The measure of a man: The alpha male

The alpha male

In the animal kingdom, social structure in a family or tribe is often based on size, strength, and power. For example, many wild canine packs have a hierarchical system of social interactions with one or two so-called alpha males at the top and all other males falling behind them in rank. The alpha position is typically earned through aggressive behaviors like intimidation, fighting, and occasionally even killing other males. The alpha then has dibs on food, mates, and shelter.

But canines aren’t the only animals in which social structure plays an important role in daily life. When we travel to Costa Rica each year, we usually get to see troops of howler monkeys (mono aullador en Español), which, like the wild canines, have a highly structured social system that includes one alpha male who calls most of the shots. Of the four species of monkeys in Costa Rica, the howlers are the only ones we’ve seen at every elevation, both high in the montane cloud forest and low in the coastal rain forests.


A howler monkey watches from high in the trees, Costa Rica. © Mike Mooring, 2014.

A howler monkey watches from high in the trees, Costa Rica. © Mike Mooring, 2014.

On one particular hike in Corcovado National Park, my daughter Sydney and I were returning to the field station when a troop of howler monkeys overhead got upset that we were walking through their ‘hood without permission. They began following us in the trees above, shouting and shaking branches so hard that they fell to the forest floor with a thud we could feel in the ground. We made the mistake of smiling at them (how can you not smile at those adorable little guys?). Of course, baring your teeth at a primate is an act of aggression in their eyes, only adding fuel to the fire. Although we couldn’t identify the alpha male, he was certainly the one leading the attack. And when he decided we had learned our lesson, the others followed him back into the dark of the jungle.

Now let me make something clear. I am not a behavioral biologist, but I don’t think that alpha males in the strict sense exist in human communities. Although you have to admit that there are some pretty amazing similarities in the behavior of the males of our species and alpha howlers monkeys or grey wolves. Everything from the way we walk to the clothes we wear to how loud we bark is intended to tell other guys that we are real men.

Don’t believe me? Take a look around you at the store or at work or even at church. How many of us guys are posturing, trying to look like manly men? Why are tattoos so popular right now? Why do we drive trucks that are bigger than anything we ever intend to haul? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves (I’ve seen some pretty amazing tattoos and I drive a truck to my desk job). But the question we all need to ask ourselves is this: Does my self-image as a man depend on these things?

If you’re not sure how to answer that question, ask how you would feel about yourself if you lost some of these things. What if your truck was replaced with a Smart Car? What if you took a job that required you to wear a suit every day? What if some illness caused you to lose weight and you shrunk down to 99 pounds soaking wet? How would any of these changes impact your self-image as a man?

In this chapter of devotions, we’re going to look at Scripture to see how the definition of a Man of God is different from that of an alpha male. I’m going to challenge you (and myself) to recognize what it is about ourselves that we lean on to define ourselves as men. And then we’re going to consider how the Creator Himself defines a man. Are you up for it? Are you man enough to dig in deep so that we can be more than alpha males vying for social rank, and instead become the men God intends for us to be? I know you are. Let’s do this.


Questions for thought

Would someone who doesn’t know you label you a Man of God or an alpha male? What about family and friends who know your life and your heart?

What alpha male traits do you have? If you’re not sure, ask your wife (better brace yourself for her answer first).

What Man of God traits do you have? Again, ask her.



Father God, show us through your Holy Word what kind of men you want us to be. Free us from the definitions that we have taken on from our culture and redefine us in your image. May we strive each day to be Men of God rather than alpha males. Amen.


About Dave Cummings

Dave Cummings is a husband, father of three, college professor, biologist, and urban outdoorsman. Most importantly, he is a Christ follower.
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2 Responses to The measure of a man: The alpha male

  1. Ryan says:

    This week I was able to hear Francis Chan speak. One of the things that he spoke a lot about was desiring to be in the presence of God, nothing else and nothing more. Our struggle to create and image and maintain an identity often keeps us from just being content to dwell in the presence of God. This is the most incredible thing possible: to be with the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty One. Yet, because of our own insecurities, we desire to please people, to have them see something in us that doesn’t matter. I drive a truck and worry about what clothes I wear because of who I want to identify with, and yet what image really matters is that I am a child of God (I don’t feel like I have done enough to be called a man of God). Thanks for these thoughts. I haven’t gotten up the courage to ask my wife what traits she sees.

    • Great point, Ryan. Why do we worry so much about our image, about what others think about us? Is it because there’s an immediate, tangible response? Putting God’s opinion of us ahead of people’s opinion takes faith since He is not sitting with us in a physical form every day. It’s easy to forget that it’s His presence and opinion that matters most.

      Breaking the ice on tough conversations with our wives is the hardest part. But there are blessings when we can consistently have such conversations. It’s similar in parenting: we don’t want to talk about important issues with our kids just once. We want to have ongoing conversations with them about sex, drugs, self-image… Same is true with our spouses. The goal is ongoing conversations.

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