he small world of insect behaviour experts was
shaken earlier this year with the discovery by Finnish
scientists that ants, long imagined to be the socialists
of sociobiology, practise nepotism – favouring blood
relatives with food and killing strangers. A similar
spasm is currently gripping the intellectuals of the US east coast.
A new book by Adam Bellow argues not only that nepotism is on
the rise (a view shared by many) but that this is a cause for cele-
bration rather than liberal hand-wringing. And Mr Bellow
knows of what he speaks. His dad is Saul Bellow.
Far from being a scourge of modern democracies, the practice
of helping offspring is an honourable parental instinct, he
believes, while nepotism “links the generations in a chain of gen-
erosity and gratitude”.
It is tempting to dismiss Bellow Jr’s arguments (
In Praise of
, Doubleday) as a load of self-serving tosh. And given
that he writes in a nation where the late,
Strom Thurmond prevailed upon George W Bush to appoint his
28-year-old son as US attorney for South Carolina, this is a temp-
tation to which we should succumb. But nepotism is far from an
American monopoly. It is an accusation flung around in British
circles, too, not least in political ones. Among the various sub-
gathering at the Labour conference,
some names carry a certain cachet – Miliband, Wintour, Toynbee,
Alexander – and perhaps double rooms are being booked for the
power couplings: Balls/Cooper, Marr/Ashley, Symons/Bassett.
Politics being what it is, any hint of favours for friends and fam-
ily is an open invitation for a salvo. The fact that Tony rhymes
with crony is one of those unfortunate (or fortunate, depending
on your point of view) linguistic coincidences of political life.
Those looking for evidence that being old friends with the PM is
helpful need look no further than the Woolsack, upon which
Charlie Falconer sits in place of Derry Irvine – Blair mates both.
Yet it is in the land of opportunity, the US, that nepotism seems
most entrenched. “
,” says Steven Bochco, who regularly
casts his own children in his detective series
Polish for nepotism.” Meanwhile the second Bush administra-
tion has thrown ambassadorships at wealthy donors like confetti,
giving little consideration to whether, for example, the ambas-
sador to France could speak any French.
Historically, however, nepotism has been restricted to the
favouring of blood relations. The term itself stems, according
to Bellow, from the Italian
for “relative”, with
flourishing in the 15th and 16th centuries when illegitimate papal
sons, or “nephews”, were placed in ecclesiastical jobs. Nepotism
in this narrow sense, of placing ill-suited relatives into plum posi-
tions, is not much in evidence, at least in the United Kingdom.