Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Alphas Hog Mating Opportunity: Its Still the Same Old Story

Mammals seek power because sex is the reward.

stallion rivalry
A male bull can't mate with a female until he pushes other bulls out of the way. Once he dominates, it's no surprise that he helps himself to mating opportunity. That's why he invested all that effort in becoming dominant.
I'm not saying it should be this way, but a pattern that has prevailed for millions of years should be understood. I'm not saying we should act like animals, but we have the same neurochemistry that causes this behavior in animals.

A young male baboon will not get to have sex because the bigger stronger males will bite and claw him if he tries. He spends years building his strength and his social alliances in hopes of someday biting back and passing on his genes. Of course he has no conception of conception. He's just acting on his mammalian neurochemicals.

Sex is surprisingly rare in the state of nature. Males are not interested unless a female emits the hormones of fertility (except for humans and bonobos). Female are rarely fertile because lactation prevents it. The window of opportunity may be a few days a year- every five years in the case of chimpanzees. The rest of the time males tussle to be first in line when the big moment comes. They don't do this because they comprehend genetics or wish to serve the people in leadership roles. They respond to their neurochemicals.

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Mammals with smaller brains typically have the same rank for a lifetime. Once a low-ranking bull, always a low-ranking bull. But larger-brained primates use their extra neurons to plot and scheme their way up the status hierarchy. They don't get fertile females unless they succeed so they keep trying, year in and year out. It's not surprising that they focus on sex once they succeed. They can be toppled from dominance at any moment, so new alphas of many species trigger female fertility by killing the infants.

Female choice is half of the story. Female elephants simply run from male advances. The weak males can't catch them but the strong males can, so their babies end up with strong genes. Female chimps do the opposite. They mate with as many males as possible because it prevents infanticide- male chimps spare the infants of their female contacts.

A female gorilla stays with one male until a challenger overthrows him and kills her child. Then she goes with the baby-killer because he is demonstrably stronger and thus more able to protect her next child from the next challenger. She doesn't think this consciously, but this pattern has been repeated for millions of years. It happens with mice, and the mouse evolved into the mouse lemur which evolved into the ape.

Bonobos are always held up as the enlightened species. But female bonobos fight with each other to mate with the sons of the alpha female. It's a variation on the theme that proves the rule: sex and power go together because of mammalian neurochemistry.

England's King Edward VII was a shameless sexual predator. Respectable ladies rarely resisted his attentions. He shunned the custom of giving them gifts as he deemed his bulky presence reward enough. Such behavior was widespread in history- I only point to Edward VII because BBC costume dramas make his transgressions so delightfully accessible.

In tribal cultures, people simply took it for granted that the alpha and his supporters would dominate the fertile females. Parents rushed to give their daughters to the powerful males, though they be old and fact and already encumbered.

Today, we need law enforcement because these impulses are real. But we should not blame "our society" for the impulses. Instead, we should appreciate our society's progress in transcending the historical pattern.

My book, I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness explains how natural selection produced a brain that rewards social dominance. This is why the patterns of social interaction seem so familiar across time and space.

My book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity is a plan to feel good about life in a world full of mammals instead of waiting for an idealized world to appear.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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