L.L. Cavalli-Sforza: A bird in a gilded cage

Open Behavioral Genetics, 2014

Abstract

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is a complex figure. On the one hand, he has publicly backed those who assert that human races do not exist. On the other hand, by aggregating large volumes of genetic data, he has proven the existence of large continental races, as well as smaller regional and micro ones. By developing the theory of gene-culture co-evolution, he has also shown that humans did not stop evolving genetically when they began to evolve culturally. In fact, the two processes have fed into each other, with humans having to adapt not only to the natural portion of their environment (climate, vegetation, wildlife, etc.) but also to the portion they themselves have created (mode of subsistence, behavioral norms, gender roles, class structure, belief system, etc.). This has led some to see a double game at work. While bowing to the mainstream taboos, Cavalli-Sforza has quietly amassed evidence that human races not only exist but also differ in ways that are more than skin deep. In time, his weighty tomes will speak louder than his official statements on race. This may indeed be how he sees himself, and it might explain certain contradictions between his public persona and his academic self. Oh, those naïve antiracists, if only they knew how they’re being outfoxed! Time will tell who is outfoxing whom. To date, the results speak for themselves. When in 1994 Cavalli-Sforza published The History and Geography of Human Genes, academics and nonacademics alike were talking more openly about race, as seen by the publication the same year of The Bell Curve and by the willingness of previously silent anthropologists, like Vincent Sarich, to step forward and speak out. That interval of glasnost soon ended, in no small part because of Cavalli-Sforza’s apparent conversion, as attested in his book, to the view that human races do not exist in any meaningful sense. Why did he convert? And did he really? I doubt there was any conversion. His change of heart was too rapid, and it happened while the zeitgeist was moving in the other direction. Perhaps he saw a chance to gain acceptance for his new tome. Or perhaps he received a letter one day, detailing his wartime record, the people he worked with, and the testing on human subjects … Cavalli-Sforza had to remake his life when the war ended. He never denied the nature of his wartime research (the time it takes for anthrax to kill its host) but tried to create the impression that he was doing pure research with no military implications. Yet this was Berlin, in 1943-1944. There was no money for pure research. Was he motivated by opportunism, the chance to gain experience in his field of study? Or did he feel loyalty to the Axis cause? It is difficult to say, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. It is enough to say that he later saw his wartime research as a stain on his record and tried to minimize it as much as possible. He was thus vulnerable to blackmail, or rather to his chronic fear of blackmail. We will probably never know the full story. One thing is sure. If Cavalli-Sforza is playing a double game, he has been playing it far too long. Such a strategy is excusable for an academic who is young, untenured, poorly known, and far from retirement, but these excuses hardly apply to a professor emeritus like Cavalli-Sforza. The time is overdue to speak frankly and, if need be, pay the price. Anyway, what else can he do now with his vast reserves of public esteem? Take it with him to the next world?


Keywords
anthrax, dual inheritance theory, gene-culture co-evolution, genetics, germ warfare, history of science, Human Genome Diversity Project, human races, Inuit, IQ, Joshua Lederberg, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, Nikolay Timofeev-Ressovsky, Richard Lewontin, The History and Geography of Human Genes, Walter Bodmer

Reviewed by
Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, Davide Piffer, John Fuerst

Review time 4 days.