At the time, and in its context, that story seemed an apt metaphor for Italian culture as we saw it at the time. Gus told me a few of his other war stories while we finished working up the morning forecast for the swarm of pilots who would shortly call for their pre-flight briefings.
I never thought about his quip except as an apt description of a rather weak military country that is loaded with culture--sculpture, opera, paintings, intellectual movies, fantastic food, and people who talk by waving their hands. Organized crime aside, it's a warm and appealing image, and it befits Anne's and my wonderful son-in-law, a native of that land.
But then along came sociobiology....
In their genes
Sociobiology is one of several names for that field of biology (evolutionary psychology, known as evo psycho by some, is another) that seems to think that everything we do or say is mandated by our inherited genomes (sometimes, possibly affected in minor ways by the environment). Even our culture itself is the product of our genes. Our genes make us do what we do, and if we do it well, our population proliferates (as a corollary, behavior has Darwinian-based values that proponents of this view can easily identify). You may know how the theory goes, as it's all over the news media.
A few decades ago, , as I recall, Robert Ardrey, an author about as highly qualified as Richard Dawkins to write about the nature of life, proclaimed about Italians that their honking, fist-shaking impatience in traffic (another clearly inherent trait, as you know if you've ever tried to actually drive in Italy) was part of their genetic make-up (Ardrey was a playwright, so that, like others of his scientific ilk, inventing fiction was his specialty).
Well, when it comes to the lusty Italians, one can't resist conjuring objects of what's in their (excitingly tight, body-hugging) jeans as well as genes, given various memorable cinematic and statuary representatives of their genome. The Land of Lovers! Soft violin music, or a Verdi aria in the background, a glass or two of Valpolicella, and....well, one's imagination is hard to control.
But wait--isn't, um, Rome in Italy?
When these thoughts pass, we find that we've got some reconciling to do: the image of the pacific Italian lover vis-à-vis the Romans (who were from Italy, as we recall). They were for many centuries the dominant military power, by unrepentant force of arms controlling the biggest empire the world had known (til the Brits came along, and nobody ever accused them of being lovers rather than fighters, given their gloomy climate).
|Tough guys, or sissies?: http://annoyzview.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/roman_soldier_1.jpg|
Romans with shields, chariots, wielding their swords (in combat, that is)! They had oval chariot-combat arenas, and gladiatorial combat centers (coliseums, probably named after food-brands or insurance companies now lost to history). They slaughtered vicious lions to prove their mighty valor, and slaughtered each other to prove their, well, I'm not sure what, but it certainly wasn't about love!
Now, I have myself seen these scenes of brutality in many places, and have read about what happened in them, even in books by authors from that time (e.g., Galen, one of whose important jobs was fixing up gored and sliced gladiators, and another was taking care of the slashed and stabbed soldiers of Emperor Marcus Arelius), and in Charlton Heston movies. The Romans were rather nasty beasts. If the classics are anything to go by, a favorite sport was crucifixion.
But then how is this possible? I mean, everyone's heard about lovers' spats, but this seems rather different!
The Roman empire fizzled out only about 1500 years ago. Maybe some Jews and a few other stragglers from the Middle Eastern part of the Empire, or Turks and their like, ended up in Italy as that fizzling happened. But, hostility to immigrants being what it is (and, sociobiologists would tell you, it's inherently genetic), these drifters certainly didn't replace the Romans and their seed.
But, if we're to believe the story told by the likes of evolutionary psychologists, the very same population that is now amorously pacific by nature was once quite violent. So how on earth did the requisite nation-wide genome replacement take place, and how were gladiator genomes exterminated by the soft-and-sexy, artsy ones that now fill the Mediterranean boot?
Our inclination is to venture to say that culture is not, after all, in our genes, and that genes enable all sorts of behaviors, but don't prescribe them. But that must be wrong, because so many anthropologists and others who should know, assure us that what we are can be read off a DNA sequencer. Indeed, we hear tell of a new book, due out in the spring, by a New York Times 'science' (op/ed?) writer of a particularly determinist persuasion that will insist that this is so.
To quote Thomas Huxley in 1891, an acerbic critic of religious orthodoxy who, even back then and unlike many of their lot today, actually understood evolution, himself quoting Goethe from 1833; "There is nothing more terrible than energetic ignorance." [Huxley, 1891, "Hasisadra's Adventure".]
It's going to be a long, hot spring.