By FAYE FLAM
"Among the side-blotched lizards of central California, the largest of the males have orange stripes; they're big bruisers who battle each other for the affections of pale-colored females. But other males are smaller, with yellow stripes. Survival of the fittest would suggest the orange lizards - the "alpha males" - would dispatch with these competitors, but because the yellow males mimic females, they're largely ignored. And while the alpha lizards fight, these beta lizards stay back by the shady rocks, getting busy with the ladies.
The official scientific term for this? According to eminent British biologist John Maynard Smith: "Sneaky f - - - ers."
For all you New York women who complain that the alpha Mr. Big's are out battling on Wall Street, leaving you only manicured metrosexuals, I have bad news - the yellow lizards are winning.
After questioning evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists to learn about male sexuality, I learned that alpha males are being phased out throughout the animal kingdom.
Biologists have a specific definition of an alpha male: roughly, it's a male who gets sex by beating up on other males and then monopolizing multiple females. It's all about sex and social status.
In dogs and wolves, for instance, everyone has a place in a hierarchy, from one to, say, twenty. Dog number one is the alpha male, but he's constantly challenged by dog number two. In baboons, there's just one alpha male ruling over a group of equally subordinate non-alpha males, all of which want to take him down. The main hallmarks of the alpha male are size and fierceness. In gorillas, alpha males grow to twice the size of females. Chimpanzee males aren't too much bigger than females, but they have nasty fangs the ladies lack.
Yet among humans, men have no special teeth and are just a little bigger than women, 173 pounds on average compared to 136.
What does this say about us? Stanford neuroscientist and primate expert Robert Sapolsky says he doubts humans have true alpha males because our society is structured in a much more complicated way than, say, dogs. We tend to belong to multiple social circles, so the guy who empties the trash for a big corporation might be a star DJ at night or dominate the company softball team.
But was it always this way? Anthropologist Tim White of the University of California says the nature of our ancestral men is one of the hottest debates in his field. Much of the controversy centers on the period 3.2 million years ago, about half way back to the time human ancestors split off from their chimp lineage.
Back then, Africa was populated by upright-walking creatures called Australopithecus afarensis. The best known of these is Lucy, whose skeleton was found in Ethiopia in 1974. Most scientists agree that Lucy was a female, but what did her boyfriends look like? The long-prevailing story was that Mr. Lucy was just a little bigger than she was. But other scientists are challenging that - arguing that Lucy had to contend with big, brutish alpha males. In a more recent human ancestor, homo habilis, males appear much bigger than their females, though some anthropologists think they may be looking at bones from two different species, said White. "These things don't come labeled."
If alpha humans were that much larger in the past, however, evolution somehow has equalized our size. The sneakers got ahead.
Part of the way sneaker males trump their alpha brothers is "male display." Instead of using force, males use beauty or art to impress. A particularly striking peacock will get the whole flock of females to chase after him, leaving all the runners up alone and dejected. "It's like Beatlemania," said evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. Even today, studies show that males in the creative arts enjoy a big advantage - they got four to ten sex partners in a lifetime, compared to three for the average man.
Sneaker human males may even have used parenting skills to woo mates. If ancient males shared in home duties, females may have chosen him over the more obvious, larger male. In the animal world, we see this among monkeys and birds. Male emperor penguins risk their lives to incubate their eggs through the cruel blizzards of the Antarctic winters. Like other fatherly and relatively monogamous species, penguin males are no bigger than the females. So similar are they to females that scientists are mystified as to how the penguins themselves figure out which sex they are.
Human males are unique in their flexibility - able to use combinations of all the above strategies. Fathering, sneaking, beautiful displays - all this makes the old alpha males look not only obnoxious but boring. Where have all the cowboys gone? While they were out herding cattle, the skinny-jean wearing emo rocker took his woman.Poppycock. Sexual dimorphism is alive and well, but occupation specific. Were Shaq to be trapped in an elevator with Rachel Ray, that was unluckily in a building bombed by the next wave of islamic madmen this time armed with nukes, scientists a million years hence would be amazed at the male-female disparity. The true equalizers that made men capable of defending themselves from all comers were Walter de Millemete who illustrated if not invented the very first 'practical' firearm circa 1326, Colonel Colt, John Browning, and Gaston Glock for those unable to afford a real gun. With one, the aforementioned Miz Ray could easily take down Shaq even if her moslem friends didn't off the two of them. The point being, today it is unnecessary for women to flock to the largest male.
SMART women, I mean.
And, 173 to 136 is, in reality, an enormous advantage, or perhaps Miz Flam hasn't heard of this thing called sexual assault that evil men have been doing to women with both ease and impunity. Actually though, where Miz Flam is finding these 136 pound women is beyond my ken. That is approximately Lisa's size, but she remains the exception rather than the norm with regards to the modern, adult female girth. Then again, I make more than 2 of her so its back to dimorphism again.