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The Genetic Underpinnings of Italy’s Cultural and Culinary Splendor
When we think of Italy, images of awe-inspiring architecture and mouthwatering dishes readily come to mind. Yet the country’s cultural richness is more than just a matter of historical chance.
Written by Davide Piffer.
When we think of Italy, images of awe-inspiring architecture and mouthwatering dishes readily come to mind. Yet the country’s cultural richness is more than just a matter of historical chance. It's a tapestry woven over millennia, and some speculate that genetics might hold the clue to understanding it. Let's embark upon a journey, traversing Italian history and the fascinating concept of polygenic scores.
Italy's gastronomic prowess
Diversity of dishes: Italian cuisine comprises a vast range of dishes, with each of its 20 regions boasting its own unique flavors and recipes. From the rich risottos of Lombardy to the spicy 'nduja of Calabria, every region is a culinary world of its own.
Global influence: According to many surveys, Italian food ranks as the most popular in the entire world. The universal appeal of dishes like pizza, pasta, and gelato is certainly hard to deny.
Protected status: Italy leads the European Union in the number of food products with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – labels that ensure both quality and regional authenticity. By 2021, the country had over 300 such products, including famous names like Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma.
Monumental cultural achievements
UNESCO sites: As of 2021, Italy is home to an impressive 58 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most held by any country. This includes cultural landmarks like the historic centers of Florence, Rome, and Venice, as well as iconic archaeological sites like Pompeii.
Artistic influence: The Italian Renaissance, spanning the 14th to the 17th century, was a period of unparalleled artistic and intellectual activity. Italy gave birth to artistic giants like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael – whose works remain influential to this day.
Contributions to science and literature: Italy's cultural richness isn't limited to art and architecture. Literary giants like Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, and Boccaccio laid the foundations for modern Italian literature. Additionally, men like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo (a true polymath) made revolutionary scientific advances.
Could genetics play a role?
Recent research suggests that certain ancient populations from central Italy, such as the Etruscans and Republican Romans, may have had higher polygenic scores for educational attainment than their contemporaries (like the Iron Age Gauls). This would mean that they had a slightly higher predisposition for knowledge-seeking, which could have expressed itself in various artistic and intellectual pursuits.
Furthermore, it's believed that Italians could have maintained these higher polygenic scores into Late Antiquity and the Medieval era, setting them apart from other European populations like the Vikings and northwest Europeans (Germans, British and Dutch).
This Italian advantage can be seen in the chart below, which shows educational attainment polygenic scores for ancient ethnicities from Italy and other European countries.
The Middle Ages, spanning roughly the 5th to the late 15th century, was a period of profound transformation in Europe. While southern regions like Italy had seen the cultural heights of the Roman Empire and its early intellectual revivals, the North and West of Europe had been home to scattered tribal cultures, with fewer urban centers and fewer institutional legacies of classical antiquity.
Yet the seeds of change were planted. From the 12th century onward, the medieval renaissance witnessed an intellectual revival, which laid the groundwork for the broader European Renaissance.
The genetic convergence
Polygenic scores are composite numbers that estimate an individual's genetic predisposition for specific traits, such as educational attainment. While there's tentative evidence that ancient populations in Italy had higher polygenic scores for educational attainment, research indicates that by the Late Middle Ages and the onset of the Renaissance these differences began to narrow.
Several factors may have contributed to this genetic convergence:
Trade and mobility: The proliferation of trade routes and the rise of merchant cities led to greater mobility across Europe. With mobility comes genetic mixing, leading to smaller differences between populations.
Marriages and alliances: Royal intermarriages and alliances among noble families often transcended national borders, further enhancing genetic interchange.
Population pressures: Some regions may have experienced selective pressures that favored genes associated with certain beneficial traits, leading to shifts in polygenic distributions.
Regarding the last point, the Protestant emphasis on literacy, work ethic and individual interpretation of scripture may have inadvertently favoured individuals with traits conducive to these values. This, in turn, could have led to significant changes in the genetic composition of populations influenced by Protestantism.
In other words, the Protestant Reformation may have set in motion a process of gene-culture evolution, whereby cultural changes influenced genetic selection and vice versa. This would have led to a narrowing, disappearance or even reversal (in some areas) of the polygenic score gap between Catholic and Protestant Europe.
The cultural flourishing
It's crucial to remember that Europe's cultural awakening was a multifaceted phenomenon. As genetic differences narrowed, the entire continent experienced a surge in cultural and intellectual achievements:
Northern Renaissance: While Italy was the heart of the Renaissance, regions like the Netherlands and Germany experienced their own Renaissance, giving birth to luminaries like Erasmus and Albrecht Dürer.
Scientific Revolution: The 16th and 17th centuries saw an explosion in scientific progress in Western Europe, with figures like Isaac Newton and René Descartes revolutionizing our understanding of the world.
Literary Golden Ages: Spain produced literary giants like Cervantes, while England celebrated the works of William Shakespeare.
Music and compositions: Countries like Austria and Germany became major centres for classical music, boasting composers like Mozart and Beethoven.
The theory I have outlined here must be approached with caution. Indeed, there is some risk of oversimplification. The genetic component of educational attainment is just one of many factors that contribute to the complex tapestry of human potential and achievement. Historical events, societal structures and chance all have a role to play too.
Italy's cultural wealth is undeniable. Whether genetics played a part in it remains a tantalizing question. While the polygenic scores theory offers a fresh perspective, we ought to appreciate Italy's achievements in their entirety, recognising that myriad factors have made the country what it is today.