Genes, Peoples, and Languages

Genes, Peoples, and Languages

By Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza 

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
0-86547-529-6; $24.00US/$38.95CAN; April 2000;


Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza was among the first to ask whether the genes of modern populations contain a historical record of the human species. Cavalli-Sforza and others have answered this question-anticipated by Darwin-with a decisive yes. Genes, Peoples, and Languages comprises five lectures that serve as a summation of the author's work over several decades, the goal of which has been nothing less than tracking the past 100,000 years of human evolution. 

Cavalli-Sforza raises questions that have serious political, social, and scientific import: When and where did we evolve? How have human societies spread across the continents? How have cultural innovations affected the growth and spread of populations? What is the connection between genes and languages? Always provocative and often astonishing, Cavalli-Sforza explains why there is no genetic basis for racial classification and proposes that a comparison of blood types is a far better means of determining "genetic distance" and explaining linguistic and cultural differences. 

A panoramic tour of the major discoveries in genetic anthropology, Genes, Peoples, and Languages gives us a rare firsthand account of some of the most significant scientific work of recent years. 


Luigi Luca Cavalli-SforzaLuigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza was born in Genoa in 1922 and has taught at the Universities of Cambridge, Parma, and Pavia. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Genetics at Stanford University and is the author of The History and Geography of Human Genes

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The following is an excerpt from the book 
Genes, Peoples, and Languages
By Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza 
Published by
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
0-86547-529-6; $24.00US/$38.95CAN; April 2000;
Copyright 2000 Cavalli-Sforza

Chapter 1
Genes and History

The Pride of an Emperor 

Dante Alighieri's reputation as the grand master of Italian literature has eclipsed all the Italian poets and writers who followed him. Nevertheless, Dante was not the only great Italian poet. There were others, such as Petrarch, Ariosto, and Leopardi. The latter is perhaps the least well-known outside Italy, although he was not only a talented poet but also a remarkable philosopher. 

I recently reread his play Copernicus, which I still find relevant and insightful. The characters include the Sun, the First and Last Hours of the Day, and Copernicus. In the opening scene, the Sun confides to the First Hour that he is tired of revolving around the Earth each day, and demands that the Earth shoulder some of the burden. The First Hour, alarmed by this prospect, points out that the Sun's retirement would create havoc. But the Sun is adamant and insists on informing Earth's philosophers of the impending change since he believes they can convince humans of anything-good or bad. By the second scene, the Sun has delivered on his threat. Copernicus, surprised by the Sun's failure to rise, sets about investigating the cause. His search quickly ends when he and the Last Hour are summoned to bear the Sun's proposal: the Earth must renounce her position at the center of the Universe and instead revolve around the Sun. Copernicus notes that even philosophers would have difficulty convincing the Earth of that. Moreover, the Earth and her inhabitants have grown accustomed to their position at the center of the Universe and have developed the "pride of an emperor." A change of such magnitude would have not only physical but also social and philosophical consequences. The most basic assumptions about human life would be overturned. But the Sun is insistent that life will go on, that all the barons, dukes, and emperors will continue to believe in their importance, and that their power won't be weakened in the least. Copernicus offers further objections: a galactic revolution could begin-the other planets may assert that they want the same rights to centrality as the Earth had. Even the stars would protest. In the end, the Sun might lose all importance and be forced to find another orbit. But the Sun desires only rest and counters Copernicus's final fear-that he will be burned as a heretic-by telling him he can avoid such a fate by dedicating his book to the Pope. 

In writing about Copernicus, Leopardi had the benefit of living several centuries after him. He knew what had happened to Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo. But we do not have Leopardi's advantage when considering the scientific issues of our day. Any current theories may be modified or even destroyed at any moment. In fact, science progresses because every hypothesis can be con- firmed or rejected by others. The great number of conditionals we use in our scientific prose underscore this truth. While correcting the translation of one of my books, I was terrified to see that all my conditionals had been changed to indicatives-my safeguards had been eliminated. When we write papers for scientific journals, we know that many statements cannot be supported in their entirety. This seems strange to the public: isn't science infallible? In the end, only religion claims to deliver certainty. In other words, faith alone is immune from doubt, although few believers seem troubled by the fact that each religion offers different answers. Mathematics may be the only exception in the sciences that leaves no room for skepticism. But, if mathematical results are exact as no empirical law could ever be, philosophers have discovered they are not absolutely novel-instead, they are tautological. 

Copernicus also reminded me of our attitudes about race and racism. Each population believes that it is the best in the world. With few exceptions, people love the microcosm into which they are born and don't want to leave it. For Whites, the greatest civilization is European; the best race is White (French in France and English in England). But what do the Chinese think? And the Japanese? Wouldn't most of today's recent immigrants return to their country if they could find a decent way of life there? 

It is also true, as Leopardi observed, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Noble or economically powerful families come and go-there is an increasingly rapid turnover of power-but power structures change very little. The Roman Empire lasted longer than many others in Europe, but it spanned only five centuries. It was similar in size to the Inca Empire, which lasted a little more than a century. Before the Roman Empire, several maritime powers-the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians-colonized the Mediterranean coast. At the same time, the European interior saw Celtic princes establish control over most of Europe. During the second half of the first millennium B.C., the Celtic and maritime fiefdoms were each united by commercial, linguistic, and cultural ties, but were politically fragmented. 

Ultimately, they would all fall to the Romans. The Romans built the first politically united culture in Europe, but it eventually fell to "barbarian" invaders from the East. The barbarians flourished, and only the eastern part of the Roman Empire-the Byzantine Empire-was to survive into the Middle Ages. In the west, Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire in A.D. 800, the culmination of Frankish political development. France, Germany, and parts of Italy and Spain were briefly reunited. After A.D. 1000, Frankish power passed to Germany and, in part, to the Pope, although the Papacy and the Empire were often in conflict. The Holy Roman Empire ceased to have any political importance by the fourteenth century, although Austrian emperors continued to take the title of Holy Roman Emperor until 1806. Several European states were formed or consolidated between 1000 and 1500. Although wars among them were frequent, none was able to conquer much of Europe before Napoleon. With the development of seaworthy ships, the armies and navies of Europeans attempted to extend their hegemony to the rest of the world, competing for national riches on other continents. The Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and Russians established overseas empires which would endure into the twentieth century, but in all of European history, not a single empire has lasted for more than five centuries. Napoleon rapidly conquered continental Europe, but his rule lasted for fewer than ten years. 

The Chinese Empire began in the third century B.C. and endured many vicissitudes under myriad dynasties, none of which lasted for more than four centuries. After several difficult periods, China fell to the Mongols in the thirteenth century. One hundred years later, the Ming restored Chinese dominance for three centuries. Then another foreign dynasty, the Qing, ruled for several centuries into the twentieth. The same pattern is found on every continent or subcontinent. 

National pride is always more fervent in successful times. When a people feels strong, it is easier to say, "We are the best." However, power can have rather unusual origins. The wise decisions and shrewd political acts of a few leaders or small groups often produce enduring states. Even cruel regimes can sometimes succeed in introducing prosperous periods. The rise to political power frequently requires violence, which is not always physical. Favorable external circumstances can also help maintain stability, if only temporarily. Politicians who wield their power responsibly are difficult to replace with equally capable successors. During happy and prosperous years, people can convince themselves that their success is due to their excellent qualities, the intrinsic characteristics of their "race" that make them great. The illusion of immortality ignores all the lessons of history. The self-critic is rare and tends to be absent or has no listeners when things are going well. 

Perhaps Claude Levi-Strauss most succinctly defined racism as the belief that one race (usually, though not always, one's own) is biologically superior-that superior genes, chromosomes, DNA put it at an advantage over all others. This is America's situation now. It is no coincidence that you must first dial the number one when calling the United States from abroad. 

At any particular moment, a single people may be dominant despite the many countries that have been before, or will be soon. Of course, it is not necessary to be superior to be convinced that one is. Even a limited success can demonstrate power to others. Many believe such dominance is determined by biology. 

Other Sources of Racism 

Almost any society can find a good reason to consider itself predominant, at least in a particular activity. A simple claim to competence in any sphere-be it painting, football, chess, or cooking-is often sufficient to imbue a people with exaggerated importance. 

One's daily routine, which is subject to both individual and cultural influences, is filled with superficial comparison of one's own habits with foreign, often significantly different, habits. Even if we do not know the sources of these differences, the simple fact that they exist can be enough to inspire fear or hatred. Human nature does not welcome change, even when we're dissatisfied with things as they are. Perhaps this devotion to habit and fear of melioration encourage a conservatism that could lead to racism. 

There are unquestionable differences among peoples and nations. Language, skin color, tastes (especially in food), and greeting all differ among cultures and lead us to believe that others are essentially not like us. We typically conclude that our ways are the best, and too bad for the others. To the Greeks, all those who did not speak Greek were barbarians. Of course, when a person is unsatisfied with life in his home country and migrates, he might more easily tolerate uncertainties and strange living conditions in another region or continent. He might even accept the necessity of learning new things. But in general, he prefers the cocoon in which he was born, terrified of discarding what is familiar. 

Many other factors nourish racist sentiments. One of the most important is the desire to project one's unhappiness onto another  Everyone knows that self-alienation in modem society is often a very serious cause of irritation and angst. These feelings can arise from the fear of unemployment, being forced to perform inhumane work, the reality and experience of poverty and injustice, and the feeling of powerlessness which often results from the jealous observation that vast wealth is possible only for the very few. Everyone, even those who feel victimized by their superiors, can assume authority over those lower on the social ladder. The poor can always find somebody poorer. 

Because of all these factors, racism is widespread. It is less apparent during times of peace and civil order. But hostilities about mass immigration from poor countries exacerbate it. 

Copyright © 2000 Cavalli-Sforza

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