Human population genetics expert offers historic view

PULLMAN – L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, M.D., father of “genetic geography and history” and considered by most to be the world’s leading expert on human population genetics, will deliver the Holland Lecture at Washington State University on Aug. 25.

His lecture, “Understanding Human Genetic Diversity by Studying Its History,” will present the culmination of his research and thinking on the relative force and interactions of genes and culture in the human evolutionary process. Cavalli-Sforza’s lecture can be heard at 4 p.m. in the Kimbrough Concert Hall.

Cavalli-Sforza, creator of Stanford University’s Human Population Genetics Laboratory, is an active professor emeritus in the Department of Genetics at Stanford’s School of Medicine. He is credited with advancing the study of the origin of modern humans and their evolutionary history by using genetic markers along with linguistic and archaeological data. In effect, he used genes and culture to reconstruct the history of humankind.

“It is fitting for a lecture of this high caliber to be the first event of the liberal arts season,” said Erich Lear, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, referring to the CLA Season, a series of academic and interdisciplinary events at the college ranging from lectures to the Edward R. Murrow Symposium and the Festival of Contemporary Art Music. “You know it is going to be an excellent academic year when L.L. Cavalli-Sforza sets the standard at the beginning of the semester,” Lear said.

Working in many disciplines, Cavalli-Sforza has been called “one of 20th century biology’s greatest synthesizers” (David B. Goldstein, 2000, Science, vol. 289, p. 62).

“Cavalli’s vision has brought about a new way of looking at human evolution and, like every novelty, it has been controversial,” according to a recently published scientific biography of Cavalli-Sforza by Linda Stone, professor of anthropology at WSU, and Paul Lurquin, WSU professor of genetics.

In “A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey: The Life and Work of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza,” Stone and Lurquin write “…Cavalli’s legacy will be his vision that a great deal about human evolution—in its biological, cultural and linguistic aspects—can be understood through looking at how and where human groups have moved over the earth, preserving more stably those characteristics which are passed from generation to generation through specific conservative mechanisms of transmission.”

“It is an honor for Washington State University to host Dr. Cavalli-Sforza’s lecture,” said WSU Provost Robert Bates. “The cross-cutting nature of his work is an inspiration to us as a world-class university, which is dedicated to projects which bring together the finest minds from many areas.

“The Holland Lecture has a tradition of bringing to campus those whose research has revolutionized or advanced their fields of study,” Bates said. “Cavalli-Sforza’s body of work is consistent with that tradition, and we look forward to his visit and his lecture.”

Cavalli-Sforza was granted a medical degree from the University of Pavia (Italy) in 1944. His bio lists a number of leadership positions, honors and awards, including U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 1978; president, American Society of Human Genetics, 1989; Academia dei Lincei, national member, 1991; Foreign Member of the Royal Society, London, U.K., 1992; Honorary Sc.D., Columbia University, Universita delle Calabrie, Bologna, Cagliari, Roma, and Cambridge University; Fyssen International Prize, 1994; Italian Academy of Medicine Award, 1998; and Balzan Prize, 1999.

The Philip C. Holland Lecture is an annual event at WSU, funded through an endowment established by Ernest O. Holland, former university president (1916–1944). Holland was WSU’s fifth president. The lecture is named after his father, a physician in Indiana.

Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the 2005 Holland Lecture is supported by the College of Liberal Arts, College of Sciences, Department of Anthropology, Center for Integrated Biotechnology, School of Molecular Biology, School of Biological Sciences and the Office of Equity and Diversity.