Luca Cavalli-Sforza

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza
Cavalli-Sforza the 22. October 2010.
Born (1922-01-25) January 25, 1922 (age 92)

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (born January 25, 1922) is an Italian population geneticist born in Genoa, who has been a professor at Stanford University since 1970 (now emeritus).



Cavalli-Sforza has summed up his work for laymen in five topics covered in Genes, Peoples, and Languages.[1] According to an article published in The Economist, the work of Cavalli-Sforza "challenges the assumption that there are significant genetic differences between human races, and indeed, the idea that 'race' has any useful biological meaning at all". The book illustrates both the problems of constructing a general "hereditary tree" for the entire human race, and some mechanisms and data analysis methods to greatly reduce these problems, thus constructing a fascinating hypothesis of the recent 150,000 years of human expansion, migration, and human diversity formation.[2] In the book Cavalli-Sforza asserts that Europeans are, in their ancestry, about two-thirds Asian and one-third African.[3]

Cavalli-Sforza's The History and Geography of Human Genes[4] (1994 with Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza) is a standard reference on human genetic variation. Cavalli-Sforza also wrote The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution (together with his son Francesco).

Schooling and positions

Cavalli-Sforza entered Ghislieri College in Pavia in 1939 and he received his M.D. from the University of Pavia in 1944. After the war he followed studies at Cambridge with the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald A. Fisher in the area of bacterial genetics. They were followed by years of teaching in northern Italy, in Milan, Parma, and Pavia, and then he moved in 1970 to Stanford, where he has remained.

In 1999 he won the Balzan Prize for the Science of human origins. He has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences since 1994.He was awarded the Telesio-Galilei Academy Award in 2011 for Biology.

Specific contributions

Cavalli-Sforza initiated a new field of research by combining the concrete findings of demography with a newly-available analysis of blood groups in an actual human population. He also studied the connections between migration patterns and blood groups.

Writing in the mid-1960s with another genetics student of Ronald A. Fisher, Anthony W. F. Edwards, Cavalli-Sforza pioneered statistical methods for estimating evolutionary trees (phylogenies); to estimate evolutionary trees, they used maximum likelihood estimation. Edwards and Cavalli-Sforza wrote about trees of populations within the human species, where genetic differences are affected both by treelike patterns of historical separation of populations and by spread of genes among populations by migration and admixture. In later papers, Cavalli-Sforza has written about the effects of both divergence and migration on human gene frequencies.

While Cavalli-Sforza is best known for his work in genetics, he also, in collaboration with Marcus Feldman and others, initiated the sub-discipline of cultural anthropology known alternatively as coevolution, gene-culture coevolution, cultural transmission theory or dual inheritance theory. The publication Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach (1981) made use of models from population genetics to investigate the transmission of culturally transmitted units. This line of inquiry initiated research into the correlation of patterns of genetic and cultural dispersion.


His proposed ambitious Human Genome Diversity Project to gather further genetic data from populations around the world was accused of "cultural insensitivity, neocolonialism, and biopiracy."[5]

Linguist William Poser in Language Log has criticized some of Cavalli-Sforza's comments about linguistics,[6] in particular the suggestion, echoing controversial linguists Merritt Ruhlen and Joseph Greenberg, that some mainstream linguists are unnecessarily conservative about hypothesized long-range relationships between language families, and an overstatement that Greenberg's critics "have ruled out the possibility of hierarchical classification", which Cavalli-Sforza did not defend when challenged by Poser, but deferred to Ruhlen. Cavalli-Sforza's interest in hypothesized large-scale language families is as a basis for comparison with similarly large-scale postulated genetic classifications of human populations.

See also



  • Edwards, A.W.F., and L.L. Cavalli-Sforza. 1964. Reconstruction of evolutionary trees. pp. 67–76 in Phenetic and Phylogenetic Classification, ed. V. H. Heywood and J. McNeill. Systematics Association pub. no. 6, London.
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and A.W.F. Edwards. 1965. Analysis of human evolution. pp. 923–933 in Genetics Today. Proceedings of the XI International Congress of Genetics, The Hague, The Netherlands, September 1963, volume 3, ed. S. J. Geerts, Pergamon Press, Oxford.
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and A.W.F. Edwards. 1967. Phylogenetic analysis: models and estimation procedures. American Journal of Human Genetics 19:233–257.
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. and W. F. Bodmer. 1971. The Genetics of Human Populations. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco (reprinted 1999 by Dover Publications).
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. and M. Feldman. 1981. Cultural Transmission and Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., P. Menozzi, A. Piazza. 1994. The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton University Press, Princeton. ISBN 0-691-02905-9
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza. 1995. The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution. Addison-Wesley ISBN 0-201-40755-8
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 2000. Genes, Peoples, and Languages. North Point Press, New York. ISBN 0-86547-529-6
  • Cavalli Sforza, L. L, Il caso e la necessità – Ragioni e limiti della diversità genetica, 2007, Di Renzo Editore, Roma


  • 2003 – Journey of Man

Further reading

External links

  • Internet archive
  • The Great Human Diasporas – The History of Diversity and Evolution: book review
  • Internet archive
  • Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza interview by Federica Crivellaro, December 5, 2006 (film)
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