Friday, September 10, 2010

The evolution of Cavalli-Sforza. Part II

Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) explaining Italian race science to a class of schoolchildren. La vita è bella

What were Cavalli-Sforza’s initial views on race? The question does not come up in his publications before the 1960s, so we can only presume that his beliefs were like those of his peers, particularly Italian anthropologists.

But just what were those beliefs? A Latin version of Nazi racism? This seems to be the premise of the film Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella). The hero visits a local school and ridicules “racist Italian scientists” by posing as the perfect Italian:

Our race is superior. I've just come from Rome, right this minute... to come and tell you in order that you'll know, children... that our race is a superior one. I was... chosen, I was, by racist Italian scientists... in order to demonstrate... how superior our race is. Why did they pick me, children? Must I tell you? Where can you find… someone more handsome than me? (link)

In reality, wartime Italian anthropologists did not consider the Italian people to be a race, let alone a superior one. Nor did they conceptualize ‘race’ in sharply defined terms. Renato Biasutti (1878-1965), Raffaello Battaglia (1896-1958), and others promoted the view that human populations are dynamic, variable, and evolving. Meanwhile, Adriano Buzzati-Traverso (1913-1983) was contributing to the new field of population genetics.

Their world view actually differed little from that of most postwar anthropologists. If we take “the most important single work produced during the war period” (Cooper 1946), Le razze e i popoli della terra, initially published by Biasutti in 1941, we find that it was republished several times in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1959, it earned a favorable review from American Anthropologist, the harshest comments being: “The theoretical positions […] are often uncongenial to those reared in the epigonous Boasian tradition. […] Social structure is inadequately handled, and in contrast, minor racial differences are lavishly presented” (Hewes 1959, pp. 618, 620).

This is not to say that Cavalli-Sforza’s peers were antiracist. Clearly, they endorsed the race concept and accepted that human populations differ statistically not only in anatomical traits but also in mental ones. In this respect they were like many British and American anthropologists of the same time period. Race denialism, as we know it today, did not become predominant until the 1970s.

Such was the reality of ‘race science’ in fascist Italy. But reality is not everything. There is also mythology—the popular narratives that help us make sense of reality. In the years after World War II, this conflict would become a founding myth for the postwar era—the triumph of Good over Evil and the advent of a freer, fairer world... As such, it would energize the quest for social justice on many fronts: the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.; the struggle against colonialism; the peace movement, and so on. The terms ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ would be used far more often after 1945 than during the war itself.

Thus, in pursuing his postwar career, Cavalli-Sforza soon realized that his past was a handicap. There were others like him: Kurt Waldheim, François Mitterand, Pierre Elliot Trudeau ... For such people, fascism was not the god that failed. It was the god that died. The world had irrevocably changed, and the time had come to bury the past.

After 1947, he would no longer cite his wartime publications. Later on, he changed his name from L.L. Cavalli to L.L. Cavalli-Sforza. The reason appears in his autobiography:

My father, Pio Cavalli, had died (while we were at Cambridge, in 1949), and Francesco Sforza, the second husband of my maternal grandmother, Maria Fumagalli, widow Manacorda, wanted to adopt me, in order to join his name to my family name.
(Cavalli-Sforza & Cavalli-Sforza 2008, p. 107)

The autobiography places the name change in 1950 (1). In that year, he would have been 28, was already married, and had children of his own. Such circumstances were not normally a basis for adoption, either under Italian law or by custom. Even more inexplicably, he was still publishing under his old name as late as 1953—four years after his father’s death. Google Scholar lists three publications by L.L. Cavalli in 1950, one in 1951, five in 1952, and two in 1953 (2).


1. Stone and Lurquin (2005, p. 27) state that he changed his name at the age of 27, hence in 1949 (date of birth = Jan. 25, 1922). This is impossible, since it was not until the summer of 1950 that he returned to Italy after two years of research abroad.

2. Sometimes more than a year will elapse between the submission of a manuscript and its publication. Perhaps this explains the 3-year lag in “implementing” his name change. On the other hand, one can easily make minor changes to a manuscript before it goes to press, particularly when one gets the galley proofs.


Biasutti, R. (1941). Le razze e i popoli della terra. Torino: Unione Tipografico/Editrice Torinese

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and F. Cavalli-Sforza (2008). La génétique des populations : histoire d'une découverte, Odile Jacob.

Cooper, J.M. (1946). Anthropology during the war III. Italy, American Anthropologist, 48, 299-301.

Hewes, G.W. (1959). World ethnographies and culture-historical syntheses, American Anthropologist, 61, 615-630.

Life is Beautiful - script
Stone, L. and P.F. Lurquin. (2005). A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey. The Life and Work of L.Luca Cavalli-Sforza. New York: Columbia University Press.


Antonio Pedro said...

I didn't really get the point here..

Antonio Pedro said...


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, one might wonder if Konrad Lorenz would have still got the Nobel if some of his writings about noble self sacrificing wolves and the (by implication rather sneaky) jackals had been known but he didn't seem to care who knew: 'I wrote about the dangers of domestication and, in order to be understood, I couched my writing in the worst of nazi-terminology'

Peter Frost said...


In my 'unauthorized biography' of Cavalli-Sforza, I wish to avoid going from one extreme to another. Cavalli-Sforza was an Axis scientist and was influenced by the prevailing ideology of his time. It doesn't follow, however, that he was an extreme racist, because extreme racism was not the norm in wartime Italy. Antisemitism did exist but it was politically motivated. The situation was quite different from what prevailed in Germany.

Nothing terrible came of his wartime research. The main effect was to make him feel vulnerable on race-related issues.


Lorenz's Nazi past was well known, even when he received his Nobel Prize (Ashley Montagu tried to block it for that very reason).

It all comes down to one question: Do we judge ideas on their own merits, or on the merits of the people who debate them?

Anonymous said...

Someone has collected lots of info on infanticide: Infanticide around the world

Anonymous said...

Post glacial migrations of humans into East Asia

Giulia said...

Probably because Sforza was and is a very recognizable and prestigious aristocratic name in Italy and it continues to remain a country, if nothing else, classist.