Jackal: Who gets the lion’s share? That’s what it’s all about, whether it’s between children or animals or warlords. It’s not that everyone wants a piece, it’s that everyone wants the biggest piece. And the biggest piece doesn’t go to the monkey or the giraffe, the biggest piece goes to the lion, because the lion is the fucking king. That’s how it works. It worked that way a million years before there were men saying otherwise. That’s probably how it should work.
Reuben: But you are not the lion. They call you the Jackal.
Jackal: Sometimes the Jackal steals the lion’s share. But don’t tell anyone.
— Far Cry 2, Jackal Tapes
Some dudes talk about Alpha and Beta as ranks in the masculine hierarchy, usually in a discussion by some guy claiming to be the alpha to everyone else’s beta. It grates me but probably for the wrong reasons.
Allegedly this discussion of Alpha men and Beta men stems from wolf hierarchical behavior, according to a model since debunked. Supposedly the wolves behaving according to this model were captive, and since then we’ve found that wolves in nature are more sophisticated.
The model is still useful, as it not just describes how prison-wolves organize, but how any mammal group will instinctively organize when there’s a scarcity.* It applies to wolves. It also applies to chimpanzees. And buffalo. And rabbits. And zebras. And bobcats.
And human beings.
But the common way it is expressed in online masculine culture (don’t beta me, bro.) is a misinterpretation, which annoys the shit out of me, since I infer that those who use it are just really ignorant. Like people who think that Africans are genetically closer to chimpanzees than humans (which is not only incorrect and offensive to Africans, but belies a derisible ignorance and disrespect of basic biology.)
So let’s complete the model. These are the groups that people (animals) fall into:
Alpha and Betas: These are the candidates running for president, for king, for chieftain. The alpha is the current king on the hill, but so long as there are any betas, the alpha’s position is tenuous. Betas are contenders, real challengers to the alpha. So when someone claims you’re a beta, the implication is, you’re a clear and present threat to his position. The alpha’s insecurity is, hence, belied by implication, though those that use these terms are seldom so self aware to realize they’re expressing it so plainly. In nature, privileges secured by the alpha (say, to breed the females, or eat first) are tenuous so long as there are betas about. And the alpha typically has to continuously fight off challengers in between eating and rutting until he tires of doing so and concedes the (proverbial) crown.**
Deltas: These are guys that aren’t contenders, nor, typically, do they want to try. This may be because they know their own prowess is insufficient to fight the alpha or betas (insert training montage here), or because they don’t care to try and would rather just drink and sing. When the alpha is strutting around to work off aggression, these guys get scarce, and when betas start picking on Deltas, either they hide or they appeal to the Alpha, who is supposed to be the only one allowed to aggro. Deltas are the homies, the minions, the henchmen, the goodfellas, the peasantry, the secretary pool. Since deltas are the primary work and defense force, alphas and betas have a strong investment in making sure they’re fed, cared for and managed. Otherwise, there’s no community to rule.
Shit rolls downhill so says the proverb, and when the alpha and betas are surly from a contest and kick the deltas, the deltas, in turn, kick the omegas. Typically, the omegas get blamed for everything whether they did it or not, and are beneath notice of the alphas and betas. Yet, to borrow another adage, If they’d hang you for a lamb… As a result, Omegas are the opportunists, the masters of evasion, sneaks and thieves. Omegas disrespected by all for their (alleged) cowardice and willingness to cheat, but since they get no respect anyway, why play fair? And while the alpha and betas are fighting and the deltas are cheering them on, sometimes the omegas are seducing the females and eating the food only to vanish once again into the jungle night.
When supplies get too scarce, omegas are the first to be culled (that is, exiled and starved out, if not attacked and killed outright). Except…
• Omega and delta states are more interchangeable than alpha and beta, and often specimens qualify as both or intermittently either. And it’s hard to tell the difference between easy-going workers who slack off (goldbrickers! layabouts! slugabeds!), and workers who’ve been burned out by shit jobs and insufficient sustenance. Hardened criminals cannot be differentiated from those forced into omega behavior by necessity. Likewise, omegas given a chance, sustenance and honest duty will easily reform back to loyal delta status.
• Also beasties (even those as smart as humans) suck at figuring out who the omegas are. We’re over-eager to wipe out oddball groups and will first outlaw those obvious characteristics (e.g. Jews, Muslims, black-backs, aardwolves). After such a sweep, we’ll find our omega rate has doubled, for having driven deltas into hiding.
• Marginalized deltas are driven by persecution and oppression to omega behavior in order to survive (again, necessity). Any deltas so marginalized will incite omega behavior from deltas in their community: hiding, stealing supplies, pirating media, rampage shootings and protracted terrorism campaigns.
Notably, ousted and exiled lion males will form into death squads and hunt and massacre other prides (Males and females. Adults and cubs. Everybody dies.) How lion death gangs correlate with the lioness instinct to hunt to slight excess to assure the whole pride eats (even the layabouts) is not yet fully established.
Still, if some guy is implying (or expressing) he’s alpha and you’re beta, it shows he’s insecure about his position and his masculinity. You can reassure him that you’re a mere delta, that you have no interest in challenging him, but would very much like another beer, and why aren’t the lionesses back from their hunt?
* Scarcity (of food, of contact, of space, of sex, of safety) is a critical component. When there’s plenty enough for everyone, usually we will laze about contentedly and eat and breed until our population grows to consume the supply at which point scarcity (and social structuring) resumes. If we want a happy, sleepy, lovey society, we’ll have to find a way to assure that the population never overwhelms the supply.
** Social sophistication correlates with intelligence, which creates exceptions to this structure. The more intelligent the species, the more complexity of relationships, and the more exceptions. This is to say, there are different ways than by brute challenges to contend in the beta / alpha circle. There are different ways to acquire access to scarce resources. Females start having a say (and opinion) in who mates with them (and can reject the alpha for someone else) and so on.