How monkeys, the Mafia, Italian academia—and, increasingly, American society—illustrate the biological impulse and social peril of nepotism.
The Italian word for “recommendation” is raccomandazione. According to the dictionary, both mean the same thing: advice, or support for an idea or cause. They are also used in similar contexts. In both the United States and Italy, people applying for jobs may be recommended—or raccomandati—by someone else. This, however, is where the similarities end. In the United States, letters of recommendation provide an evaluation of a candidate’s qualifications and are usually written by a senior person familiar with the candidate, such as a former teacher or employer. These letters are often an application requirement, and although in theory they can be good or bad, in practice they tend to be uniformly good. As a result, good letters of recommendation don’t necessarily increase one’s chances of getting a job. They make the most difference when they are bad.
In Italy, where I’m from, the raccomandazione is not a requirement of the job-application process. It endorses a candidate but doesn’t necessarily describe his or her qualifications. It’s usually made with a phone call, and it generally comes from a family member or family friend. Not all candidates have a raccomandazione; those who don’t generally don’t stand a chance. For those who have one, the chance of success depends not on how good the raccomandazione is but on the power and influence of the person who makes the call. The raccomandazioni are not meant to facilitate the applicant-review process but rather to rig the process and guarantee the success of a particular candidate, regardless of his or her credentials. The raccomandazione is not advice or support; it’s a request or even an order: make sure Mr. X gets the job. Typically Mr. X is a family member or a protégé of the recommender.
The raccomandazione is the quintessential instrument for nepotistic influence on Italian public life. It plays an important role in politics, business, education, and in the military. To illustrate how raccomandazioni work and give an example of Italian nepotism, I offer an example from an environment I know well: academia. Understanding academic nepotism in my country requires that we learn other Italian words: concorsi, baroni, and fregare. Concorsi are nationwide competitions used both to admit college students into graduate programs and to hire new researchers and professors at public universities. Baroni (“barons”) refers to university professors who have great power and influence over student admissions, the hiring of new faculty, and funds for research. To fregare someone means to screw them.
Until 1980, Italian universities offered only one degree, called the laurea, a combination of a baccalaureate and a master’s degree; then doctorate programs were introduced. Applicants had to compete in a concorso; their college grades and research accomplishments were evaluated, and they took an oral and a written examination. All positions were supported by fellowships, so students competed for both admission and money. This being Italy, the competition was rigged. The baroni negotiated with one another the number of students they could each admit each year into their programs and who would win the concorsi. Before applications were received, the baroni would have decided the winners.
When it came to admission decisions, family, of course, came first. The baroni admitted their children and other family members directly into their programs or recommended them to other baroni. Baroni also guaranteed admission to their protégés, students who, thanks to a raccomandazione from their parents, had completed their undergraduate thesis with a barone and, because of their loyalty, had been granted the status of extended kin—they had been adopted. Finally, the baroni admitted students who were neither kin nor protégés but strangers with raccomandazioni from politicians, businesspeople, or friends and neighbors. Applicants who did not fall into these categories would be turned down regardless of academic credentials. My adviser turned down students without the required family pedigree or raccomandazioni even if they were academically outstanding and he had empty slots in his lab. He had to keep slots vacant because his phone could ring at any time with a request to take a student he couldn’t refuse. So how did I get in there?
The year I applied to the biology doctorate program at the University of Rome, there were eight open slots, and the eight winners had already been agreed upon. I wasn’t one of them. A couple of weeks before the concorso, however, the National Research Council offered funding to support two additional fellowships. The baroni did not have time to negotiate these positions, so two outsiders with good résumés and exam scores—a friend and I—were admitted. We squeezed in through a crack in the system. Yet despite the fact that we were straight-A students and had published scientific articles, we couldn’t find a professor willing to serve as our adviser.
The truth was that by filling a slot with an outsider without raccomandazioni or appropriate pedigree, the advisers might lose an opportunity to admit a family member or the child of the prime minister the following year. Admitting two outsiders had been a big mistake—someone would have to pay the price. Eventually, after some arm-twisting, my friend and I found an adviser. Three years later, however, after I finished my PhD, it was made abundantly clear that someone who had entered academia through a crack in the system could not expect to go very far. After doors were shut in my face one too many times, I moved to the United States.
The nepotism that controls admission to graduate programs is nothing compared to what happens when academic jobs and real money are involved. Many concorsi for full-time researchers and professors, especially in medical schools, are rigged; complaints and appeals by candidates turned down for positions for which they were eminently qualified (in a word, they were fregati) have led to multiple criminal investigations, with some baroni convicted of fraud. Investigations of academic nepotism have shown that the baroni have organized themselves in clans that operate just like the Mafia. They have hierarchies of power with a “boss” at the top, they aim to control entire areas of academia, and they do not hesitate to threaten and intimidate to get what they want.
Scandals involving rigged concorsi have received a great deal of media attention in Italy; newspaper and magazine articles, and even books, have been written on the subject. Several years ago the weekly news magazine L’Espresso devoted a cover article—“The Baroni’s Mafia”—to academic nepotism in Italy, reviewing some of the best-known scandals.
A few of the incidents recounted are particularly noteworthy. For example, 25 new professor positions in otorinolaringoiatria were filled in universities around Italy in 1988 and 1992. Of these new hires, four were the sons of professors who sat on the search committees that examined the candidates. One powerful barone, Giovanni Motta, appointed his own son, Gaetano Motta, as a full professor at the age of 32. The father, as the chair of the search committee, himself evaluated his son’s credentials, which included scientific articles published in his father’s department, with his father as a coauthor. The senior Motta then falsified the examination reports to make it look like his son was more qualified and had performed better than the other candidates. Motta and other baroni whose sons were hired in these concorsi were later found guilty of fraud and convicted to one to two years in jail. Although the hirings were declared null, Gaetano Motta to this day still holds the appointment he illegally obtained in 1992.
Another case involved Roberto Puxeddu, an associate professor at the University of Cagliari. He was appointed by a committee that included two professors who had themselves obtained their faculty positions through a fraudulent concorso chaired by Professor Paolo Puxeddu, Roberto Puxeddu’s father and a powerful barone. Again, although the senior barone was later convicted of fraud and his son’s appointment annulled, the son maintains his position at the university. In another case at the University of Bari medical school, a professor who became dean left the directorship of his department to his 34-year-old son, the only candidate considered for the position. Another dean pressured his university to hire his daughter without even advertising the position and interviewing other candidates.
The inner workings of the Italian academic mafia were revealed when some university phones were wiretapped and conversations between baroni were recorded by the police. In 2005 Paolo Rizzon, a professor at the University of Bari, was recorded discussing strategies for manipulating concorsi across Italy. In one conversation he negotiated the composition of a search committee for his son, who had applied for a faculty position, and then he negotiated the essay topic for his son’s examination. Another recorded conversation revealed that a qualified job candidate who competed against the baroni’s protégés was threatened with physical violence by two Mafia hit men if he didn’t withdraw from the concorso. The hit men were identified by name—both had criminal records. In another conversation, Rizzon bragged to a colleague that to help his son and the relatives of other baroni obtain professorships, he had to be very creative to be able to fregare outside candidates with better qualifications.
The qualified job candidates fregati by the baroni often leave the country and begin successful careers abroad. In the last 20–30 years, tens of thousands of Italian researchers have fled the country. The baroni’s clans continue to operate undisturbed and have absolute control of the Italian academic system. As a result of such nepotism, the Department of Economics at the University of Bari had, at one point, eight professors who shared the same last name: Massari. They were all related. Apparently this set a new record for Italy; the previous record was six family members in the same department or institution.
When it comes to nepotism, the baroni of academia are amateurs compared to politicians, judges, businesspeople, and anyone else who has real power and influence in society. In his 2003 book In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush (Doubleday), Adam Bellow—the son of Nobel Prize–winning novelist and Chicago professor Saul Bellow, X’39—describes outrageous cases of nepotism that have received media attention around the world. Yet nepotism, he argues, “has its origins in nature, has played a vital role in human social life, and boasts a record of impressive contributions to the progress of civilization.”
Nepotism indeed has natural origins. To a biologist, nepotism simply means favoritism toward kin, such that kin are preferred as social (but not sexual) partners and helped at the expense of nonkin. For example, a squirrel who has saved a few nuts for dinner will share one with his starving brother but not with the unrelated squirrel next door. This altruism, however, is a bit phony. Because family members share some genes, helping a relative is a way to maintain the animal’s own DNA in the population. So nepotism is really selfishness in disguise. Many selfish behaviors have evolved by natural selection because they help an individual to survive and reproduce; the genes for selfishness are transmitted to the next generation. Similarly, many nepotistic behaviors have evolved through a kind of natural selection called kin selection, because these behaviors help an individual’s relatives to survive and reproduce; the genes for nepotism also are transmitted to the next generation.
Nepotism is a universal phenomenon. There is no animal species or human society in which individuals favor nonkin against their kin. What makes animals or humans more or less nepotistic is usually the availability of resources. When everyone has all the food (or water or money) they need or want, they can afford to be generous and don’t bother to discriminate as much between kin and nonkin. When belt-tightening becomes necessary, however, family values rise in importance. It’s not often that people have all the money they want—which may explain why nepotism has been an important part of human history.
Examples of nepotistic behavior can be found in almost any animal species, from vampire bats, who regurgitate the blood of their victims only to their close relatives, to naked mole rats, burrowing rodents native to East Africa, among which many females give up sex altogether to perform hard labor such as digging tunnels and gathering food for their mother, the queen. Some species of monkeys and apes closely related to us have taken nepotism to the next level. They don’t simply help their relatives with food but also help them gain and maintain political power. One of the most political and shamelessly nepotistic creatures on this planet is the rhesus macaque, a monkey species I have studied for more than 20 years.
Like humans, rhesus macaques live in a competitive society and are obsessed with dominance. In many animals, dominance between two individuals is established by asymmetries in their resource holding potential (RHP), which includes traits such as size, age, and weaponry. For example, a male deer with large antlers is dominant over a male with small antlers. The rhesus RHP, however, looks more like that of US congressmen than that of male deer.A Washington politician’s RHP has to do with how much political support he has from his party and how powerful the party is. The same goes for rhesus macaques; the only asymmetries that matter are those of political support. Adult females and juveniles receive support mainly from family members, in the form of agonistic aid. When the daughter of the alpha female picks a fight with an adolescent female from another family, the alpha female and her sisters join the fight and help their relative defeat the other adolescent and her relatives.
Similarly, what happens when Tony Soprano’s nephew wants to gain control of the drug dealing in his neighborhood? His uncle sends a couple of hit men to whack the competition. Clearly, human nepotism has its origins in nature. But are rhesus nepotism and human nepotism really the same, as Bellow suggests?
Rhesus macaques live in a matriarchal society. In a rhesus group, there are several families, but fathers leave when infants are born. So families consist of multigenerational groups of female relatives and their young offspring. The males are part of the family until they reach puberty at around five years of age; then they emigrate to another group. The females stay attached to their mother’s apron strings forever.
The matrilines have power in the same way that political parties or the Corleone and Soprano families do. The more members of a matriline, the greater its power. A rhesus group could have three matrilines in a hierarchy: the largest matriline is at the top, the smallest at the bottom. Older monkeys transfer power to the younger monkeys through nepotistic intervention in agonistic confrontations. Since juveniles pick fights all the time, and their mothers continue to intervene on their behalf, the sons and daughters of high-ranking mothers gain power and eventually acquire a rank just below their mothers. The sons and daughters of low-ranking mothers also end up with a rank similar to their mothers, which means that they also become losers.
Animal nepotism and human nepotism differ in important respects. Nepotism in macaques is mostly a female business, and especially a maternal business. Males don’t recognize their offspring, don’t give them milk bottles or change their diapers, and don’t help them realize their dreams of wealth and world domination the way human fathers try to do with their children. Traditionally in human societies, men have held most of the wealth and political power. Accordingly, it’s usually men who pull the nepotistic strings on behalf of their children and other relatives.
Another difference between rhesus and human nepotism is that while in the monkeys nepotism is limited to biological relatives, humans have extended the boundaries of the biological family to include nonkin through marriage and patronage. When we marry, we agree to treat our spouse and our spouse’s relatives as if they were genetic relatives. Throughout human history, marriages and exchanges of wives have also allowed men to form alliances with men from other villages or tribes. In humans, as in rhesus macaques, political strength lies in numbers. For men and women with strong political ambitions, an extended family may not be enough. Nonrelatives, then, must be brought into the family and given kin status. The Mafia provides a good example: the mafiosi maintain strong bonds with relatives but increase the size and power of their families by providing patronage to a large number of associates. The head of the family cements this patronage by serving as a godfather to the children of these associates.
While the rhesus macaques transfer only their social status to their relatives—other animals transfer nests or territories—humans transfer not only their power and privileges but also their property, money, knowledge, and values. So human nepotism is also a cultural phenomenon, since the transmission of knowledge, norms, and values within families makes an important contribution to human cultures.
The trouble with human nepotism is not that relatives are educated or helped, but how they are helped. The most important difference between the nepotism of rhesus macaques and our own has to do with a thing called morality. Like everything in nature, rhesus macaque nepotism—and all animal nepotism—is neither good nor bad. Sure, there are winners and losers; in the rhesus world, high-ranking females are winners and low-ranking ones are losers; in the African savanna the lion that captures the gazelle is the winner, and the gazelle that ends up in its stomach the loser. But the lion is not a bad animal, nor is eating the gazelle wrong. High-ranking rhesus macaques torment and torture unrelated monkeys of lower rank, but in doing so they don’t break any rules.
When people behave nepotistically in public life, they usually break moral, social, and legal rules. If everybody played by the rules, nepotism would be useless. Moral inclinations are strong—in some individuals more than in others—but the instinct to favor relatives is even stronger. In the end, rules are broken all the time, and nepotism gets associated with fraud, corruption, and other crimes. The popes in Rome, instead of appointing people to office based on merit and qualifications, hired their illegitimate sons, whom they called “nephews”—hence the term nepotism. In doing so, they had to fregare more qualified individuals.
Such fraud, however, is the least of the crimes associated with nepotism. Millions of people have been killed as a result of ruthless dictators bent on advancing the interests of their family members. Uday and Qusay Hussein—the two sons of Saddam Hussein, killed in a 2003 gun battle with US forces—would not have acquired their immense power and wealth without their father’s support and the shedding of Iraqi citizens’ blood. Criminal nepotism is rampant in many human societies, and particularly in dictatorships in Africa, Asia, and South America. According to Bellow, Europeans too have a relatively positive and tolerant view of nepotism.
American society, by contrast, was founded on the criteria of merit, fairness, and equal opportunity, and Americans have historically resisted and rejected nepotism. Yet family interests predominate in American economic life. In his forthcoming book A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity (Basic Books), Chicago Booth economist Luigi Zingales makes the case that American capitalism, once unique for being based on fair competition, equal opportunity, and meritocracy, has gradually changed and increasingly resembles Italian capitalism, in which cronyism and nepotism rule.
Nepotism has crept into American academia too, increasingly following patterns similar to those of Italian baronism. I moved to the United States in 1992, and of the first two academic jobs I interviewed for, one was offered to the daughter of a powerful professor in the same institution, while the other was offered to an internal candidate, a protégé of the department chair. At the University of Chicago, many students supervised by well-established professors happen to also be the sons and daughters of other well-established professors.
Biologists explain the relative strength or weakness of nepotism in a species or a society based on resource availability and competition intensity. With America’s recent resource depletion and economic crises, coupled with healthy population growth, social competition has intensified. A great deal of wealth and political power is concentrated in the hands of baby boomers. As they approach retirement age, their children are entering the workforce en masse. No wonder the aging baby boomers use all the means at their disposal to transfer wealth and power to their children.
Confronted with the reality that American society has become more nepotistic, Bellow launches into a patriotic defense of this phenomenon. He explains that contemporary American nepotism is a different beast, a gentle and noble kind, and nothing like the nepotism practiced by rhesus macaques, dictators around the world, or Europeans. He also argues that while bad nepotism—hiring a grossly incompetent relative—is essentially harmless, good nepotism—hiring a competent relative—plays a positive role in promoting a capitalistic economy and conservative moral and family values.
It’s true that the United States has seen a resurgence of nepotism, but there is nothing gentle or kind—or new—about it. It’s the same old nasty beast. And although all economic classes practice nepotism, it is much more dangerous to society when rich and powerful people do it. The lower classes simply don’t have the power to bend the rules, and their nepotism is largely inconsequential for the society.
Bellow argues that we have a moral obligation to be nepotistic: if we fail to put our families first, we may destroy the very fabric of human society. We strengthen nuclear families, encourage people to help their relatives, and stimulate extended kinship networks through patronage of friends and associates. Hiring a nephew may be discriminatory, but since people will do it anyway, we might as well hire the best and most meritorious of nephews. “If nepotism is just about helping relatives,” he writes, “then clearly there is nothing wrong with it and even the nepotistic values the Mafia embodies may have merit and legitimacy.” He cites an episode of the Sopranos in which Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela tries to get their daughter admitted to Brown University by pulling strings. She says: “It’s all connections now. It’s who you know. If the rules don’t apply to everyone, why follow the rules?” If we share Carmela Soprano’s and Adam Bellow’s views, then in the end we are all mafiosi.
Adapted with permission from Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships (Basic Books, 2012) by Dario Maestripieri, professor in comparative human development and evolutionary biology.
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