By JAMES GORMAN
Published: July 14, 2011
At last, good news for the beta male.
From the wild to Wall Street, as everyone knows, the alpha male runs the show, enjoying power over other males and, as a field biologist might put it, the best access to mating opportunities.
The beta is No. 2 in the wolf pack or the baboon troop, not such a bad position. But conversationally, the term has become an almost derisive label for the nice guy, the good boy all grown up, the husband women look for after the fling with Russell Crowe.
It may now be time to take a step back from alpha worship. Field biologists, the people who gave the culture the alpha/beta trope in the first place, have found there can be a big downside to being No. 1.
Laurence R. Gesquiere, a research associate in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, and colleagues report in the journal Science that in five troops of wild baboons in Kenya studied over nine years, alpha males showed very high stress levels, as high as those of the lowest-ranking males.
The stress, they suggested, was probably because of the demands of fighting off challengers and guarding access to fertile females. Beta males, who fought less and had considerably less mate guarding to do, had much lower stress levels. They had fewer mating opportunities than the alphas, but they did get some mating in, more than any lower-ranking males. After all, when the alpha gets in another baboon bar fight, who’s going to take the girl home?
Behavioral researchers have not ignored the female baboons: other studies have shown that the females have a whole different system of rank, which is inherited from the mother and rarely subject to challenge, so that is one kind of stress they do not have.
The study is both impressive and surprising, said Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, a neurobiologist who did groundbreaking studies on stress in baboons and was not involved in the new study. “What’s cool about this paper is that being an alpha and being a beta are very different experiences physiologically,” Dr. Sapolsky said.