Essays and Theories
The Mafias: An Evolutionary Perspective
William A. Spriggs
Despite the buzz created by the HBO mini-series, the Sopranos, the popular fictional drama does not enlighten its audience with any new facts concerning organized crime as a group behavioral mechanism. Of course, it never was aired as a serious attempt to explain the Mafia, and all that the show accomplishes is to continue extending cultural stereotypes about an organization devoting time and effort creating wealth outside the social norms of law-abiding society. I hazard to guess that the reason for the show's popularity -- beyond the usual scenes of beatings, gun shot-flesh gushing blood, topless female nudity, and soft porn scenes of copulating couples weaved into the plot line -- is that the lead alpha male, Tony Soprano, (played by James Gandolfini) is a big, likable lug of a guy who cares deeply about his immediate family and the males in his bonded organization. In fact, it appears at times, that this man cares more deeply than we do about our own families; such, are the deep threads of Mediterranean and various other cultures that find themselves barren of natural resources and blocked opportunities in today's modern world.
But, what does this have to do with the evolutionary perspective? Well, if you look at Tony Soprano's group and strip away the stereotypes, what do you have left? You have a group of males who are tightly bonded that have a code of conduct that has been handed down through generations. Although not shown specifically in the show, similar groups would have a period of allegiance to prove loyalty, which most likely would be followed by an initiation ceremony prior to acceptance of an individual formally becoming part of the group. While still within this general framework of ancestral ethics and codes directing behaviors, the group also has rules that are specific to its clan/tribal group and to that group alone. Tony Soprano's group and similar others, establishes a territorial area identified and determined by their conceptual measurements. This territory is then announced and proclaimed to other groups by various forms of messaging, and then the "turf" is defended adamantly to protect any resources.
Then you have the evolutionary purpose of the group: based on the bonded male grouping principle that a group is more successful than one individual, they go forth and gather resources to provide subsistence for others in the clan and then, perhaps ultimately, to find a mate. This of course leads to the ultimate reason for our existence; the passing of one's genes into the next generation. In the HBO series, Tony's organization does not hunt for wild game in the deep primal history, but carves out, not just subsistence, but what appears by the standard of today's American culture, success and affluence.
In our modern American society, vast accumulations of wealth by individuals or groups, whether accumulated legally or illegally are generally rewarded in the popular culture with praise in word, song, or screen plays adnauseaum. But, being well known in the culture does not seem to transfer into power and influence the higher reaches of our social hierarchies where the pure bloods of Anglo-Saxony's reign supreme in America. It seems there appears to be a very large asterisk placed on such "successful" behavior when accomplished by similar groups like our fictional hero's. Could it be that their ability to accumulate vast sums of wealth and resources despite being labeled as "immigrant undesirables," as defined by the 1924 Immigration Act and the American eugenics movement of the late 1920s, causes severe forms of angst within elite hierarchical groups? Are the elite of our country so afraid that the children of these "genetic imperfections" might attempt to breed with their children and harm their lineage? And despite all attempts at stopping their ascent by strongly supporting beta male law-enforcement agencies, whom stalk and profile all "inferiors," many of these organized groups still manage to succeed, causing even more angst in our able populations?
So, can you begin to see the defensive reasoning behind the "undesirable's" bonded code of behavior? The fictional Tony Soprano and other real life male bonded groups that lack resources know that in order to operate at peak efficiency, there must be close coordination and complete loyalty as to the essence of the group's meaning and functioning; a chain link fence is only as strong as its weakest link. Our fictional hero most likely knows that survival surrounded by those who wish him and his group extinction calls for sacrifice, diligence, and constant preparedness. Was it similar for our deep primal hunter-gathering ancestors? Were groups constantly on a defensive posture while attempting to obtain resources? Does the show's popularity on HBO -- sometimes jokingly referred to as Hispanic Box Office -- resonate a deep cord in those subordinate groups in our American society who find themselves on the outside of society’s affluence -- looking in? Are these submissive groups surrounded by resisting able elite whom constantly stand guard as gatekeepers to the entrances to their territories and send forth beta males to encircle and keep those areas in check?
Another reason for the show's popularity is no doubt because we are presented with a rare glimpse of our hero confessing to a mental health professional his dreams, fears, and personal point of view that encompasses his life. Also, what a brilliant concept by the show's creator, David Chase, to have the psychologist with whom Tony Soprano confines these inner thoughts to be played by a well-educated, strong-willed, and attractive available woman, played by Lorraine Bracco. The characterization and treatment of respect given to this well-educated female in the show is in stark contrast to how the show's main characters treat the frontline, uneducated women in the show. Perhaps, it could be an unspoken desire by the show's creator to see all females stand up equally with Dr Melfi. And speaking of strong female roles in the show, how about that Mom Livia Soprano! (having just passed in late June 2000).
Played by Nancy Marchand, Livia Soprano's role in the show typifies many close Italian families in real life, (I speak from personal experience growing up in the same general area of northern New Jersey where the show takes place). This is where the male rules, but the female makes all the decisions (that's a joke). The typical behavior is of a patriarch roaming from home, declaring his strength and endurance in gathering resources, but when he returns home, the male passes the burden of responsibility to the female to run the household; she then becomes the matriarch within this realm. Since risk is higher for males to roaming from home, it is the woman who stays near the group's center camp and holds the family together through all adversity. As such is the case in many lower income families, the harder it is to exist in the local environment, the greater the possibility of males being eliminated from the gene pool. It does explain part of the reason for large families in resource-poor cultures and it is the female that is the pillar of survivability. Perhaps the originators of the show went a bit overboard in its characterization of the iron-willed matriarch attempting to gain control of the resources in her family by attempting to kill her own son, but this does bring up a point about a serious and important subject where scientific studies are lacking. What I am suggesting, is that the cliché phrase, "behind every successful male is a women," may have more validity in a scientific category than previously thought and is well worthy of more study. The challenge, of course, is getting past the veil of deception raised by the female to hide a strong-willed mind of action.
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Getting back to the dilemma that I discussed in the opening sentence as to the lack of any new information concerning the "Mafia," does evolutionary psychology provide us with answers to understand the origins of organized crime? I did briefly list what I thought were the universals of the male bonded groups engaged in resource accumulations, but not the possible origins. I think what I am going to do is to let the fictional character, Tony Soprano, tell you how and why the "Mafia" came into existence. He hits the nail squarely on the head.
One of the most powerful and insightful dialogues in the show short two year history occurred between Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi. The scene occurs in her office and Dr. Melfi begins by the scene by saying that she read in the paper about a gangland shooting, and she wanted to know if the person involved was his cousin Christopher that he had mentioned previously. Tony replied that, yes it was, and he continued by saying that they (his group) were like soldiers and that they knew the consequences of their actions; that killing was part of being a soldier. His group were not demented freaks like the Hitler's and the Polpots; the ones who kill molest and kill little children. The doctor continued by asking Tony if this specific point-of-view allowed the "Mafia" freedom to do whatever they pleased.
Dr. Melfi: So does that justify everything you do?
Tony Soprano: Excuse me. Let me tell you something -- but when America opened the floodgates and let all us Italians in -- what do you think that they were doing it for? Because they were trying to save us from poverty?
No, they did it because they needed us.
They needed us to build their cities, their subways, and to make them richer.
The Carnegies, the Rockefellers....they needed worker bees, and there they were.
But some of us didn't us didn't want to swarm around their hives and lose who we were. We wanted to stay Italian and preserve the things that meant something to us; Honor, Family, and Loyalty.
And some of us wanted a piece of the action. Now, we weren't educated like the Americans, but we had the balls to take what we wanted.
And those other Fucks -- the J.P. Morgans, they were crooks and killers too -- but that was business. Right? The American way.
----------------------------------------------------- Copyright, HBO, 2000 -----------------------------------------------------
And so, there you have it in a neat little package. The first wave of immigrants who came to America to seek a better life for their children came because of desperate conditions from where they came. Most survived, but some did give up and return to their homelands; the ones who adapted did so at a terrible cost to their pride and human dignity as insults, hate crimes, and constant discrimination were placed in their path because they lacked resources to fight back. But, it was their children, who grew up in the local environment, devoid of the knowledge of the prior environment from whence their families came that knew there could be a better life for themselves if they took chances. If they became "crooks" unlike J.P. Morgans and the Carnegies, it was because they were not treated with the same respect and loose interpretations under the laws afforded to those with vast resources.
Because of stereotyping, discrimination was raised and the doors of opportunity were closed to them. So they formed groups of males who shared thoughts, dreams and desires of a better life than just subsistence level survival for themselves and their children. They bonded together through ritual and codes of behaviors to insure loyalty and then did what was necessary to reach way beyond the expectations of those in the dominate culture ever expected them to accomplish.
You will notice in the title that I have given the Mafia word a plural. Despite all efforts to whitewash and corner Italian-Americans into a neat little pile under this banner, the truth of the matter is that there are many organized groups similar to the "Mafia" which begins to blur the meaning of this often misused word. You see, before there was the Italian Mafia, there was the "Jewish Mafia." (See the movie, "Once Upon a Time in America"). Along with the Italians and the Jews, there were the Polish groups, and yes, even the Irish had their own elements of criminal groups. If we fast forward to today, we find a multitude of male bonded groups with various names still doing the exact same universal behaviors as in the early part of the 20th Century. Some of the names of these groups are: The Mexican Mafia and Surenos, The Norteno Movement, The Aryan Brotherhood, The Nazi Low Riders, Peckerwoods, The Crips, The Bloods, The Blue Note Crip Organization, The Border Brothers, The Fresno Bulldogs, and various Asian groups. [The California Correctional News web site, //cppca.com]
As most likely our ancestors did before recorded time, so too did the "Mafia;" bonded males went forth to gather resources for their own tribe, clan, or village. But with our complex social norms, human interpretations of activities, resource accumulations and retentions became either criminal or normal, depending on something as simple as which side of the tracks you were born. It is not my position to admonish any behavior as being moral or unfit, that is for society to decide by voting for representatives who decide laws that should be enforced. My interest is merely to point out universals in behaviors across cultural lines; be it in the Mafia or the in Good-Ol-Boy Network.
Origin: June 10, 2000
For additional readings and viewing I suggest the following two books and one movie. Click on the link, and it will take you to Amazon.com where you will be able to purchase the items below. Help with a purchase if you can.
Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould
Men in Groups, Lionel Tiger:
Once upon a Time in America, (VHS movie)
Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995 - 2009 (Dialogue from HBO's original series, The Sopranos, is copyrighted HBO, 1999, and permission for use has been requested.)