Tuesday, November 29, 2005

In Praise of Nepotism

What’s wrong with nepotism? Nepotism is a phenomenon as old as human society. And, as per evolutionary biology, it is the source of all cooperation in nature, argues
Adam Bellow The Indian Express Thursday, July 10, 2003
I am the son of a famous writer. I work in the publishing business and got my first job through a friend of my father’s. Next month I will publish a book of my own — a book whose value was undoubtedly enhanced by my famous last name. Most people would probably call this a pattern of nepotism. Ten years ago this kind of thing might have been considered remarkable, but today it is a common occurrence. Children of successful writers have launched their own writing careers and it’s not just happening in publishing.
The same holds true in the entertainment industry — popular music, film and television — as well as in politics, business and even professional sports. The new successors are more like opportunists trading on their famous names and family connections than passive beneficiaries of family largess. But others see a worrisome return to inherited status and a threat to democratic equality.
The first thing to be said about nepotism is that it is as old as human society and has deep biological roots. Indeed, according to evolutionary biologists, nepotism is the source of all cooperation in nature and the basis of all societies, human or animal. The pilot whales that beached themselves last summer in Cape Cod, and kept returning despite efforts to save them, died because they were unwilling to abandon their relatives, according to many scientists. Primates base their small societies on biological kinship, and humans aren’t that different.
The family itself is a product of nepotism, based on the mother’s genetic inclination to protect and nurture her offspring. Animals favour their kin through blind instinctual compulsion, but humans learned early to extend these nepotistic instincts to unrelated individuals through the invention of marriage and kinship. All societies — from hunter-gatherer bands to ethnic states to multiethnic empires — were based on kinship and its cultural extensions: the clan, the tribe, the caste, the ethnic group. It is still a man’s first and highest duty to support and aid his relatives.
The West — and America in particular — is an exception to this rule. Our society has reduced the effect of nepotism because, for us, kinship and nepotism are seen as important obstacles to economic development and political health. This is the fruit of a lengthy historical process that began nearly 2,000 year ago, with the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Catholic Church and feudal monarchies.
The American war against nepotism began with the Revolution, couched as a rebellion of sons against a tyrannical royal father. This was followed by the abolition of aristocratic inheritance practices such as primogeniture and entail, which sought to preserve the family estate by passing it intact to the eldest male heir, and by laws against polygamy and cousin marriage, which also kept property in the family. A generation later, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. Americans have rediscovered the joys of family enterprise, and after a century and a half of public insistence on youthful independence and autonomy, more and more the sons and daughters of established parents are choosing to follow in their footsteps.
Some observers warn that the return of dynastic families is a dangerous trend, but such critics underestimate the degree to which the values of meritocracy have been absorbed in American culture. Today’s successors generally hold themselves to higher standards than anyone else would ever set for them. Far from having a big ego, what they have is an inflated super-ego. This is our best protection against the darker side of nepotism and makes the return of dynastic families something to celebrate rather than fear. (Bellow, son of writer Saul Bellow, is the author of In Praise of Nepotism, which will be published this month by Doubleday.) (LATWP)

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