Surnames tend to behave like neutral genes, and their distribution has attracted a growing attention from genetists and physicists. We review the century-long history of surname studies and discuss the most recent developments. Isonymy has been regarded as a tool for the measurement of consanguinity of individuals and populations and has been applied to the analysis of migrations. The analogy between patrilineal surname transmission and the propagation of Y chromosomes has been exploited for the genetic characterization of families, communities and control groups. Surname distribution is the result of a stochastic dynamics, which has been studied either as a Yule process or as a branching phenomenon: both approaches predict the asymptotic power-law behavior which has been observed in many empirical researches. Models of neutral evolution based on the theory of disordered systems have suggested the application of eld-theoretical techniques, and in particular the Renormalization Group, to describe the dynamics leading to scale-invariant distributions and to compute the related (critical) exponents
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