Sunday, September 2, 2018

Aretha Franklin, John McCain, Luca Cavalli-Sforza. They always go in threes.

I love Aretha. Got nothing to say about her.

John McCain I’m a little sick of. He was definitely a “flawed human” and will be remembered primarily for his flaws, which is probably better than being remembered for his political ideologies and for his complicity in producing the present political situation. He’s probably really only a great statesman in nostalgic comparison to the current administration.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza raises a similar question about the relative value of the flaws that compose our overall assessment of the scientist.  On this side of the ledger, a brilliant population geneticist who literally wrote the book on the subject.  Yup, even once signed my copy of Cavalli-Sforza and Bodmer.

And on that side of the ledger, a scientist who felt that ethics were obstacles, and maintained that the interests of the people whose blood he craved were anti-science, and thus irrelevant.

Gregor Mendel with just a dash of Mengele. (Godwin’s Law is notoriously hard to transcend in conversations about bioethics, isn’t it?)  But I suppose that’s the big question: How much pollution, and of what sort,  does it take to go from “flawed human” to “flaw in a human form”?

How does Cavalli’s bioethics flaw stack up against Paul Kammerer’s data falsification or Francisco Ayala’s sexual harassment? Discuss amongst yourselves.  

There was also that little problem of Cavalli's insistence that "race doesn't exist" while simultaneously reifying it by color-coding the indigenous inhabitants of the continents.  Same intellectual flaw as Linnaeus, but higher tech.

In the meantime, here is a review I wrote of a flawed biography of Cavalli a few years ago.  It originally appeared in  the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12:1001-1002 (2006).

Stone, Linda & Paul F. Lurquin. A genetic
and cultural odyssey: the life and work of L. Luca
Cavalli-Sforza. xxi, 227 pp., maps, figs, illus.,
bibliogr. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2005.
£29.50 (cloth)
   This book attempts an intellectual biography
of the renowned and controversial Stanford
geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza. There had been
many earlier attempts to use genetic data to
study human microevolution, with varying
degrees of success (see, e.g., Man 28: 153 and
28: 171, 1928); many attempts to model cultural
evolution; many retrievals of blood samples as
objects from the field; and certainly many
attempts to identify ethnohistoric events in
genetic patterns. This book, however, never
actually tells us what made Cavalli’s work
necessarily better; it unfortunately has little
interest in situating Cavalli’s work within the
history of human genetics, or of genetic-based
   In the 1960s Cavalli-Sforza began to study the
genetics of African pygmies, probably inspired
by James Neel’s work on Amazonians. His early
work involved applying multivariate statistical
techniques to genetic data from human
populations to see who was more closely related
to whom (assuming that genetic distance was
proportional to time since splitting; that splitting
was all that populations did; and that culturally
defined human groups could unproblematically
be considered as natural taxa); later he began to
model the transmission of ideas from person to
person (assuming they stay reasonably intact
and do not mean different things to different
people in different contexts); and finally he
dreamed up a big science project for human
population genetics – the Human Genome
Diversity Project (HGDP) – which ultimately
failed for its insufficient attention to issues in the
relevant cognate fields, notably anthropology
and bioethics.
   Cavalli-Sforza has been a grand dilettante,
in all the senses of that word, over his entire
professional life. He visits Central Africa as an
explorer and studies its pygmies as a geneticist,
not as an anthropologist. He reconstructs the
Neolithic as an antiquarian, not as an
archaeologist. He models cultural processes as a
statistician, not as an ethnologist. In all of these
cases, Cavalli’s work has been high-profile but
low-impact in anthropology. Does this require
an explanation, or is it simply to be expected,
like the work of a spectrum of anthropological
dilettantes, from Sir Grafton Elliot Smith through
Thor Heyerdahl, Robert Ardrey, and Erich von
Däniken, and right on up to Richard Dawkins
and Jared Diamond?
   Consistently opposing scientific racism,
Cavalli-Sforza has nevertheless never quite
understood the fundamental issues that
ultimately undid his HGDP and which have
recently been admirably analysed by Jenny
Reardon in Race to the finish (2005). He still
regrets his opponents’ politicizing the scientific
project – as if the programme to take, store, and
study the blood of 700 groups of native peoples
(which needs to be done before they go extinct,
he constantly reminded us) did not constitute an
overtly political act.
   Significantly, no great burst of insights or
discoveries have followed Cavalli-Sforza’s work in
anthropology, as it followed, say, the physicists’
early forays into molecular genetics. If we are to
believe the authors, the explanation lies in
American anthropology’s recent infatuation with
postmodernism, and its stand against science. In
lieu of a relevant citation, they provide an
anecdote: at the American Anthropological
Association meetings in New Orleans a few years
ago, a sharp spike in submissions led to an
unprecedented rejection rate of sessions and
abstracts. The authors of some of the rejected
papers decided (rather unscientifically) that this
was an expression of the well-known (or
perhaps widely imagined) hostility of American
anthropology to science, and stormed off to
found their own society and have their own
meeting. But I was there, and that episode
was never about ‘science’ at all; it was about
power and paranoia and too many submitted
   In fact, I have always thought that the root
of Cavalli-Sforza’s failure to connect with the
broader anthropological community is simply
that most anthropologists simply do not know
how seriously to take research that can contrast
the DNA of 64 samples of ‘Chinese ... living in
the San Francisco Bay Area’, 94 samples from
‘two groups of African pygmies’, and 110
samples from ‘individuals of European origin
from ongoing studies in our laboratories or
reported in the literature’, and conclude
sweepingly that ‘ancestral Europeans are
estimated to be an admixture of 65% ancestral
Chinese and 35% ancestral Africans’ (Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 88:
839, 1991). However sophisticated the statistics,
they simply cannot transcend the limitations of
unsophisticated epistemologies.
   More of a testimonial than a critical
intellectual biography, then, the book resists
engaging with anyone who has had anything
critical to say about any aspect of Cavalli-Sforza’s
oeuvre: Robert Sokal, for example, who
contradicted Cavalli’s interpretation of European
prehistory; Rebecca Cann, whose genetic data
suggested a very different global prehistory than
Cavalli’s; Debra Harry, an American Indian
activist who contradicted the promises and
predictions of Cavalli’s HGDP; Bryan Sykes, who
contradicted Cavalli’s ‘wave of advance’ model;
Masatoshi Nei, who applied a different statistical
technique than Cavalli to global allele
frequencies and got a different phylogenetic tree
and different branching dates; Ranajit
Chakraborty, who raised questions early on
about the HGDP’s navigation of a cultural and
political minefield in the large-scale collection of
native blood, and was quickly dropped from its
inner circle; or the numerous archaeologists
(pace Lord Renfrew) who have been critical of
Cavalli’s work on the spread of agriculture, and
the tenuous relationship between cryptic genetic
patterns and ethnohistory.
   Very oddly, the influential Harvard geneticist
Richard Lewontin’s famous 1972 ‘apportionment
of human diversity’ is even assigned to Cavalli,
and Lewontin himself becomes just ‘another
researcher (who confirmed Cavalli’s observation)
[and] did make a big deal out of this finding six
years later’ (p. 196). The only sense I can make
of the statement is that it may result from
Lewontin’s recently televised comment, ‘If I were
a South American Indian, I wouldn’t have let
them take my blood’ (,
which may have put him in the ‘enemy camp’, if
one sees the community of science in a
sufficiently Manichaean fashion.
   All of which is not to say that Cavalli-Sforza
does not deserve the testimonial; only that this
biography seems to replicate the very criticism
that one could reasonably level at the
anthropological corpus of its subject: an
uncritical and cavalier approach to history, a lot
of bluster, and rather too little reflection.

Jonathan Marks University of North Carolina
at Charlotte

Rest in Peace, Luca Cavalli-Sforza. 

Seriously, please don't rise from the grave and become the vampire geneticist that the Musée de l'Homme warned us about a few years ago, because unfortunately you were precisely the one they had in mind.


  1. Great read, but then what you write is always that. And I still look back fondly to those days long past when you and I used to calmly discuss the HGDP at the AA meetings. In days of yore . . . . We have always been so even-tempered, haven't we?!

  2. Marianne Sommer's "History Within" provides an insightful exploration of Cavalli's work.