The frequency distribution of surnames turns out to be a relevant issue not only in historical demography but also in population biology, and especially in genetics, since surnames tend to behave like neutral genes and propagate like Y chromosomes. The stochastic dynamics leading to the observed scale-invariant distributions has been studied as a Yule process, as a branching phenomenon and also by field-theoretical renormalization group techniques. In the absence of mutations the theoretical models are in good agreement with empirical evidence, but when mutations are present a discrepancy between the theoretical and the experimental exponents is observed. Hints for the possible origin of the mismatch are discussed, with some emphasis on the difference between the asymptotic frequency distribution of a full population and the frequency distributions observed in its samples. A precise connection is established between surname distributions and the statistical properties of genealogical trees. Ancestors tables, being obviously self-similar, may be investigated theoretically by renormalization group techniques, but they can also be studied empirically by exploiting the large online genealogical databases concerning European nobility.
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