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Why the chaos of alpha male politics is bad for your health


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Living in a society dominated by alpha males and their perpetual fighting is not good for anyone’s wellbeing. If only we humans could be more like zebras, which apparently lead ulcer-free lives.

Anyone encountering a troop of baboons in Cape Town will understand how the alpha male uses threats and violence to control the rest. If you are a woman, even more so.

Alpha male baboons are complete arseholes who can sniff a female (of any species) a mile off, even when she is bluffing or conjuring fake testosterone to ward off a usually aggressive approach.

They are lads, louts and bruisers who create tension and violence wherever they go. Don’t try your woke vibes on these guys.

They maintain control through initiating endless fights over anything, no matter how trivial: food, females, a spot on a roof and sometimes just because they are in a kak mood.

Baboons are a huge issue in Cape Town’s Southern Peninsula, as troops displaced by human settlement compete in an attempt to survive.

The City of Cape Town has pledged to spend R20-million on baboon management. Matters have reached a crisis point with the outbreak of “baboon wars” as raiding troops of the primates are pitted against paintball human hunters.

Where the baboons go, trouble and chaos follow. That is their nature. We do not judge them for this.

In 2011, a 77-year-old Fish Hoek resident shot a baboon, claiming it had attacked his wife while nine others stormed their kitchen.

This is the consequence of one competitive species encountering another distant relative.

The uses of discord

Alpha males are this way because their dominance is not guaranteed and is constantly under threat from budding alpha male baboons with revving gonads.

Their leadership, if it can be termed that, depends on discord, constant intimidation, conflict, fights and bullying to maintain this position. It is the only thing on their mind.

Dr Robert Sapolsky, primatologist, neuroscientist and author of several popular books, spent 30 years observing the behaviour of a troop of savannah baboons in Kenya.

These were primates in an optimal environment in the Serengeti – they had plenty to eat, lots of room to roam and loads of leisure time. And still they fought and bickered all day.

Sapolsky’s research on the effect of stress on the body is captured in his highly readable Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Disease, and Coping. Published in 2004, it is now in its third edition.

Zebras, he found, experience a burst of stress and a release of related chemicals and hormones when chased by a predator. If they survive, they instantly forget about the incident and carry on grazing. No worries. Not so with baboons or chimpanzees – or humans.

We all live with a perpetual disturbance of homeostatic balance, the optimal level the body needs to function.

Our brain has evolved to seek this, but if we live in a society dominated by alpha males banging a drum and shaking a spear, it literally makes us sick and shortens our lives.

Chimpanzees murder one another with tools they fashion. Our closest relatives provoke organised violence, but as Sapolsky has noted, “no chimp has killed another chimp over ideology”.

It is about the basics – territory, dominance and brute force.

Pills and thrills

A Rolling Stone investigation published this week revealed that Potus 45’s White House was awash with drugs, including cocaine, speed and Xanax.

Americans who find themselves perpetually in a state of fear and primed for war – with other nations, with drugs, with fellow citizens or any imagined enemy – are health train wrecks.

Journalists Noah Shachtman and Asawin Suebsaeng were quoting a report by an inspector general in the Department of Defence about the White House medical unit, which dished out stimulants and sedatives to staff to cope with Donald Trump’s chaos.

German novelist Norman Ohler, in Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, has written about the promiscuous use of drugs including Pervitin, pure methamphetamine, at the highest levels of Nazi leadership. The drug was also given to the cannon fodder in the tanks and trenches.

The mighty German Wehrmacht were fed these “courage pills” to embark on their famous Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) in the early years of World War 2.

With Trump, a classic alpha male, back on the Republican presidential ticket and behaving like an apex primate, Americans are in for a prolonged attack on their nervous systems should he win a second term.

Elevated levels of cortisol, released perpetually and not in a short burst like the zebra is able to do, are deeply damaging to the mind and body. High blood pressure, ulcers and heart disease are all caused by the gnawing anxiety, worry and stress that modern human beings have to contend with.

And the astonishing news is that testosterone, which has been blamed for all the world’s evils, is not the problem. The hormone is only triggered by an emotion. Otherwise it lies there pretty harmless.

But there are corrections in nature, one is pleased to report.

Sapolsky’s “forest troop”, which he observed from the late 1970s to 1986, lost all its most aggressive males after an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis in that last year.

On his return 10 years later, he found that the troop seemed more socially coherent, that its members groomed one another more and, although the dominance hierarchy remained, higher-ranking baboons did not vent their anger on subordinates.

“The most remarkable observation, however, was that the troop had apparently maintained the peace despite a complete turnover in the male population,” wrote Kim Krieger writing for

Normally aggressive male adolescent baboons leave their native troop and slowly work into a new one, but the forest troop had somehow managed to assimilate these newcomers without losing its peaceful culture.

Scientists suspect the culture was changed by female baboons and their “friendly attitude” towards newcomer males.

Says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia: “Sapolsky’s research seems to show that the female baboons have ‘seen the light’ and realised that life is better with peaceful males.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Excellently and sagely crafted Marianne.

  • John Patson says:

    There is also the well known cattle, horse or sheep herd rule of four. It goes that in every herd there is one leader, one bully (usually the number two in the hierarchy), one victim of the bully and one friend who stands up to the bully and stops them going too far.
    Disturb the pattern too much and you risk having the bullied animal lose interest in life.
    Works with both single sex and mixed herds too — a bull in the herd is not always the leader.

  • Random Comment says:

    Imagine if DM had to publish an article, written by a male, about female politicians, e.g. HRC, Jacinda Ahern & Kamala Harris, which used a herd of cows or a pack of hyenas as an analogy to illustrate the points being made?

    Would that be considered acceptable?

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    Absolute nonsense, there is no such thing as a human alpha male. You are perpetuating a toxic myth, but thanks for comparing us to baboons.
    “The concept of the Alpha Male is a myth that has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research. A common misconception about alpha males is that they’re always dominant and aggressive, exhibiting machismo and bullying tendencies. However, real alpha males are gentle yet strong; respectful yet assertive.” “Anthropologist Tim White said that alpha males likely ruled the common ape ancestor humans shared with chimps roughly 7 million years ago, but that they no longer exist among humans. Some manifestations of alpha male behavior in humans might stem from primate attributes, but the alpha male isn’t an inherent quality. Humans Alpha male can also refer to a high-ranked human in a group, but this is an extension by metaphor, as humans do not have the same mating system as other social mammals.”

    • G T says:

      You’re correct that the human alpha male in nature is a myth. What Marianne is referring to is more of a sociological phenomenon where a people believe that seeking to be “dominant and aggressive, exhibiting machismo and bullying tendencies” makes them alpha. They’re wrong, of course, it just makes them, in Marianne’s words, arseholes.

  • Quentin du Plooy says:

    Your point is well made and taken Marianne. The chanting resistance of fragile masculinity follows below. I wish for the world to be ruled by women. Oopsie! Am I a traitor to my gender?

  • Peter Vlietstra says:

    In an evolved world, societies succeed when the hierarchy is based on competence. When this is upset by promoting criteria other than competence (eg identity), justifying this by virtue sounding words like transformation or diversity, we are back to the jungle. Marianne should consider her role in the demise we are experiencing, instead of inventing terms like toxic alpha males!

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