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genes, languages, prehistoric human migrations
on September 21, 2002
The most rewarding part of this popular science book is the middle, fifth to seventh chapters, in which Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Professor of Genetics at Stanford Medical School, draws on scientific research in human population genetics, in which he has been a well respected pioneer, to describe the migration of human populations beginning about 100,000 years ago out of Africa until recent times. Because patterns of genetic and linguistic evolution exhibit high intercorrelations--even though their respective elements and mechanics differ--he also cites linguistic evidence for this account of migratory prehistory.
The most valuable contribution of this book to popular understanding is that population genetics provides possibly the best though not sole scientific basis on which to construct the prehistory of human "races." By this evidence, we learn, for example, about the migration of modern Homo sapiens to Southeast Asia and Australia approximately 55,000 to 60,000 years ago or about the spread of Neolithic farmer-cultivators from the Middle East into Europe beginning about 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. I suspect that readers unfamiliar with modern human evolution will find the genetic tree of the world's populations on page 119 intriguing. The diagram shows, for example, that Northeast Asians are more closely related to Europeans than Northeast Asians are to Southeast Asians.
For as rapidly advancing a science as human population genetics, it should not be surprising that some findings are dated. Recent evidence suggests, for instance, that North Asians descended from both southern China populations that gradually migrated northward as well as Caucasian populations that migrated eastward, so that some genetic mixing all across North Asia took place and is the source of the observed racial connections between North Asians and Caucasians.
In other chapters, Cavalli-Sforza tackles related topics somewhat unevenly. His anecdotes about the African pygmies are light and sympathetic. While his description of the hominid line is accurate for the time of publication, there are more insightful not to mention updated accounts now in print. His discussion of the links between genes and culture is engaging and humane but from the standpoint of science, no better than educated. His rejoinder to the controversial The Bell Curve (1994) is scientifically persuasive.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, the first I purchased at amazon.com.