How Nepotism Works

Donald Trump's appointments of his son-in-law Jared Kushner (L) and daughter Ivanka Trump have garnered much controversy. View press/Corbis via Getty Images

Say the word "nepotism" out loud. It probably feels distasteful, like you're spitting out an insult. Because if you ever accuse someone of nepotism, it's likely not any kind of praise. There are laws against nepotism, but even when it's legal it carries the stain of unearned privilege, an unlevel playing field, rewarded incompetence and corruption.

So, nepotism is a terrible thing, right?

Sometimes. But sometimes it's a good thing, or at least a necessary thing. If nothing else, it's a nearly unavoidable act. Entire systems of government have been built on it, and entire systems of government have been built to eliminate it. One could even argue that it's a basis of human civilization.

The seemingly simple subject of nepotism — a tendency to grant favors to our family members over people who aren't related to us — turns out to have deep roots in human nature. It's worth taking a closer look, then, at nepotism's biological origins, cultural history and the measurable effect it has on modern society.