In an earlier post I mentioned the recent Italian cruise ship disaster.   I stated that this was an example of “Italian incompetence. ” Italians have a certain reputation attached to them, as many of you may have seen with Italian jokes after the tragedy (a word I use deliberately, as we’ll see).  Southern Italians have been especially notorious in this regard; there’s even an old notion of Southern Italy being “Africa’s last colony in Europe” (which isn’t too far from the truth).

But some of you may be thinking that “these are all stereotypes, right?”  They can’t be true; they have to be misinformed or irrational, right?   Wrong.  As evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa points out, all stereotypes are true, statistically anyway.  As he notes, stereotypes are what scientists call “empirical generalizations.”  The trouble happens when people assume that stereotypes apply in every last instance, when they clearly do not.  However, if there wasn’t some sort of statistical trend, the stereotype could not persist (not mention that the stereotype would probably never have become one in the first place).  (Of course, there might be some good reasons why people sweepingly apply stereotypes the way they often do.  I’ll discuss that in a future post).

The lowered average IQ is only in the south (Il Mezzogiorno).  Northern Italians are actually pretty clever, on average.   However, southern Italians don’t just bring their lower average IQ, they also bring their culture, a culture shaped by centuries of inbreeding.  Here are a few more of those maps from M.G.’s blog that look at the things that correlate with latitude in Italy:


Anyone who’s watched The Sopranos, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, or any of a host of mobster flicks has had an introduction into the workings and the pathologies of Southern Italian culture.

As hbd chick puts it:

“In the North the crucial social, political, and even religious allegiances and alignments were horizontal, while those in the South were vertical. Collaboration, mutual assistance, civic obligation, and even trust — not universal, of course, but extending further beyond the limits of kinship than anywhere else in Europe in this era — were the distinguishing features in the North. The chief virtue in the South, by contrast, was the imposition of hierarchy and order on latent anarchy.”

in other words, northern italy was full of republican communes, while the south was run from the top down by the monarch.

medieval communes were a type of corporate society, but you can’t have a corporate society if you have clans or tribes or any sort of extended families produced by extensive inbreeding. you need a good deal of outbreeding to get the republican communes that putnam talks about. you need to have a society full of individuals looking out for their own best interests, and those of their immediate family (wife, children), as opposed to a society of extended families or clans or tribes looking out for the interests of their whole group. then, because of the effects of inbreeding on the evolution of social behaviors, you get clan vs. clan, not individuals coming together in guilds to promote their profession or mutal aid societies.

The province I’ve pointed to on the above map is the province of Naples, from where the captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, hails.  As we see, this province is rife with the problematic issues that face Italian society.  One of these is nepotism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is how Mr. Schettino got his job.  Let’s take a look at the captain’s behavior that fateful night:

Cruise ship’s cook says captain ordered dinner after crash

(CNN) — The captain of the Costa Concordia ordered dinner for himself and a woman after the ship struck rocks off Italy’s coast, a cook from the ship told a Filipino television station.

In an interview with GMA Network, cook Rogelio Barista said Capt. Francesco Schettino ordered dinner less than an hour after the accident.

“We wondered what was going on. … At that time, we really felt something was wrong. … The stuff in the kitchen was falling off shelves and we realized how grave the situation was,” Barista told GMA.

Schettino ordered dinner around 10:30 p.m. Friday, Barista said. Authorities say the ship struck the rocks at 9:41 p.m.

“I have had 12 years of experience as a cook on a cruise ship. … I have even witnessed fires, so I wasn’t that scared,” Barista said. “But I did wonder, though, what the captain was doing … why was he still there.”

Italian media have published photos of the woman purportedly dining with the captain.

Costa Cruises, which owns the ship, said the woman boarded the ship Friday and registered.

“The company is ready to provide the authorities, when requested, with the identity of the person and the number of the ticket purchased,” the company said.

The ship hit rocks off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio on Friday night.

At least 11 people are known to have died in the disaster, and 21 are still missing, according to the Italian Crisis Unit.

There were roughly 4,200 people on the Costa Concordia when it ran aground — about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members, the vast majority of whom made it off the ship safely.

Criticism from both Costa Cruises and the authorities has focused so far on Schettino, who is under house arrest and facing possible charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship.

Coast guard records published Thursday by an Italian newspaper pile further pressure on the captain of the Concordia and his officers, suggesting authorities first became aware of the crash from a friend of the mother of a passenger about 15 minutes after the ship hit rocks.

Schettino’s brother-in-law defended him in an Italian newspaper Thursday.

Schettino “managed to avoid a tragedy — it could have been worse,” Maurilio Russo said in Corriere della Sera.

And he denied that the captain had abandoned ship.

“He was not running away, he came down (from the ship) to survey the damage,” Russo said.

CNN’s Armie Jarin-Bennett and Hada Messia contributed to this report.

Interestingly, as an aside, Schettino’s appearance is also quintessential Italian.  Even if you didn’t know who this guy was or ever heard his name, you could look at him and know instantly that he is Italian, thanks to these facial averages from The Postnational Monitor :

Additionally, here’s an account of the dysfunctional behavior of the Costa Concordia’s crew during the evacuation:

Italian cruise ship survivors: Crew appeared helpless

Porto Santo Stefano, Italy (CNN) — At first, Vivian Shafer said, she thought it was part of the magic show aboard her Mediterranean cruise.

During the show, aboard the Costa Concordia, staffers had been “playing with the lights” and using smoke, “so we really weren’t that alarmed” as things began happening on the ship, she said Sunday.

Shafer said she and her traveling companion, Ronda Rosenthal, returned to their cabin after the ship gave a “shudder,” but were reassured by their cabin steward the ship was experiencing a “small technical difficulty.” And as the two got into bed, someone speaking on behalf of the ship’s captain made an announcement saying there was an electrical problem that would be fixed soon.

However, it became clear that something was amiss aboard the 1,500-cabin luxury vessel, after the two heard announcements regarding lifeboats and muster stations. They dressed, grabbed their life jackets and went to investigate, coming upon a chaotic scene.

“We peeked around the corner to kind of see what people were doing … and my gosh, people were actually getting in a lifeboat,” Shafer said.

At least five people died after the Concordia ran aground on the tiny island of Giglio Friday night. Several others remained unaccounted for.

Survivors recounted a frantic rush by passengers to get on lifeboats, while the crew appeared helpless and overwhelmed to cope.

“There wasn’t anybody to help you,” Shafer said. “I mean, the passengers were loading the lifeboats by themselves.”

Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Costa Cruises, said in a statement Saturday that it was “working to fully understand the cause of what occurred. The safety of our guests and crew members remains the number-one priority of Carnival Corporation … and all of our cruise lines.”

Costa Cruises on Sunday said crew members on board the Concordia “acted bravely and swiftly to help evacuate more than 4,000 individuals during a very challenging situation. We are very grateful for all they have done.”

It said preliminary indications are that there may have been “significant human error” on the part of the ship’s captain.

Compounding the evacuation problems was that only one side of lifeboats was available as the ship was listing. Passenger Laurie Willits, from Ontario, Canada, said some lifeboats on the higher side got stuck, leaving people suspended in mid-air amid the sounds of children crying and screaming.

“It was so crowded, and there was no room for us,” said Brandon Warrick, who was sailing with his siblings. They arrived late, he said Sunday, and “it was just bad, like mad scrambles to get into the lifeboats. Nobody followed any procedure. The crew was yelling for people to wait their turn and pretty much it was just a giant every man for himself, to get onto the lifeboat.”

He said his family hung back because “we didn’t want to make it worse.”

His sister, Amanda Warrick, said she thought several times that she might die, as they waited at least an hour and a half for more rescue boats after all the lifeboats departed.

As the ship took on water and listed to the side, “We were just holding onto the railing, trying not to fall,” Brandon Warrick said.

“I just remember standing on the decks,” Amanda Warrick said. “There were barely any people left.” She said she didn’t see any crew members “until the very last minute” and they were given no information about how long they would have to wait or whether any more help was coming.

Her primary concern, she said, was staying with her brothers. “There was no way that we were going to be separated.”

Costa Cruises said Sunday its crew members hold a certificate in basic safety training and are trained to assist in emergency situations. Every two weeks, the company said, all crew members perform a ship evacuation simulation.

Shafer said the only help they received from the crew was one young woman who approached her and told her to tighten her life vest.

“I was really disappointed and surprised,” she said. “The crew was so young. You would have thought they could have handled it better.” She said she thinks passengers should at least have been told to grab their coats, shoes and warm clothing.

Rosenthal said she believes the two waited at least 40 minutes to get on a lifeboat. The two had just embarked at the Italian port of Civitavecchia, she said, and had not undergone the mandatory safety drill, scheduled for the next evening. However, she had just taken a cruise and so she knew where the life jackets were stored, she said.

“Lack of communication was a big thing for me,” she said, “and it wasn’t the language barrier … it wasn’t handled at all like the previous cruise I had been on.” Even on shore, she said, people were wandering around aimlessly.

She said once she and Shafer got on board a lifeboat, people were angry with them, as the boat was crowded. She did not clarify whether the crew members or other passengers were angry.

Passenger Benji Smith on Saturday recounted making his own rope ladder to save himself and his wife.

“It was the Marx brothers, watching these guys trying to figure out how to work the boat,” he said. “I felt like the disaster itself was manageable, but I felt like the crew was going to kill us.”

After helping passengers, some said, crew members jumped overboard and swam ashore.

Smith said even the safety presentation was more of a “sales pitch” for shore excursions.

The problem of course wasn’t just limited to the captain or crew of the ship; the trouble is institutional to the cruise line itself.  Here’s a recount of the experiences a couple of passengers from Georgia who survive the crash, including how they were treated after they were evacuated from the ship:

U.S. passengers recount Concordia ordeal

(CNN) — Chaos and a lack of communication are common threads among American survivors’ stories of the Costa Concordia sinking, and making it to shore was only the beginning of a long ordeal for passengers trying to get home.

Melissa Goduti of Wallingford, Connecticut, boarded the ship about three hours before it ran aground Friday night, killing at least 11 passengers.

“All of a sudden, the boat leaned over like on a 70-degree angle, and everything just started falling — dishes were falling, trash cans were falling, everything was falling,” Goduti told CNN affiliate CTNow. “Then the lights went out and everything was blacked, out and then the lights came back on.”

Lynn Kaelin of Puyallup, Washington, told CNN affiliate KCPQ that it was “like having the Titanic without the water gushing through.”

“I called my husband, not knowing if I’d see him again,” she said. “I thought we were going to die.”

There were no announcements for a long time, and Goduti and her mother didn’t see signs directing them toward lifeboats.

“We were running around trying to ask what floor the lifeboats were on, and all the crew kept saying is, ‘you don’t need them, you’re fine, everything is fine, we just got hit by a big wave,’ ” Goduti told CTNow.

“All they kept saying was it’s a generator issue, just a generator issue and that the boat was floating along and just needed to get stabilized,” she said.

Nancy Lofaro of New Rochelle, New York, said the crew tried to do what they could, “but when we asked them, they said they had no information. They just didn’t have any information to give us.” Lofaro estimates the first announcement came 30 to 40 minutes after the ship ran aground.

Goduti and her mother feel lucky they found a lifeboat.

“When our lifeboat dropped, it dropped. It wasn’t an easy letdown by any means, but at least we got into the water and were safe, which is a lot better than, unfortunately, some people,” she said.

Costa staff in Lofaro’s lifeboat were debating who would drive the boat, and they didn’t seem to know what to do, she said.

Joan Fleser of Duanesburg, New York, seconds that opinion, calling the crew “inexperienced and untrained.”

In a letter to passengers, Costa Cruises CEO Pier Luigi Foschi disputes that assessment: “The crew of the Costa Concordia acted bravely and swiftly in an extremely difficult situation and succeeded — despite the terribly demanding conditions — in evacuating more than 4,000 people in the shortest possible time: we are proud of our commitment and dedication to your safety.”

He goes on to outline crew training, safety procedures and regulatory oversight.

Survivors of the disaster say the scene on land was equally chaotic. Fleser said the lifeboat ride to the Tuscan island of Giglio was the last she saw of Costa Cruises employees until she, her husband and daughter reached a hotel in Rome on Saturday.

The people of the island came out in force to help the stranded travelers, and a local priest opened up the church. Fleser and her family stayed at the home of a local family overnight.

“The people of the island were wonderful,” Fleser said.

Nancy Lofaro and her husband wandered around on shore, finding a church, a local cafe and a small hotel all packed.

“There was no organization. There was nobody, and the staff was in shock as much as we were. There were no announcements. We saw Costa people … walking around with a bullhorn, not using it,” Lofaro said.

Fleser and her family were herded onto a ferry to the mainland the morning after the wreck, “but we had no idea where we were going.”

Triage doctors, members of the coast guard, the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations met the cruise passengers and took them to a local school, where more local services were provided. Her daughter received a pair of sneakers there because she was still wearing high heels from the night before, Fleser said.

The family then boarded a bus to Rome, where they were dropped off at a hotel.

“The Marriott had no idea we were coming. All these refugee boat people land on their front door, and they say, ‘Who are you? But we’ll take care of you,’ ” Fleser said.

There were two Costa cruise representatives at the hotel, “but every time we asked them if they could do something for us, they said they had no authority,” she said.

The cruise line did pay for food, the hotel and their airfare home, Fleser said, although they booked them on a flight to Albany, Georgia, instead of Albany, New York — a mistake the family discovered in the Atlanta airport.

“Oh my god, we were just ready to lose it at that point.”

More than 1,100 Costa employees have been working to assist passengers and crew since Friday night, Foschi said in his letter to passengers.

The CEO of Costa’s parent company, Carnival Corp., pledged support to passengers: “I give my personal assurance that we will take care of each and every one of our guests, crew and their families affected by this tragic event,” Micky Arison said in a statement.

Before Fleser and her family could make the journey home, they needed new passports to replace those lost on the sinking ship.

The U.S. Embassy’s response was a big disappointment, Fleser said.

“Other than getting our temporary passports, they gave us no assistance whatsoever. No food, no clothes, no money, no transportation. They told us to borrow some money, get a cab, come on down.” A hotel shuttle took Fleser and other Americans to the embassy, she said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the agency arranged with the cruise line to have American passengers transported to a Rome hotel and to the embassy for documents. More than 100 emergency passports have been issued to stranded travelers.

“We also provided all kinds of advice, telephone contacts to families, helped families create travel funds, provided them with passport photos, warm clothes, there were even a couple of families that needed diapers,” she said during a State Department briefing Wednesday.

Fleser and her family arrived home shortly after midnight Tuesday. They received a voicemail from Costa saying the family would be reimbursed for the cruise and articles lost on the ship, she said, but the message didn’t offer details of how those amounts would be determined.

In addition to arranging lodging, transportation and counseling for passengers, Costa will address possessions lost on board and is in the process of refunding cruise fares and costs incurred while on board, the company said in a statement.

Now contrast the Costa Concordia disaster with another cruise ship incident (albeit a much smaller one with fewer than 300 passengers) but nonetheless one where a near catastrophe was successfully averted.  This one occurred off the coast of Norway:

“Intense” Norway cruise fire kills 2 crew


OSLO, Norway – An “intense” fire in a cruise ship’s engine room killed two crewmen Thursday, injured nine others and forced over 200 passengers to evacuate a popular cruise off Norway’s craggy western coast. Police suspect an on-board explosion.

Thick black smoke billowed from the stern of the boat, the MS Nordlys, of Norway’s Hurtigruten line even before it pulled into the dock at Aalesund, 230 miles northwest of the capital of Oslo. Police sealed off parts of the town as the smoke engulfed nearby buildings.

The ship’s emergency evacuation began after the fire started at 9 a.m., with more than 100 passengers piling into lifeboats in the frigid waters. The rest of the ship’s 207 passengers and 55 crew were evacuated at the dock at Aalesund, with some crew staying on board to fight the fire.

Aalesund Hospital said nine people had been admitted, two with serious burns and smoke injuries. Police said all of the injured and dead were members of the ship’s crew.

“Our suspicion is that there was an explosion in the machine room,” Acting Police Chief Yngve Skovly of the Sunnmoere Police District told reporters later Thursday.

Passengers said the cruise ship, which was traveling north from the city of Bergen, had organized an orderly evacuation.

“We were sent up on deck and given our lifevests,” Danielle Passebois-Paya, a French tourist, told Norwegian daily Aftenposten. “It took only a few minutes after the alarm and we were in the lifeboats.”

“It was a well-organized evacuation,” she added. “The crew did a really good job. Everything was calm and went smoothly. There was no panic.”

The chief of Aalesund’s fire brigade, Geir Thorsen, described the fire as “big and intense.” He could not confirm reports that the ship’s fire-extinguishing system did not work, but said its electricity system was knocked out.

And this is how the company handled the passengers after the incident:

Cruise ship tilting dangerously in Norway after Thursday fire

Hurtigruten said it was organizing emergency passports and providing money for the passengers who had to leave their belongings on board during the evacuation.

The shipping line’s CEO Olav Fjell said that finding alternative transport for those who wanted to continue their journey would be difficult.

Hurtigruten Ship Nordlys Stabilized as Guests Return Home

By Theresa Norton Masek
September 19, 2011 11:23 AM

The Hurtigruten vessel Nordlys, which was damaged in an engine room explosion and fire Sept. 15, was stabilized on Sept. 18 after listing while docked in Ålesund, Norway. The ship was being cleared of passengers’ personal belongings and cargo. The 207 passengers, who were safely evacuated and put up in a hotel in Ålesund, were heading home as of Sept. 19. Two crew members were killed in the fire and two remain hospitalized. All departures of Nordlys have been cancelled until mid-October. The ship was not scheduled to operate from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31.

Hurtigruten said its support team will remain in Ålesund until all guests are on their flights back home. Hurtigruten said it would forward personal belongings to the home address of passengers who were heading home before getting their items. The fire was detected at 9:17 a.m. Norway time Sept. 15 as it neared Ålesund. The guests were from 16 nations, including 53 from the U.S. The cause of the fire is under investigation. “Hurtigruten wishes to thank deeply all involved for their impressive contribution during the last days—guests for their great patience and understanding and crew members and rescue workers for their professionalism and courage during the rescue operation,” the company said.

As we saw at the beginning of this post, institutional dysfuction is high in Southern Italy (and presumably in Northern Italian companies that contain many Southern Italians and have adopted aspects of Southern culture).  As well, as this example with the Norwegians demonstrate, part of the effectiveness of institutions (and in this case, businesses) stems from a general preference for rules and order and a concern for society as a whole (as opposed to only one’s clan, village, or region), things that are, overall, weaker among Italians.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Italians.  Their charismatic nature and culture of masculine bravado is nothing if not entertaining, and this is part of the reason so many movies keep being made about them.  But the flip side is when this culture leads to disaster, particularly disasters caused almost entirely by human foibles, hence the tragedy, in the the pure Sophoclean sense, and why this theme seems entirely fitting.