Oooh, oooh, ooooou

The movie Greystoke came out when I was young.  Perhaps you have watched it?

Had it not been for Phil Collins’ music track, Disney’s version of Tarzan could not hold a candle to Greystoke, where a young and absolutely lovely Andie MacDowell is seduced by the profound words in this article’s headline.

Don’t they beat “Can I buy you a drink?” by miles?

Greystoke is another take on Hamlet.  Tarzan’s chimpanzee father loses a fight to a more vicious alpha male and his son takes revenge, kills the perpetrator, and takes over the tribe.

To this cast are added several female chimpanzees milling around, adjusting to the changes in leadership, while rightfully earning the movie the Oscar for best hair and makeup.  I assume it must be the chimpanzees’, but it could be Andie MacDowell’s hair.

As I was leaving the theater to take the subway home, it was obvious which of the passengers had been to the movie and who were just perplexed bystanders.  People were jumping around and walking in the most unusual gait while uttering sounds that to the best of my knowledge are not otherwise employed in the Danish language.

Evolutionary psychology is like evolutionary biology in looking at which traits are more likely to help a given variation of the species procreate.  Within a tribe, the individual person looking out for himself may have an advantage over somebody who is not as egocentric, but the most collaborative tribe beats the tribe of egocentrics every time. And if the whole tribe doesn’t survive, the egocentric traits are weeded out.

Doesn’t that sound like a management article you could have read recently?

Even among chimpanzees, it has been found that alpha males who abuse their position by taking too much of the communal spoil will not survive for long.  The communities simply don’t look out for them the same way they do for more fair leaders.

The alpha male game seems to happen all over.  Young bucks of whichever species playfight whenever they have a chance, and even human brothers will for the 10-30th years of their lives check who is taller.  This is not a mother observation; this is the admission of sons, and they are not even my own.  “Whenever a man walks into a room, the first thing he does is to scan it to see who else is there and gauge his position in the hierarchy.”  Quote of 25-year-old engineer.  For the sake of science, please confirm or deny if you are a man.

I was reminded of this the other day when my mother and I were looking at old photos.

One photo had her brother-in-law in it.  My uncle, her older sister’s husband, had always been very quiet and withdrawn when we were together, and my mother commented on that.  But the stories my aunt tells and the pictures she shares tell a totally different story than the man we saw.  Could it be that whenever we saw him, he had to endure the company of my father who, for all that he was easygoing and kind, in that small dyad of brothers-in-law was the alpha male based on social position?  Did it make a difference that one had procreated and the other not?  Even my uncle’s social standing locally, his considerable height, and movie star looks didn’t make up for title, children, and size of car…?  This theme is fodder for laughs in many a comedy, so I am sure this is not an observation running true for only my family members.

After eons of ridiculing emotions, economic science now accepts that rational thought is secondary to feelings, and most of what we call rational thought are stories we write in our minds to justify how we feel.  If a guy doesn’t like somebody, he will be ready to point out objectively which behaviors the other person displays that make him unlikable and untrustworthy.  But in many instances, these observations will be made selectively based on whether the other person felt as a threat to one’s own position on some social ladder.  The people who are far above or below are not the issue as much as those that are threats from just below or somebody to push aside right above.  That is how we can admire a high-ranking person and be petty about a close colleague.

I am sure there are other patterns among female humans and chimpanzees that I am just too close to for objective observation.  (If you wish to comment on that, please be as specific in your observation as I have been.)

Nevertheless, as we are getting together with family and friends again after the pandemic, may you enjoy the full experience of social interactions without them being plagued too much by signals coming from the old ape brain.  Sometimes, knowing that these instinctive responses happen is all it takes to mitigate their effect.  And who knows, perhaps you could be friends with your in-laws…

I am with mine – but fear not, I have no intention to marry any of them.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. As much as I hesitate to bring our former president into any discussion, this explains many of his behaviors toward fellow alphas the world over. His idolatry of Putin, for example, might be a textbook example of admiration for the ape higher on the ladder, meanwhile dissing close associates and equals with fervor. I look forward to the day when he’s no longer the centerpiece of discussion (he says, adding to that discussion!) Thank you Charlotte, always enlightening.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Byron, although I will indulge you and not add further comments on that trail of thoughts.

      We should, however, not underestimate how much local culture also contributes to dominance behaviors vs collaborative behaviors. Thank G.. that it is not a general norm that American presidents ride bareback or wrestle tigers or whatever shenanigans Putin employs to prove his alpha credentials.

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