Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Genes, People, and Languages

Genes, People, and Languages
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza [translated by Mark Seielstad]
San Francisco: North Point Press, 2000. 228 pages.
Reviewed by
Jeffrey M Otto, Rush University at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, Chicago IL 60612

This book has the ambitious goal of combining relevant information from the fields of population genetics, archeology, and linguistics into a series of extended essays on human evolution. According to the jacket notes, "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 is a premier researcher in this field, with over 20 peer-reviewed papers published within the last 5 years (176 total), all in high ranking prestigious journals. Perhaps most interesting of these was an article with the same title as this book, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1997 (PNAS 1997; 94: 7719-24). Strangely, even though a quick review of the PNAS article shows that both it and the book cover similar material, it was left out of the bibliography of Genes, Peoples, and Languages.

In the preface, Cavalli-Sforza states that he believes that, although scientific jargon increases precision and speed of communication between professionals, it hampers communication between disciplines. Consequently, he sought to minimize jargon as much as possible throughout the text. I believe that he succeeded in this task: the book is easy to read and quickly makes important points accessible to a general reader. I was impressed with the ease with which Cavalli-Sforza explained some fairly complex concepts in population genetics without employing jargon or mathematics. He handled with clarity the complexities surrounding the ancestral "Eve" and genetic studies of mitochondrial DNA, as well as analyses of the male-specific Y chromosome. Particularly pleasing were his explanations of the arbitrariness of race and of how superficial characteristics used to mark racial boundaries are only vague reflections of the underlying genetics. I found his perspective on race and genetics to be refreshing and a strong challenge to works such Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve.

Thanks to this book, I also learned a great deal regarding both linguistics and the history of the human species. I was particularly fascinated by the last 2 chapters of the book, which focused on the evolution of language and culture. That the development of language could be considered the major driving force of culture and progress was a novel concept to me - although it might be considered old hat by anthropologists or linguists. In my mind, that is the main strength of this book. Although I learned very little about my own field (genetics), I came away feeling very enlightened in the fields of both human archeology and linguistics. It was very refreshing to see genetics applied in these other disciplines. I suspect that professionals from the reciprocal fields will have the same opinion. I regard this book as aimed primarily at a lay audience, or educators and researchers whose fields lie outside the scope of the book. If you feel that you belong to one of these categories, then I can recommend this book without reservation.

However, as a researcher and scientist, I found 2 aspects of the book frustrating. My main complaint is with the way that references are used - or, rather, not used. There is a bibliography (86 references), but it seems a bit on the light side considering the scope of the book. I found the lack of referenced sources in the text frustrating because, when I find something interesting, I like to follow up with the references to get further information. In a text like this, where concepts are treated very generally and supporting data are often left out, the lack of references is a glaring omission. I sincerely doubt that the lay reader drawn to a book like this one would be discouraged by citations in the text, and the serious student or researcher would find them highly beneficial. If a second edition of this book is published, it would benefit greatly if sources were cited within the text and the bibliography expanded.

A second caveat is that the book has a tendency to meander and jump around quite a bit. This led to a very "folksy" feel to the translation, and made it comfortable to read. However, if the text were a bit tighter and more linear, I think that it would have been even easier to read and, on the whole, less confusing.

To conclude, I found the strengths of Genes, Peoples, and Languages to be its success in presenting complex concepts and relating them to several scientific disciplines. On the other hand, its weaknesses are its lack of in-depth detail, analyses, and, especially, references that the motivated reader can use to learn more about the topics. The audiences most likely to benefit or enjoy this book are lay persons who are genuinely interested in human evolution but who lack formal exposure to the discipline. I also believe that high school or college educators could easily use this book to link the 3 disciplines - population genetics, archaeology, and linguistics - together. However, researchers or professionals in the fields are likely to be disappointed by the general lack of depth in the text. To be fair, one has to choose an audience to write to, and it is pretty clear that Cavalli-Sforza had in mind a general readership when he wrote this book.

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