicled bad boys (not saying you aren't one of them) would be aggressively going for the close. No matter what.

    Leave the worries up to the woman. The correct 'tude is:
    "A man's job is to step on the gas. A woman's job is to push the brakes." or the infamous "Let the 'ho say no" (assuming you are truly okay with banging a married woman; this is something you have to find out for yourself).

    Male improvement is mostly about changing what motivates your behavior.

    Most men I know do (or don't do) things based on FEAR:
    Fear of failing, fear of being punished, fear of embarrassment, fear of rejection etc. The list goes on and on and on.

    The key to success is to do (or not to do) things based on JOY:
    You don't want: say no. You want: go for it.

    Of course, you cannot just do whatever you want in life. This is why we have the fear-based restrictions in the first place.

    But, it doesn't take much to figure out which fear is rational and which is not (i.e. the fear of losing your job if you stop working is something to take serious, the fear of being rejected by a woman is not rational).

    A good way of learning to be more assertive with women is to learn how to be more assertive in life in general (there is a lot online about "assertiveness training"). It also helps to try pushing limits with women you are not attracted to first. The glass wall of taking it a step further becomes more and more transparent once you broke through a couple of times.

    1. I would think a 'Natural Born Alpha' from a biological standpoint would be 47,XYY.

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