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  • Walking with Robert Sokal
  • Guido Barbujani

It was many years ago. Robert Sokal and I were walking through the streets of Padua. It was spring, the sky was darkening, it was the time of day at which more intimate communication becomes sometimes possible. Without my asking, he started talking about his early years in Europe. On April 2, 1938, in front of an enthusiastic Viennese crowd, Adolf Hitler had proclaimed the annexation of Austria to Germany; Vienna was no longer a safe place for a Jewish family. The Sokals packed all they could carry with them in a few pieces of luggage and caught a train to Trieste. They were lucky enough to make it on time for the last ship that European Jews were allowed to board. Its name was Conte Rosso; its destination was Shanghai. At that crucial turning point of his life, Robert Sokal had little perception of how serious the moment was, he told me; everything onboard the big steamer was just exciting for a 13-year-old. The cook's speciality, he remembered, was risotto with chicken liver. Maybe he wanted to have one that night, fifty years later? I asked. Off we went, and Sokal was initially amused at the idea, less so when, after more than an hour of useless wandering, we had yet to find a restaurant listing that old-time delicacy on its menu. His back was aching; it was inevitable to surrender. I promised that next time I would do a careful search in advance to make sure he could enjoy a proper risotto with chicken liver. I did not keep my promise; that was his last trip to Italy.

When I joined Robert Sokal in Stony Brook, at the beginning of 1987, I was immediately exposed to myth. I am not speaking here of the reputation of the group and of its leader, although the term would not be totally inappropriate for them. I am speaking of the legends circulating in the broad assemblage of postdocs, graduate students, and generic scientists who at that time were variously associated with Sokal's lab. Two main myths, among several, were popular. The first one was that the discipline of numerical taxonomy was born out of a bet over six or twelve (sources disagreed) cans of beer; the second one was that one of Sokal's early papers was sent to 36 referees by the hostile editor of Systematic Zoology. Both turned out not to be myths at all, but it took me months before I had the chance to listen to Sokal's version. On that occasion, I also first heard the expression "from the horse's mouth," by which Sokal was referring to himself. I was struck by the realization that the last name of Sokal's main scientific adversary at the time, Cavalli, means "horses." Thus, in the horse, [End Page 481] like in the symbol of Taiji philosophy, the two conflicting principles, yin and yang, Sokal and Cavalli-Sforza, could somehow meet and be one.

The two men could hardly be more different, personally and professionally. Cavalli is a polyedric artist/scientist, with outstanding entrepreneurial abilities; Sokal was a careful craftsman/scientist whose artifacts were made to last. As an Italian human geneticist, I had grown up reading Cavalli's books and papers; working now in Sokal's group was worryingly similar to being one of those ambiguous characters of spy stories, figures who act in the shade and generally die a horrible death shortly before the movie credits. It is understandable, then, that for months I avoided asking questions unrelated to my project. But eventually I did; both stories, Sokal guaranteed, were true, and the cans of beer were six. He also told me that in the fifties, when he stated it was time to develop quantitative methods for establishing taxonomic relationships, he had no idea how to do it. And then he added that he made sure that the editor of Systematic Zoology was fired for handling his manuscript that way.

Thus, Robert Sokal could also act impulsively, and he could occasionally take revenge. Everybody who has known him in person can testify that normally he...


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pp. 481-488
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