The surprising science of alpha males | Frans de Waal

In this fascinating look at the “alpha male,” primatologist Frans de Waal explores the privileges and costs of power while drawing surprising parallels between how humans and primates choose their leaders. His research reveals some of the unexpected capacities of alpha males — generosity, empathy, even peacekeeping — and sheds light on the power struggles of human politicians. “Someone who is big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male,” de Waal says.

What is a Catholic to make of Jordan Peterson?

Peterson’s idiosyncratic but sympathetic views on Christianity appear to be outgrowths of his ultimately incoherent views about human societies, blending brash political incorrectness with a love of tradition and an enthusiasm for individualism. For modern Christians frustrated by their loss of standing in liberal societies, this makes Peterson, like a stiff cocktail, potent, delicious, and, if enjoyed carelessly or in the wrong context, dangerous.

.. He speaks with a breezy self-assurance, but at the same time he takes serpentine routes to his conclusions – so much so that it’s not always clear even he knows where he’s going until, with a splash, he arrives and all seems to have been made clear.

.. This sense of being on a journey with an unknown destination is heightened by the idiosyncratic nature of his arguments. It’s just weird to get to principled conservatism and appreciation of Scripture from Nietzsche and Jung

.. some – and perhaps a great deal – of what is attracting millions of largely young male viewers to him is not laudable and should not be thoughtlessly applauded by Catholics.

.. Strident denunciations of feminism and anti-racism are not what is missing from our apologetics

.. Jesus Christ is neither politically correct nor incorrect

.. Peterson is at his best and most magnetic when he is almost stammering in awe of the human condition

.. When I hear Peterson speak about God, I think of the late French-American philosopher René Girard.

.. Peterson’s strategy to bring meaning and success to the lives of deracinated young men is an essentially amoral training in interpersonal dominance founded in an uncritical acceptance of the radical individualism that has dominated Western civilisation for the past few centuries.

.. For instance, he argues that the credible threat of violence is essential for earning respect in conversations with men; in one lecture he asserts with his distinctive fatherliness: “If you are not capable of cruelty you are absolutely a victim to anyone who is.”

.. It is true that our present crisis of meaning is related to the inability of many young men to compete effectively in the marketplace, which is for us the primary giver of significance

.. the role of the Church is not to prop up a secular civilisation that has reduced meaning and identity to paychecks and sports teams, but to offer a more beautiful and comprehensive alternative.

.. If the Church is to baptise “Jordan Peterson the internet sensation”, it must be for his reputation as an authentic and awe-filled truth-seeker, not as a politically incorrect provocateur. His sincere reverence for the awesome reality of the human person is a potent antidote for a civilisation whose spirit has been oppressed by secularism and nihilism.

.. striving not for the greatness of alpha status in a world of brutes but for the greatness of communion with the God who is love.

The Body Language of Power

In this, as in so many other ways, Germany’s chancellor is a near-perfect opposite and foil to Mr. Trump. And when it comes to modern power, she is the model. She is in her twelfth year in office and odds-on to stay in it for another four after the election on September 24th. Behind her stretches a long line of failed challengers and rivals — men who had charged at her hard and who are still wondering what went wrong.

.. Mr. Schröder, whom the German press called an “alpha animal”, decided to create facts on the ground. He burst out with a forceful verbal barrage, insinuating that the moderators were biased, asserting that he was the real winner and disparaging Ms. Merkel. Constantly interrupting all his interlocutors as though in some dominance ritual, he blurted out, “Do you seriously think that my party will take up an offer of coalition talks from Ms. Merkel in this situation, in which she says she wants to be chancellor?”

.. Ms. Merkel’s reaction was more interesting. Whenever the camera strayed from the dueling silverbacks and zoomed in on her, she had a neutral expression, or a look of mild puzzlement, but never one of anger or annoyance. Her hands mostly stayed folded on the table in front of her. She hardly spoke at all. In effect, she responded to Mr. Schröder by not reacting.

.. Something had revealed itself that day on television between Mr. Schröder and Ms. Merkel. “When he entered the room, she had lost the election. When he left, she had won the chancellor’s office,” recalls Wolfgang Nowak, a former adviser to Mr. Schröder, who nowadays also has the ear of Ms. Merkel.

.. “Nobody is like her,” says Gregor Gysi, who was opposition leader in parliament for much of Ms. Merkel’s current term. Mr. Gysi is widely considered the wittiest speaker in German politics, and his job in the Bundestag was to needle and provoke the chancellor. But all of his attacks fell flat. Merkel never took his baits; he never got a rise out of her.

.. Ms. Merkel, he says, reminds him of his experience in the 1970s, when he was a lawyer in the East German dictatorship. During interrogations he could always crack the men, he says, but against a certain kind of woman he had “no chance”, provided they did not make the mistake of trying to be like men. Hillary Clinton made that mistake, Mr. Gysi says. She blew a presidential election in America against a man who is almost comical in his pseudo-virility. By contrast, Mr. Gysi says, “Merkel’s secret is that she has found a method against the men, but the men have found no method against her.”

“Merkel gets stronger by letting the men be men,” Mr. Nowak agrees. Many of these encounters resemble that televised encounter with Mr Schröder. “She let him do all his wrestling poses,” recalls Mr. Nowak. And in the end the macho always throws himself on the mat, with her left standing.

.. Take sex out of the equation for a moment, and her approach is reminiscent of the Japanese martial art called aikido. Its fighting style is based on channeling, rather than countering, the energy (ki) of an opponent, in such a way that the opponent overcomes himself. The underlying insight is that, as an aggressor attacks, his center of gravity is necessarily in flux and becomes unstable. A skilled fighter uses this. The result has less to do with tipping the opponent than with letting him fall.

.. The ultimate origin of aikido, as of Merkel’s style, is thus not strength but weakness. Morihei Ueshiba, who founded the martial art in the 1920s and 30s, was frail in his youth and so short (155cm) that he missed by one centimeter the height requirement to be drafted into the Japanese army for the Russo-Japanese war. Humiliated, he started hanging himself from tree branches and steel bars to stretch. He realized that he would never win through brawn, so he needed another method.

.. She has what Germans call “X legs” (knock knees) that make her appear to waddle more than walk. She takes a certain pride in her lack of athletic ability. A few years ago she fell and cracked her pelvis while cross-country skiing. Her spokesman, as part of his press briefing, said that “we assume low speeds.” She found that hilarious.

.. Machos such as Mr. Putin have themselves photographed riding horses bare-chested and flying with cranes. Mr. Trump cannot resist rebutting suggestions that he has “small hands” with unsubtle hints that “there is no problem” elsewhere. As though aware that she is their foil, Ms. Merkel embraces, even emphasizes, her physical frailty.

.. He speaks fluent German, just as Ms. Merkel, who spent the first half of her life in communist East Germany, speaks fluent Russian. When they converse, they often speak German and address each other with the informal du.

.. Ms. Merkel’s advisers, aware of Putin’s black Labrador Koni, had informed him in advance that she does not like dogs because she was once bitten by one.

.. The ploy backfired on Mr. Putin spectacularly. The German and foreign press was beside itself with indignation, whereas nobody got the idea that the chancellor’s vulnerability in the presence of the dog made her weak vis-à-vis Russia or its president. Instead it was Mr. Putin who looked as though he was compensating for a shortcoming. He had “to prove he’s man,” Ms. Merkel later told reporters, because “he’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

Today, according to people who have been in their meetings, Angela Merkel is the only Western leader Mr. Putin genuinely respects.

.. Ms. Merkel’s strategy is called “asymmetrical demobilization”. It means taking all the excitement out of the campaign so that voters for the other side stay home on polling day, thinking nothing much is at stake for them.

..  Her Social-Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz, tries desperately to whip up excitement at campaign events, with sweeping hand gestures and jabbing fingers. Ms. Merkel, meanwhile, keeps her hand movements to a minimum. Often she just defaults to her characteristic “Merkel rhombus”, which is really more of a kite formed between her hands.

.. “She manages to keep her finger tips barely touching even in stressful situations. That suggests that Merkel has a low cortisol level. And we choose those people as leaders who take longer to feel stress. So she is signaling something that she is not even aware of.”

.. Her body language is thus calming — to herself and her audience. The subliminal message is that politics is endlessly complex and demands expertise and subtle analysis — hers. In parliament and during debates, she often does what has been called her “dance of trust”: She sways back and forth, as though weighing alternatives, with her hands fine-tuning invisible air buttons.

.. Completely missing from her body language are dominance gestures. Ms. Merkel “gets on a stage, gets applause, lifts her hands for a greeting, but in that expansive gesture simultaneously ducks her head,” says Mr. Verra. She makes herself large and small at the same time. She does not lunge at an opponent but waits until her opponents fear looking weak and attack, thus initiating their undoing.

How does Angela Merkel wield power? If she gave an honest answer, she might cite Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikdo: “It’s not that I am so strong—they [are] wrestling with themselves and spending their energy on the air.”