- Many think nepotism is unfair, except when they benefit from it.
- Addressing favoritism takes more than laws and policies. It requires a shift in how we network.
- Without collective change, systems that favors those of high status will remain in place.
A few months ago the daughter of a celebrity claimed in an interview that she was disappointed she wasn't benefitting from being a nepo baby. What is a nepo baby? It’s a term being used by children of celebrities or wealthy people to describe the benefits they receive by coming from such a family. This could be an actor, fashion icon, corporation etc. Some children actively distance themselves, wanting to carve their way in life on their own merits. Some keep their familial associations secret from the public for fear that their accomplishments will be diminished if people discover they had certain obstacles removed for them. Nepo is short for nepotism, the preferential treatment towards kin or poorer treatment against non-kin.
The disdain we have for nepotism has led to procedures and laws in place to limit its influence in certain sectors. On most job applications there is a section that asks if you know anyone that works for the company, if you are related to anyone that works for the company, or if you have worked for the company in the past. These questions are designed to establish transparency of relationships that might influence the outcome of the hiring process. Interestingly, we also have a saying, “it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters.” This can only be true if there is what I like to call social nepotism. It seems we all want the benefits of some kind of nepotism.
Why do we resent familial nepotism but favor social nepotism? Is it possible both forms are beneficial and even necessary in a species as inherently social as humans? Can we learn anything by seeing how familial and social nepotism works in other species?
Nepo Babies in the Wild
Let’s consider chimpanzees. This may seem like an obvious comparison given our close evolutionary relationship, but it is intriguing nonetheless. For male chimpanzees, there is a material benefit when your mom is high ranking (think celebrity status in chimp society). Early benefits include being nursed more, having access to better quality food, experiencing less stress, and winning more arguments against your peers. These payoffs pave the way for success later in life. This means that when you come from a high ranking family a lot of things are just…better.
Just as the hit series Succession demonstrates, though, family feuds and competition can undermine the advantages that should be enjoyed by close relatives. Killer whales may not be as dramatic as the Roy family, but they can also make a spectacle of themselves. For killer whale families, this typically happens when the family gets too big and there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around.
Research by Stredulinksy et al. (2021) suggests that internal fighting escalates when there is too much competition for, you guessed it, resources. But that isn’t the only reason. The authors report that leadership experience can also lead to pod splitting. Ok, this is starting to sound more like Succession.
We can also look at honeybees to see what happens when kinship values are higher than in chimps or killer whales. For honeybees, family lines don’t usually exist since all females are, on average, 75% related to each other. However, there is still a queen. In humans, past monarchies failed due to inbreeding and ‘keeping things in the family,” while those that still exist frequently marry across certain families to maintain important alliances. However, this is not the way of the honeybee.
Succession is not up to the reigning queen. She has no say in the matter. It’s the workers that decide when a new queen is required and who it should be. Some of the reasons for wanting a new queen might be 1) they are dissatisfied with their existing queen, 2) their queen has vanished, or 3) the hive is splitting and a new queen is needed for the new population. Since all females are equally related and every female has the potential to become a worker or a queen, how do they choose? What determines whether a particular baby bee is groomed into a potential queen, even under emergency situations?
Resources, specifically, nutritional state. A hungry, deprived larvae not in tip top shape will not be chosen. Thus, for honeybees, whether or not one becomes a queen does not happen at random. Relatedness, or nepotism, has no real effect. It’s all about resources. In many ways this is similar to chimpanzees because it still comes down to access to resources. So far we can see that when there is rank, resources matter and when there is no rank, resources also matter.
What can we learn from this? If we think about how social nepotism works and why we like to enjoy its benefits while railing against its unfairness, we can see that the one with the gold (e.g. resources), rules. Whether its family or who you know, we all want some of that gold to rub off on us. Benefitting from the status of others is what those of lower rank strive for, whether you are a honeybee or a chimpanzee. Furthermore, it is our natural inclination given how we, and many other species, balance within group competition versus competition with outsiders.
Nepotism vs. Social Networking
Perhaps a better question is, is there a difference between social nepotism and social networking? Talk about splitting hairs. The rock hyrax is an underappreciated mammal. I recently had the chance to see some in Southwestern Uganda. This modest looking species has a rather complicated life. How well-integrated a female is in their group’s social network comes with significant benefits, including living longer.
When scientists investigated the details, there was a twist. The more equally-connected everyone in the group was, the better off everyone was. The implications of this are enormous. By definition we use social networking to get ahead. What if instead, the more cohesive (not cliquish) your network, the better it was for everyone? For instance, imagine a scientist in the field of animal behavior (not me of course) who is trying to succeed and attends professional meetings. You know you have to network but you just can’t sit with the “popular” kids. (Wait, I was having visions of high school.) Instead of the “popular” scientists restricting who has access to them and surrounded by hopeful wannabes, everyone was of equal significance. If we were social rock hyraxes then all of our careers would improve, not just a few.
Why aren’t we more like hyraxes? Perhaps because each new generation of humans comes into the world only to find themselves in the land of the haves, the almost haves, and the have nots. The system is in place and without collective agreement, like we see in hyraxes, we are powerless to change it. Or are we?
Stredulinsky, E.H., Darimont, C.T., Barrett-Lennard, L., Ellis, G.M. and Ford, J.K., 2021. Family feud: permanent group splitting in a highly philopatric mammal, the killer whale (Orcinus orca). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 75, pp.1-17.
Barocas, A., Ilany, A., Koren, L., Kam, M. and Geffen, E., 2011. Variance in centrality within rock hyrax social networks predicts adult longevity. PloS one, 6(7), p.e22375.