Evolution Icon Evolution
Newsmedia Icon Newsmedia

Evolutionary Psychologist Whips Trump with Chimp Alpha Male Theory


Unlike chemistry or physics, evolutionary biology is politically weaponized science. It has been wielded as such by its proponents in social, cultural, and political battles from the start. That’s no surprise since Darwin’s own thinking about natural selection was inspired by the (failed) theorizing of political economist Thomas Malthus. Within the field of evolution, evolutionary psychology serves a particularly transparent role in putting people and ideas you don’t like in their place.

So along comes evolutionary psychologist Dan P. McAdams of Northwestern university, in an op-ed in the British newspaper The Guardian. He says Trump can be analyzed as an alpha male chimpanzee, a legacy of our evolutionary cousinship with chimps. This was so predictable. I’m kicking myself for not predicting it.

The piece writes itself.

The curious case of Donald Trump… shows that human beings turn out to be a lot like chimps.

In the wild and in captivity, chimpanzee colonies organize themselves into tightly structured hierarchies. Power is vested in the biggest, strongest, and most outgoing males in the group, with the alpha male on top. The alpha leader dominates all others through tactics of threat, intimidation, bluffing, and outright aggression – and importantly, by forming short-term, pragmatic coalitions (let us call them “deals”) with other high-status males.

Chimpanzee politics can be intricate, but they always obey the rules of social dominance. Because chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor going back 5-7m years, we humans know deep in our brains what social dominance is all about. Our expectation that social status can be seized through physical power and threat – that the strongest, biggest and boldest may indeed lord it over the rest of us – is very old, awesomely intuitive, and deeply ingrained.

Social psychologists today distinguish between the social dominance form of human leadership, on the one hand, and leadership through prestige on the other. Both are grounded in human evolution, but the prestige form is younger, tracing back a mere million years or so to the time when our hominid ancestors began to form culture. In the prestige paradigm, leaders attain their authority in the group by demonstrating culturally valued expertise – as, for example, in cooking, defending the tribe, healing, peacemaking, or (in the modern world) science, education, technology, the arts, business, law, medicine, communication, and so on.

For human beings today, dominance and prestige compete with each other as the two primal expressions of leadership. [Emphasis added.]

The “prestige” style is progressive and good. The “dominance” style is primitive and bad. More:

An especially effective dominance mechanism for the alpha chimp is the charging display. The top male essentially goes berserk and starts screaming, hooting, and gesticulating wildly as he charges toward other males nearby. Pandemonium ensues as rival males cower in fear and females grab their little ones and run for cover.

Once the chaos ends, there is a period of peace and order, wherein rival males pay homage to the alpha, visiting him, grooming him, expressing various forms of submission.

Trump’s incendiary tweets are the human equivalent of a charging display. Designed to intimidate his foes and rally his submissive base, these verbal outbursts reinforce the president’s dominance by reminding everybody of his wrath and his force.

From reasonable people, there is a range of possible responses to Trump and his tweets, from negative to positive. But if you’ve observed Trump “charging,” “screaming, hooting, and gesticulating wildly,” let me know, because I’ve missed it. Whether there’s a sound strategic method to his tweets is a question I leave to you, but their manner is predominantly one of humorously baiting opponents. Of course, the humor is not to everyone’s taste.

McAdams goes on:

Look at Mr Trump. What do you see? He is physically big and dynamic.

True. You see? Just like an alpha chimp!

His face gives the impression of a volcano about to explode.

It does? I’ve missed that too.

McAdams’s further proofs of a chimp connection include Trump’s “bluffing” in the standoff with Kim Jong-un –

Throughout primate evolution, bluffing appears prominently on every syllabus ever written for dominance psychology 101 (including The Art of the Deal)….But is Trump bluffing? What if he isn’t?

So, whether he’s bluffing with North Korea, or not bluffing, it all confirms our common ancestry with chimps. If subordinates like Vice President Pence are “obsequious,” again, it’s chimp behavior as “chimps show a wide range of deference displays in the presence of the alpha, including grooming, stroking, bowing, and other variations on the theme of sucking up.” Funny, if Mike Pence has been observed grooming Trump, I missed that as well. I guess I don’t watch enough CNN.

Seeing a professional scholar turn science to the cause of crude political advocacy is pathetic. Worse, McAdams doesn’t realize that his analysis could just as easily be turned against him and other evolutionists. He praises the “prestige paradigm,” another style “grounded in human evolution” but, he seems to think, more rational and scientific, better able to get at the truth.

You could just as well argue that bowing and scraping to “prestige” ideas and personalities, as beta males seek safety and acceptance in the chimpanzee troop, is precisely the secret of evolution’s success as a theory. Prestige has nothing to do with truth. It’s a currency of social exchange, used to signal group belonging or superiority within the group.

McAdams’s op-ed, with it’s strange choice by an American academic of a British over an American audience in lambasting an American politician, is then an obvious and sad gesture in laying claim to his own elevated social status. Embracing evolution has played that role from the very beginning, as Tom Wolfe recounts in The Kingdom of Speech. The worst thing for the prestige-oriented thinker is to be associated with low-status ideas or cultural movements.

But why bicker about such things? You don’t like Trump? Fine. You’d rather it was Clinton, Sanders, or Rubio confronting North Korea? Good, tell us why, but don’t bring chimps into it.