Washington State Magazine

A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey: The Life and Work of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza

by Linda Stone, Professor of Anthropology, and Paul F. Lurquin, Professor :: Columbia University Press :: Reviewed by Tim Kohler

A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey: The Life and Work of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza
Anthropology embraces four disparate subfields: archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. Few people today are able to make significant contributions to more than one of these. This book celebrates a career marked by signal contributions to all four, and to genetics as well.

Born Luigi Cavalli in Genoa in 1922 and, following his father's death, formally adopted at age 27 by his maternal stepgrandfather, Count Sforza, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (hereafter, Cavalli) has come to be a leading figure in anthropological genetics—a field which he in fact has helped define. His accomplishments have been recognized by election to the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) and the Royal Society (Great Britain), receipt of the International Balzan Prize, and various honorary degrees. More locally, Washington State University invited him to deliver its annual Philip Holland lecture in fall 2005.

Such distinction was far from pre-ordained. Considering his math background insufficient, Cavalli avoided the university training in engineering his parents wished for him. Floundering, he decided in 1938 to enroll in medical school—a decision that was, two years later, to spare him from the draft in World War II Fascist Italy.

He received his M.D. and practiced medicine, mainly in hospitals, until the end of the war, but he was attracted to research more than practice. A post-war job at a nonprofit pharmaceutical company in Milan studying the resistance of bacteria to mutagens such as ultraviolet light introduced him in a serious way to the field of bacterial genetics. This in turn led to a lucky break—an invitation, quickly accepted, to join Ronald Fisher's renowned lab at Cambridge University in 1948.

While at Cambridge, Cavalli made two significant contributions to genetics. First, he produced and isolated a mutant strain of E. coli that he and others would later use to discover and clarify the nature of "bacterial sex" (conjugation). Second, he began work on the important and difficult problem of traits that are caused by more than one gene—polygenic traits—an interest still pursued in his lab at Stanford.

The position at Cambridge proved to be temporary, though, and Cavalli, now four years married with two children, returned to the Milan pharmaceutical company in 1950. Over the next eight years, along with Americans Joshua and Esther Lederberg, with whom he had established a collaboration while at Cambridge, he published definitive results on conjugation.

Despite this enormous success, Cavalli was increasingly drawn to human genetics, and began to collaborate on studying genetic variation in the valley of Parma, for which nearly complete demographic records were available. Using computer simulation anchored by these records, he and his coworkers were able to demonstrate that genetic drift was a powerful force in establishing the actual gene frequencies producing the three blood factors they could study. This work—completed at the University of Pavia, where Cavalli had moved in 1963—not only demonstrated the utility of computer simulation in population genetics, but also anticipated by several years Kimura's better-known work on the importance of neutral variation.

Any suspicion that Cavalli still suffered from weakness in mathematics can be put to rest by consulting the formidable text Genetics of Human Populations, published in 1971 by Cavalli and Walter Bodmer, whom Cavalli also met through Fisher's lab in Cambridge. In this same year Cavalli moved to Stanford, where he remains as an active professor emeritus. From that base he continued to broaden his research interests, making significant contributions to understanding first the spread of the Neolithic—and Neolithic farmers—into Europe, then the spread of modern humans throughout the world, and the relationship of these movements of people to movements a nd prehistories of languages. In all this work Cavalli has made great advances by collaborating openly and with good people, and by embracing and helping to develop new techniques that moved genetics from the study of a few proteins to the manipulation of the massive databases that result from direct sequencing of DNA. His imagination—for example, in being among the first to recognize that our genes retain traces of our distant past—is simply remarkable.

His greatest contribution may prove to be another of these collaborations, this one seeking to bring a scientific understanding to culture change by linking it to processes of transmission already understood through population genetics. This work, originally published with Stanford biologist Marcus Feldman in their 1981 book Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach, was at first largely ignored within anthropology, but has been gaining converts over the last decade as anti-science postmodern tides in anthropology have begun to ebb.

By the title of their biography, Linda Stone, a cultural anthropologist, and Paul Lurquin, a geneticist—both at WSU—invite us to consider Cavalli as Odysseus. Certainly Cavalli gained wisdom through his travel and field research around the world (barely mentioned here, but detailed in the book). Just as the Greeks used Odysseus's encounters with the divine, the animal, and the human to help them define what those categories meant for them, so too we can use Cavalli's work to help us understand the relationship of our prehistory to ourselves, and of our nature to our culture. Stone and Lurquin's intellectual biography is a fine place to learn about the full range of Cavalli's research, and along the way, to glimpse concurrent developments in genetics, one of the big success stories of science in the 20th century.

- Tim Kohler, Professor of Anthropology, Washington State University. Kohler's book, Archaeology of Bandelier National Monument: Village Formation on the Pajarito Plateau, New Mexico, was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2004.

Categories: Biography | Tags: Scientists, Science history