Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, 1922-2018

Tributes paid to Stanford’s world-leading authority on population genetics

September 27, 2018

A world-leading authority on population genetics has died.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza was born in Genoa, Italy in January 1922, and studied medicine at the University of Pavia (1944). Yet he practised as a doctor for only a year before transforming himself into an academic expert on genetics. After a research post at the University of Cambridge and teaching posts in northern Italy, he became a professor of genetics at Stanford University in 1970. He was to remain there until he retired in 1992, although he remained highly active as a researcher in his native Italy.

Despite an early interest in microbiology, Professor Cavalli-Sforza soon turned his attention to human genetics and began producing his celebrated maps that chart blood groups and molecular differences between people across the globe. It was thus that he forged the new discipline of genetic geography, which provides major new insights into migration patterns.

“Luca was one of the first scientists to use genetic information to understand the relationships between different human populations at the level of the DNA,” said Marcus Feldman, professor of biology at Stanford. “He was always ahead of the game. Luca wasn’t a follower; he was a pioneer in the true sense of the word. If other people were doing it, he didn’t want to touch it.”

Further technological advances enabled Professor Cavalli-Sforza to examine geographical variations in the Y chromosome across the globe to trace a paternal bloodline back to an original “Adam” living in sub-Saharan Africa about 70,000-100,000 years ago and to illuminate how humans expanded out from there.

As well as a standard textbook titled The Genetics of Human Populations (with Walter Bodmer, 1971) and a definitive 1,000-page overview, The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994), Professor Cavalli-Sforza produced a more popular account, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (2000), which is widely regarded as having exploded the idea that “race” is a meaningful scientific concept.

To further his research, he gathered a global collection of genetic samples for the Human Genome Diversity Project which, although sometimes criticised as exploitative or potentially dangerous, has proved its worth as a tool for understanding human development. It is now held in Paris by the Center for the Study of Human Polymorphisms.

Not content with making seminal contributions to just one discipline, Professor Cavalli-Sforza and Professor Feldman were also founders of the field of cultural evolution, which explains significant social changes such as the spread of agriculture through a process similar to natural selection.

Professor Cavalli-Sforza died on 31 August and is survived by three sons and one daughter.

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