Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Revenge of the Omega Men

Human societies tend to develop the same underlying structure as that of most other social species. Differences in physical strength and in social connections between many animals solidify at the emergent social level, forming a dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, in which the strongest members or the possessors of the most powerful alliances in the group are given privileged access to food and sex, thus ensuring the proliferation of the most useful genetic lineages. (See Oligarchy.) Ethologists speak of alpha, beta, and omega males, as well as others, to denote the different positions in such a power hierarchy. This classification has filtered down to popular culture, where it’s now prevalent on websites exploring dating, the so-called Game of seducing women, and men’s issues. By way of evolutionary pop psychology, in which quasi-scientific just-so-stories from biology are concocted to explain the nuances of human behaviour, men and women rank men in those ethological terms and speculate on the psychological ramifications of being, say, an alpha man.

Alpha, Beta, and Omega Men

Here, for example, is what I’ve gleaned from perusing some of those websites about how alpha, beta, and omega men understand each other and themselves. (See, for example, Roissy’s blog, and these AskMen and Slate articles.) Ethologically, an alpha male is at the top of his dominance hierarchy, leading the group, eating first when food is obtained, and given exclusive or otherwise special access to the females. In the Game sub-culture, scientistic men contend that successful sexual hookups and even marriages can be literally engineered with insights from evolutionary psychology, reducing human interactions to moves in a game and concomitantly objectifying the players. Alpha men are often lauded as the winners of this game, because they’ve mastered the trick of wresting sex from the greatest quantity of the highest quality of women. Arguably, though, an alpha’s victory is naturally delusory, since his superficial pleasures mask his slavery to his self-imposed, often fallacious imperative to serve in the process of spreading his genes, at the cost of losing out on the richer pleasures from a long-term sexual relationship, which the alpha male is ill-equipped to earn.

Thus, alpha males or wannabe ones define “alpha man” in praiseworthy terms, as a supremely confident and independent man who leads other men in business or battle and attracts the most beautiful women. Sometimes, the alpha man is given a Nietzschean gloss, in which case this superhero creates his own values rather than succumbing to conventions for weaker people. The adventurous, conquering alpha knows what’s right and true, and pursues those ends regardless of the collateral damage. In sexual matters, the alpha ideal is that of the libertine or hedonist, of experiencing the greatest variety and quantity of sexual pleasures, which necessitates breaking the hearts of many jealous women. In business, the alpha ideal is the oligarchic one of amassing the greatest personal fortune, substituting Machiavellian tricks for those of Casanova and typically backstabbing competitors, exploiting slave labourers, defrauding the consuming masses, and ravaging the natural environment.

Again, ethologically, the beta male is second-in-charge of a group, a backup leader and the alpha’s wingman or sidekick, and is given only secondary access to the resources of food and wombs. In pop culture, beta men often view themselves as superior to alphas, since the beta understands the superficiality of the alpha’s successes and has the character strengths to pursue long-term romantic relationships. The beta lacks flash, macho charisma, or sexual virtuosity, but is a woman’s safer choice as a mate, providing a more stable environment for her to raise a family. A beta plays tortoise to the alpha’s hare, persevering rather than dominating. Admirers of alphas, however, regard betas as feminized traitors to masculinity, belittling themselves in the process of catering to women’s demand for stable monogamous relationships; moreover, the beta eventually fails his woman as well, since she’ll tire of her reliable but boring beta man, longing for the excitement that only an alpha generates. According to alphas, women want men who are opposed to women, whose domineering, authoritarian tendencies are antidotes to women’s weakness for chaotic emotionalism. Women are supposed to prefer their opposites, namely masculine men, not effeminate listeners or feministic Yes men who surrender all their power to please women who are naturally incapable of leading. (For more on the comedy of the sexual attraction of opposites, see Individualism and Sexual Attraction.)

Finally, ethologically speaking, omega males are last in line to survive in the group, eating last and given little if any access to the females. Omegas are physically the weakest and also the most inept at forming social bonds, thus demonstrating the inferiority of their genes, from a narrow gene’s-eye-view; that is, the omega’s phenotype is least able to serve its genotype as a vehicle for the genes’ proliferation, since the omega can’t solve the puzzle of prospering in a society and thus attracting mates. As a purveyor of so much propaganda for the rat race, pop culture has a more once-sided definition of “omega man.” Admirers of alphas and of betas alike hold the omega in contempt for opting out of the social Game merely to conceal his character defects which render him incapable of succeeding in conventional terms. The omega has no ambition, courage, wealth, power, or sex appeal. The omega is mentally ill or weak-willed, a complete failure, a loser, the dud at the bottom of the pile, the dregs at the bottom of the glass, an albatross around a welfare state’s neck.

Fallacious Social Conservatism

There is, then, a split between alphas and betas, and a separate opposition between alphas and betas, on the one hand, and omegas on the other. Alphas and betas disagree about how best to succeed in society and especially with women. Sharing the assumption, however, that men ought to accept conventions and either attempt to earn a decent living and raise a family (for betas) or amass a fortune and a harem (for alphas), alphas and betas, as well as the women who partner with them, recoil from the omegas’ hostility to society itself. For unlike betas, omegas aren’t subservient to alphas, but are loners and outsiders who nevertheless find themselves within a group. Alphas, betas, and their women, which is to say most members of society, are conservative in conforming to the realities of the social hierarchy and thus of their animal nature. Because that reality wounds our pride, though, we surround ourselves with myths to preoccupy us, and so these heroic alphas and stable betas pretend that their victories are meaningful, that their successes are worthwhile according to loftier ideals they imagine to rationalize the baseness of their life missions.

Naked, sexist conservatism is heard especially in the odes sung to alphas, in the anachronistic laments of women’s helplessness, of their flightiness and need for strong men. The confluence of social conservatism and evolutionary pop psychology is no accident. After all, the difference between the ethologist’s classification of the members of power hierarchies, and the popular adoption of those categories is that the latter adds a usually fallacious normative judgment of the value of such a dominance hierarchy. The ethologist merely describes what tends to happen in social groups, whereas pop culture commits the naturalistic fallacy in assuming that alpha or beta men are more or less good, but are certainly better than omega men, because the goals pursued by the former and rejected by the latter are worthy.

Note that the point isn’t just that dominance hierarchies are naturally necessary for most animal species, including ours, since the existence of omegas even in nonhumans proves that this isn’t so, as does our much greater flexibility and originality, compared to other mammals. No, to generate the praise for alphas or betas and the loathing of omegas, you need a value judgment that doesn’t follow from any scientific theory whatsoever. When this appraisal of men’s lives is merely tacked on to the ethologist’s classification scheme, and when this appraisal inherits its legitimacy from its weak association with the biological science, without independent justification of its social ideal, the pop psychologist fallaciously infers a prescription from a description. Just because animals do tend to form a society with a certain structure, dividing into subgroups, doesn’t mean this structure or the subgroups ought to be praised or condemned. But as I’ve explained elsewhere, the political conservative likewise worships the most primitive state of social affairs, which is the dominance hierarchy, her noble lies to the contrary notwithstanding. (See Conservatism.) Thus, there's a happy marriage between the dating culture’s latent social conservatism and its abuse of evolutionary psychology.  

To be sure, the popular normative ranking of alphas, betas, and omegas needn’t be fallacious. You could justify the normative judgments with a narrative that glorifies the adventures of seducing women and of conquering lesser men. Only were such a narrative to reduce to a statement of the mere fact that most men instinctively do engage in those behaviours, without an additional normative principle informing the narrative, would the narrative commit the naturalistic fallacy. Any such principle seems seldom defended by participants in the dominance hierarchy.

Modern Omegas as Secular Mystical Ascetics

More to the point, such a principle would have to contend with the omega’s longstanding and indeed nominally venerated case against social norms. After all, what doesn’t seem much appreciated in Western societies is that so-called omega men are secular counterparts of the mystical ascetics who’ve been revered especially in Eastern societies. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain ascetics, as well as Gnostics, ancient Jewish hermits and Christian monks renounced worldly pleasures as degrading or illusory, often with elaborate theological rationales. I say “nominally venerated,” because Western societies are all strongly influenced by Christianity, which happens to be a paradoxical religion that prescribes asceticism, celibacy, pacifism, socialism, and effective anarchy, but that became politically successful when its leaders compromised on all of these fronts with antithetical secular powers. Thus, Western alphas and betas often have to pretend to worship Jesus, whose character was obviously that of an omega man, even as they sneer at contemporary omegas. (Recall Jesus’ declaration that--as I paraphrase it--in the Kingdom of God the first, the alphas, will be last and the last, the omegas, will be first.) Ascetics have no place in secular postmodern societies, although the American beat generation and hippies, as well as the communists of the last century expressed similar anti-natural or transhuman sentiments. Still, introverts or men with few if any advantages in the social Game, who thus have little incentive to compete in it, seem to reach conclusions similar to the religious mystic’s, about the indignities of the popular social condition and the delusions needed to sustain the secular pursuit of happiness. (See Embarrassment by Sex and Sex is Violent.)

This is to say that intentional dropouts and losers are normatively superior to alpha and beta men, according to some religious, mystical, ethical, or aesthetic ideals. (See Happiness.) Recall that the difference between betas and omegas has to do with their motivation, not with their behaviour, since betas may fail just as badly as omegas in finding a mate or earning a living. But betas accept the natural social system, whereas omegas reject it. This makes for an analogy between omega men and traditional ascetic mystics, in which case omegas can at least avail themselves of some secular or other version of the traditional normative principles justifying the renunciation of worldly pleasures. Conformist runners of the rat race who are repulsed by omega men typically have only the naturalistic fallacy to give that condemnation a semblance of respectability.  

Perhaps the most prevalent criticism of what’s effectively the omega’s secular asceticism is that his so-called principles or higher ideals are just rationalizations, disguises that allow the omega to save face and even feel superior to more powerful people. First and foremost, runs this response, the omega is a physically and socially inferior male specimen, which facts cause the omega to fail to live up to social expectations. This lowly man will be physically unattractive and single, perhaps even involuntarily celibate, as well as poor and unemployed or underemployed. Any mystical, ethical, or aesthetic justification of that wretched state of affairs is beside the point for non-omegas; indeed, the attempt to save face by such underhanded means, instead of admitting to personal inadequacy and leaving more successful members of society alone is just one more pitiful, time-wasting exercise that sinks the omega man deeper and deeper into his own fantasy world. As put by the AskMen article, cited above,
An omega male likes to think he’s marching to the beat of his own drum, but the reality is he just can’t keep time with everybody else. While we don’t want to advocate conformity, we do think there are certain facts of life that every guy has to recognize. Being a man means engaging with the world as it really is.
The description of omega men as unattractive, single, and poor is surely accurate. Indeed, its accuracy should be stipulated since in a free society, some men will fail to compete well, due to their inadequacies or poor choices, and will suffer the consequences; these men can be called betas or omegas, depending on whether they give up on meeting conventional expectations. But there are two fallacies in the foregoing response to the omega’s rejection of social norms. First, when you speak of the mystical, ethical, or aesthetic reasons for that rejection as rationalizations, you’re assuming that the character defects cause the ideology. Just as likely, though, an omega’s character may develop in response to a confrontation with the absurdities and tragedies which have for millennia inspired the omega’s ascetic worldview. Even the omega’s physical ugliness may be exacerbated by harsh experience, in that the omega will lack both the interest and the funds to look his best, and that disinterest and poverty may result from experience of our existential predicament.

Second, when you say that the omega’s world-weary ideals are worthless because of their association with the omega’s personal defects, you’re committing the genetic fallacy of reducing the ideal’s epistemic merit to the quality of its presumed source. Thus, even were the mystical, cosmicist, or existential worldview caused by the omega’s failures and personal weaknesses, that causal connection wouldn’t by itself entail the worthlessness of that worldview. On the contrary, supposing that social conventions were somehow bankrupt, we should surely expect that those who would discover that surprising and unpleasant fact wouldn’t be the conformists who strive to live up to those norms, by raising a family and earning enough money to live comfortably; those folks would sooner take such norms at face value than question them. No, those who would discover fundamental problems with a society would more likely be the alienated individuals who wouldn’t reflexively defend the popular lifestyle on a partisan basis. Of course, if you do accept the validity of social norms, you can pragmatically dismiss the omega’s worldview as a likely contributor to social failure, but that would beg the question at issue, which is whether those norms ought to be followed.

Returning to the above quotation, the classic reply to the realist’s insistence that, in this case, “Being a man means engaging with the world as it really is,” is voiced by the idealist Eleanor Arroway in the film Contact, the reply being that the world is what we make of it. More apt, though, the omega will maintain that even when we’re not responsible for social roles, because those roles are put upon us by natural forces, we’re responsible for our choice of how we deal with those realities, such as our sexuality and our ego-driven quest for personal pleasure. Alphas and betas don’t “engage with” reality, in the sense of battling with those forces as our enemies, since their goal of personal happiness requires that they bless their inner nature. Only the omega man engages with reality in that sense, by denouncing the natural causes of our suffering as horrible outrages, and by withstanding the social pressures to betray that existential realization and to lower his guard. The omega is always at war with his animal nature and thus always engaged with natural reality itself, not with the politically correct delusions and mass hallucinations that distract the alpha and beta men.

As for the insinuation that the omega isn’t a real man, unlike the alpha or beta man, if “real man” means the one defined by scientific theories, then we’re assuming that a human is a naturally selected mammal; a vehicle for transmitting genes in the furtherance of a mindless, morally neutral biochemical process; a mortal cursed with the intelligence to understand all too well the likelihood of our species’ doom, the ultimate fruitlessness of our individual efforts, and the inevitability of our body’s decay. In that case, surely the omega man should take that emasculating insult as an unintentional compliment. Perhaps the omega is an inchoate transhuman, whose stubborn renunciation of natural reality is a precondition of a radical alteration of that reality which requires an inner transformation of hitherto “real” men and women. Only an alienated outsider could be motivated to combat all the evils of the natural dominance hierarchy, and thus to preclude the need for distinctions between alpha, beta, and omega men.


To clarify, I’m not so foolish as to recommend that all men be omegas. What I maintain is that the popular dismissal of omega men as weak-willed losers is complicated by the comparison of these losers with the perennial class of mystical ascetics. The problem with modern omega men is that the traditional defense of asceticism has few roots in Western societies, and so these drop-outs are doubly alienated--from natural forces and from non-omegas. More than anyone else, omega men (and women too!) need a version of mysticism that’s compatible with modern science and with philosophical naturalism. Certain forms of Buddhism are popular options, as are New Age bastardizations of Gnostic and Eastern religious traditions. Elsewhere, I point to some common elements of such a synthesis, highlighting existentialism and Lovecraft’s cosmicism. (See Postmodern Religion and Buddhism and Angst.) With or without a philosophy of secular asceticism, secular society will inevitably produce losers along with its winners. But with such a philosophy, the losers may be buoyed and the winners may be compelled at least to relinquish their feelings of complacency.


  1. There is a lot I want to say in response to this post but I'll start small.

    In a philosophical sense, everything is uncertain and arbitrary, and, therefore measuring social hierarchies does not justify normative or moral judgments, but I don't agree that this fact necessarily justifies rejecting one's own arbitrary frame. One's frame may not be universal but could still be personally valuable.

    Understanding life as a competition and wanting to win that competition is certainly an arbitrary moral perspective. However, I would argue that omegas are, from their own perspective and from everyone else' perspective, losing that game.

    You can criticize alphas and betas for conforming to the rules of society. Perhaps this does make them slaves. However, I would argue that the most useful way to measure game success is not by measuring the degree to which someone is winning, but by the degree one is beating other players.

    You win the game if you can take the things that your opponent wants away from them. Winning is relative. You win only because people (at least people you don't consider your allies) lose.

    Alphas are able to take the most from other players, betas can be somewhat successful in taking from other players, and omegas are losers because they do not have the power to take things from alphas or betas.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that omegas are losers in the natural, mainstream game. In fact, this is true by definition. My point is that there's another game in which omegas tend to come out as the winners. This is the game of finding existentially authentic meaning in life, and it's the mystical basis of the world's great religions. The question is which game we should play: materialism and submission to our biomechanical overlords, the genes, on the one hand, or philosophy/existentialism/spirituality, on the other.

    2. Two things wrong with this. One, omegas all strive to be a sort of Omega as an Alpha that can force everyone to accept their ideals and adopt them - every profound agent of change throughout history. I submit that the existence of Omegas who fail to do so but dare to try imply the existence of those who can succeed - or rather the natural laws that a person could be a student of in order to strive for such success.

      Disregard for such people reduces to deep-seated insecurity at the notion of being dethroned in their own social hierarchy by the people they wanted to believe were least capable of doing so.

      Second, not only is there such a thing as a win-win, but at the highest levels of competition I would submit that no one who isn't prepared to accept such an outcome has any chance of winning. In the face of infinite knowledge and awareness, any wannabe alpha would simply be identified as a selfish spoiled brat to be rejected, and all that is left are interdependent omegas who lead and follow, who learn from one another, and negotiate for things they desire from one another.

      This end game has even been revealed in the animal kingdom among the most vicious animals where baboon troupes have lost their alpha and beta males to poisoned food (which they ate all of) and were left with omega males that indoctrinated future would be alpha males in to a new community of mutual respect and fairness.


      Ironically it is our intelligence that has prevented this from happening thus far in our society - the complexity of the ideas that have to be sorted through in order to make transparent the weakness of the alpha male is exceptionally difficult to sort through and communicate.

    3. I agree that under unusual circumstances, power can change hands from an alpha's to an omega's, in which case the omega becomes an alpha. In the wild, though, I suspect that would be unusual, because the differences in physical strength would be very hard to overcome, and the genes program creatures to test their mettle in matches of strength, ferocity, etc. In humans, there are also innate mental differences, such as the difference between extroverts and introverts, which I've written about here:


      When you talk about a win-win situation, given infinite knowledge, are you talking about the sort of posthuman society you find in science fiction, like Iain Banks's Culture books? I've written about transhumanism here, in case you're interested: