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Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Posted: September 27, 2008 03:49 PM

Nervous Old Male


David Broder in the Washington Post of September 28, 2008, writes an opinion piece entitled "McCain as the Alpha Male."

Since the term "alpha male" comes out of primatology, and I have known many males who qualify, I feel like commenting on Broder's observation

"... an imbalance in the deference quotient between the younger man and the veteran senator -- an impression reinforced by Obama's frequent glances in McCain's direction and McCain's studied indifference to his rival."

Looking at the body language of the candidates, however, I did not come away with the same impression. A confident alpha male chimpanzee would never show studied indifference. I have seen such behavior only in males who were terrified of their challenger. Chimpanzees provoke higher-ups by making impressive displays in their vicinity, hooting loudly in their direction, and sometimes lobbing objects at them to see what happens. Will the other startle or will he return the challenge? It's a war of nerves.

A self-confident alpha male just approaches his challenger and sets him straight, either by attacking him or performing a spectacular display of his own. No avoidance of eye contact: he takes the bull by the horns.

It rather is the hesitant or fearful alpha male who avoids looking straight at the other, sidesteps him as if nothing happened, ducks when objects fly, and just hopes that the other will give up and go away. This may work, but also signals weakness. One day, the challenger will pick up courage and do something more drastic, such as hitting the old guy's back. If the latter still tries to ignore his challenger after this, he's toast.

I read the body language between McCain and Obama as that between a senior male being challenged by a remarkably confident junior one. The senior didn't know exactly what to do. He avoided eye contact and body orientation, probably realizing that a direct confrontation might not go his way.

If McCain was an alpha male, it was an incredibly insecure one.

In another primatological reflection, a year ago I wrote about Hillary Clinton as alpha female, stating that only post-reproductive females will likely be successful securing massive support, since they pose no sexual competition to other females. McCain's choice of a female running mate of reproductive age obviously violated this rule, and it doesn't surprise me that she now has more support among men than women. In fact, the logic of sexual competition would predict that the former support will erode the latter.

Seeing an older male paired with a much younger female sets off red flags in the heads of many women, so that for McCain and Palin to appear side-by-side may be problematic. This is another major drawback to his choice of running mate, since appearing together is a critical part of political communication. It show others who your coalition partners are. Male chimps who are united groom each other, walk together, display in synchrony, all of which tells everybody else "we stick together, don't mess with us." This is relatively easily done between males, and such bonding has indeed been on display between Obama and Biden, two differently aged males with mutually understanding smiles and back slaps. Following the debate, Biden was on TV to praise Obama's performance (not unlike the way chimps hoot along with their heroes from a distance to signal support), whereas Palin was nowhere in sight.

It may be hard for McCain to avoid the appearance of being a loner.

For a recent interview (8 September, 2008) about the comparisons between primate and human politics listen to CBC's "The Current" (scroll down to Part 3: Political Primatologist).