Short works

Books : reviews

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, Alberto Piazza.
The History and Geography if Human Genes.
Princeton University Press. 1994

L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his collaborators Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza have devoted fourteen years to one of the most compelling scientific projects of our time: the reconstruction of where human populations originated and the paths by which they spread throughout the world. In this volume, the culmination of their research, the authors explain their pioneering use of genetic data, which they integrate with insights from geography, ecology, archaeology, physical anthropology, and linguistics to create the first full-scale account of human evolution as it occurred across all continents. This interdisciplinary approach enables them to address a wide range of issues that continue to incite debate: the timing of the first appearance of our species, the problem of African origins, including the significance of work recently done on mitochondrial DNA and the popular notion of an “African Eve,” the controversy pertaining to the peopling of the Americas, and the reason for the presence of non-Indo-European languages—Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian—in Europe.

The authors reconstruct the history of our evolution by focusing on genetic divergence among human groups. Using genetic information accumulated over the last fifty years, they examined over 110 different inherited traits, such as blood types, HLA factors, proteins, and DNA markers, in over eighteen hundred, primarily aboriginal, populations. By mapping the worldwide geographic distribution of the genes, the scientists are now able to chart migrations and, in exploring genetic distance, devise a clock by which to date evolutionary history: the longer two populations are separated, the greater their genetic difference should be. This volume highlights the authors’ contributions to genetic geography, particularly their technique for making geographic maps of gene frequencies and their synthetic method of detecting ancient migrations, as for example, the migration of Neolithic farmers from the Middle East toward Europe, West Asia, and North Africa.

Beginning with an explanation of their major sources of data and concepts, the authors give an interdisciplinary account of human evolution at the world level. Chapters are then devoted to evolution on single continents and include analyses of genetic data and how these data relate to geographic, ecological, archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic information. Comprising a wide range of viewpoints, a vast store of new and recent information on genetics, and a generous supply of visual elements, including more than 500 geographic maps, this book is a unique source of facts and a catalyst for further debate and research.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Francesco Cavalli-Sforza.
The Great Human Diaporas: the history of diversity and evolution.
Basic Books. 1995

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza draws upon his lifelong work in archaeology, anthropology, genetics, molecular biology, and linguistics, to address the basic questions of human origins and diversity. Coauthored by his son, Francesco, the book answers age-old questions such as: Was there a mitochondrial Eve? Did the first humans originate in Africa or in several spots on the planet at about the same time? How did humans get onto North America, the tip of South America, and Australia?

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.
Genes, Peoples and Languages.
Penguin. 2001

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 29 June 2004

Historians relying on written records can tell us nothing about the 99.9 per cent of human evolution which preceded the invention of writing. It is the study of genetic variation, backed up by language and archaeology, which provides concrete evidence about the spread of cultural innovations, the movements of peoples across the globe, the precise links between races and the sheer unscientific absurdity of racism. Cavalli-Sforza was both a pioneer in the field and the world’s leading contributor to it. This book offers a wonderfully accessible account of his key results.

This book examines the relationship of the peoples of the planet, both in terms of genetics, and in terms of languages, and finds the two family trees thus exposed agree to a remarkable extent. This information is used to give a chronology to the “Out of Africa” expansions to cover the world. The genetic data is also used to argue against racism, since the very concept of “race” is ill-defined, as there is nearly as much internal genetic variation within any given group as there is between groups.

The translation is slightly clunky in places, but mostly reads well. It has a rather episodic structure, with little final conclusion. The rant against racism is certainly worthwhile, and the weaving together of various bits of data is interesting, but I feel it is trying to work up to some grand synthesis, which is unfortunately missing. This might be because it is put together from (revisions of) a series of lectures given in the 1980s. So, interesting, but it could have been more.