Whitesburg Park is a small nature preserve at the end of our street. We met a neighbor who insisted we visit a small rotting log containing a trio of the most beautiful flowers. He showed us a picture, and we all hastened to see the real thing. But his excitement turned to anger; the flowers, the entire log, were gone. This fragile object of natural beauty had been taken by someone.
His anger continued, but we could only sympathize. He strongly questioned the morals of the thief and the declining standards of our society. My own thoughts wandered to a greater issue, one that defines our very humanity.
This small event, one that would not even merit mention in our small time newspaper, was rape. Our park had something taken from it by force. Our friend was outraged, but there the insult would stop. The rapist would feel no guilt, in fact they probably exhibited the trophy to their friends, raising their own standing as the owner of something beautiful.
Rape, pillage, plunder, these are behaviors that we encourage as a society, mostly without thinking. Consider today’s popular television shows: Vikings and Game of Thrones. In the recent past we’ve had shows featuring the excesses of the Romans, Vampires, Zombies; all strong violent motifs with equally strong leaders.
Part of us exalts in the strong leader. We look for it as children in our parents. We look for it as young adults in our peers and teachers. Finally, we look for it in our entertainment and our government. Whether they are super-heroes or super-villains, village councilwomen or sitting presidents, there is a part of us that gravitates and admires the strength of those leaders.
That part may be very small, giving grudging acceptance of that strong leader’s influence on society. Or that part may be so large that we embrace that leader as representing the best of humanity, the way society should go.
Here’s where we should become scared. Strong leaders of the past include Hannibal, Alexander of Macedon, Chingas Khan, Attaturk, Hitler, and Stalin. Today we have Vlad Putin and Don Drumpf (Trump) among others. Every single one of these men got away with something illegal, including outright murder. Not only were they proud of it, but their followers admired them for being so bold.
Scared yet? This tendency favoring a strong leader is natural, followers prefer someone who does whatever they want to whomever they want when they want; strong leaders are the alpha male.
The alpha male calls the shots. The alpha male takes more than one mate. The alpha male doesn’t follow laws, they make them and break them. The alpha male is always the most powerful male in the room, and lets everyone else know that.
Societies that are run by alpha males usually also have rape, pillage, and plunder. After all, that’s what makes the alpha male an alpha. It’s true of chimps and apes, and it’s true of Vikings and Romans. It’s also true of Putin and Trump.
The fact that white supremacists met in Charlottesville yesterday to idolize Robert E. Lee and Hitler worries many, but this extremism is part of the natural process. These extremists want an alpha male. These people want to protect their “tribe” at the expense of all other tribes. Law, reason, even morals are not a consideration.
Why did the alpha male fall out of favor in the first place? Why didn’t the Vikings and the Romans become the dominant form of society? What was fundamentally wrong with Hitler and Stalin?
The answer lies within our genes some 100,000 years ago. Sometime around then we not only wanted to take care of our babies, like almost every other successful species, but we also wanted to take care of each other. We call this “family.” Many species mate when they need to in order to reproduce. Modern humans mate many times, making few babies. All the other times we mate strengthens our bond with our spouse.
Many species hold onto their offspring tenuously, pushing them out of the nest the instant they reach puberty. Humans hold onto their children, in many cases asking them to take care of their parents deep into old age. In this way humans have reached incredibly long lifetimes, far longer than nature intended.
The desire to have a family, or family phenotype, means that there is something in us that wants to be part of a group, something larger than ourselves as individuals. And it is this need that helped create the concept of democracy in all its forms. Many feel that family is the most important part of being human. And family doesn’t have to mean only those born to our mother, but can mean someone adopted, our living next door, or even someone of similar interests. Family means what you want it to mean, and some of us embrace strangers more easily than others.
Those who wish to live with an alpha male look towards that male to determine who is part of the family. For those who are not family, it’s rape, pillage and plunder.
For those who embrace the idea of family, laws and morals tend to direct their actions. Throughout history, the struggle between alpha male lovers and family lovers has swung towards family, towards law, and towards reason.
Today, rape, pillage and plunder is increasing all around us. There are little clues from the missing flowers, bigger clues like the events in Charlottesville, and big clues like the rise to power of Putin, Trump and Erdogan. From big to small, all these point to the pendulum of history swinging in the direction of those who prefer the alpha male.
How far will it swing? History tells us it will not reverse direction without the application of great pain.
Will we be able to learn from this, and become a better society growing beyond this planet? History also tells us that we will learn and be better for it. But history can not tell us if it will be enough to get us off our planet. For time is almost up.