The Natural History of the Rich and In Praise of Nepotism

By Richard Conniff
By Adam Bellow

“Is man no more than this? Consider him well.” – King Lear

Confronted by “unaccommodated man” on the heath, Lear recognizes “the thing itself”: “a poor, bare, forked animal.” Tossed out into the storm by his ungrateful daughters (Adam Bellow blames “nepotistic malpractice”), he feels a bond of human kinship with the naked Edgar. He even starts to strip off his own clothes, determined to experience for himself “the thing itself.”

People have a need to believe in absolutes, even if they don’t always want to experience them. Progressive thinkers in the nineteenth century suffering a crisis of faith in God and the Creation sought hard, rational, material answers to ultimate questions about the thing itself. They looked for a new religion that would be positively scientific, more natural than the “natural religion” offered up by the Enlightenment. Social Darwinism adapted current ideas to human behaviour, ushering in the age of the “social sciences.” Such a tough-minded scientific religion did away with God, away with the state, and away with artificial human constructions and ideals like the exercise of charity and the rule of law. Aggression and self-interest were codified into biological rules (the “survival of the fittest”), and the only law was the law of the jungle.

A more cynical age, like our own, can take faith in even lower common denominators. In The Natural History of the Rich Richard Conniff takes a bemused look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, past and present, comparing them to dungbeetles, opossums, gelada baboons and Irish elk. It is a wry field guide to the bizarre expressions social dominance, reproduction, and the quest for immortality take in our culture.

Among his many well-chosen observations and anecdotes of upper class behaviorism one finds some disturbing patterns. Conniff’s rich, for example, don’t seem to like other people. They have a wildly enlarged sense of personal space to keep the rest of humanity at bay. They isolate themselves in large guarded homes behind closed gates within exclusive communities. One rich New Yorker even built himself a private home theatre at a cost of nearly a million dollars, explaining that “the whole idea was never to have to go out, and I wanted my kids never to have to go out.”

As Conniff points out, part of this is due to the fact that the outside world is a scary (not to mention insolent) place for rich people. But there may be more to their distaste for the merely human. After all, to become an alpha ape or top dog is some achievement, but it still means you’re just an ape or a dog. When J. Paul Getty’s twelve-year-old son died during his third operation for a brain tumor Getty himself never left Europe to be with him. But when Getty’s dog subsequently died of a tumor Getty stayed in his room for three days weeping. Did he have some sense that humans are not only animals, but maybe something less?

Theories of kin selection and selfish genes would suggest that Getty’s indifference was atypical of the rich as a species. In his tongue-in-cheek Epilogue Conniff offers “An Alpha Ape’s Ten Rules for Living Wisely in an Imperfect World.” Rule number 8 states that Family Should Always Come First. Adam Bellow’s In Praise of Nepotism offers a naturalistic and historical explanation of why this should be.

Bellow, the son of novelist Saul Bellow, casts as wide a net as Conniff, but to less effect and with far less humour. The nepotism he writes in praise of is “the ultimate source of social behavior,” “the ultimate basis of culture,” and the foundation of our moral sense and conscience. Indeed, all of Western civilization is the story of the development and evolution of nepotism through Ancient, Classical, Christian, Golden Age, Colonial and Modern forms. A lot of superficial reading, and precious little editing, went into this book.

Bellow’s point is that nepotism is only a bad thing when seen as opposed to modern technocratic (bureaucratic, meritocratic) liberalism. His more expansive, historical/biological view of nepotism is just family values – honouring your father and mother, taking care of your kids – writ large. And so he makes his case for the importance of the family in human history by trudging through a long historical excavation that is almost entirely irrelevant to any part of his argument.

Nepotism is an art. Bad nepotism fits the popular caricature of merely being preferential treatment for a relative who is grossly incompetent. But follow a few simple rules and it becomes the great engine of civilization, constantly adapting itself to new social and cultural environments. Nepotism may even survive the family itself. And to critics who say that the “New Nepotism” poses a threat to equal opportunity while rewarding incompetence and fostering inefficiency Bellow has a simple answer: The laws of the New Jungle (that is, the market) will simply doom such backward families to economic extinction. The New Nepotism is all about children proving themselves worthy of proud family traditions, not the simple transmission of property (as vitally important as that is). So let us lose our ambivalence toward great dynastic families. We need more Medicis, Rothschilds, and Corleones, not less.

Bellow insists that the “real constituents of human society are not individuals but families” and that the family (however constituted) is the “default mode of social organization” and the true state of nature. Absent a strong state, Hobbes’s “war of all against all” would really be a war of family against family.

So much for the vision of an open, inclusive human family that Bellow suggests as the future of post-modern nepotism. We are back in the jungle, with the family not a social unit but a competitive island, a distrustful clan. And so Conniff’s theatre-builder, only wanting to make sure that his children will never have to go outside. It’s Us vs. Them.

Naturalistic explanations of human behaviour are comforting because they confirm our low opinion of other people without challenging us to be any better than we are. They justify the status quo as a natural order indestructible and eternal (evolution takes a long time). But it is a hard lot. “Reciprocal altruism” and “competitive generosity” are moral oxymorons. Who can praise a calculated or predetermined virtue?

Is man no more than this? Consider him well.

Review first published October 11, 2003.