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Irven DeVore: October 7, 1934 – September 23, 2014

I heard yesterday that my friend and former advisor Irven DeVore died. He was important, amazing, charming, difficult, harsh, brilliant, fun, annoying. My relationship to him as an advisee and a friend was complex, important to me for many years, and formative. For those who don’t know he was instrumental in developing several subfields of anthropology, including behavioral biology, primate behavioral studies, hunter-gatherer research, and even ethnoarchaeology.

He was a cultural anthropologist who realized during his first field season that a) he was not cut out to be a cultural anthropologist and b) most of the other cultural anthropologists were not either. Soon after he became Washburn’s student and independently invented the field study of complex social behavior in primates (though some others were heading in that direction at the same time), producing his famous work on the baboons of Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. For many years, what students learned about primate behavior, they learned from that work.

Later he and Richard Lee, along with John Yellen, Alison Brooks, Henry Harpending, and others started up the study of Ju/’hoansi Bushmen along the Namibian/Botswana border. One of the outcomes of that work was the famous Werner Gren conference and volume called “Man the Hunter.” That volume has two roles in the history of anthropology. First, it launched modern forager studies. Second, it became one of the more maligned books in the field of Anthropology. I have yet to meet a single person who has a strong criticism of that book that is not based on having not read it.

For many years, much of what students learned about human foragers, they learned from that work.

DeVore supported the rise of Sociobiology but his version of it was nuanced and investigatory, not dogmatic and oversimplified as the subfield eventually came to be. He fought with Lewontin though they essentially agreed on salient points. He launched a number of outstanding researchers mainly in primate studies, and well understood the problem of sexism in the field. So, many of his proteges were women, and many of those are now household names (if you live in a house of anthropologists). Barbara Smutts, Nadine Peacock, and Sarah Hrdy for example. Karen Strier holds the Irv Devore Chair at Madison. Eventually he hooked up with Bob Trivers, who was busy re-inventing the newly invented Behavioral Biology. Cosmides and Tooby were his students as well and he was their champion. He also supported the work of Daly and Wilson.

For years he taught one or another version of “Sex”, the nickname for his course on human behavioral biology. Imagine a course taught for decades, a required course with 500 students a year, at a small but elite college like Harvard. How many students learned what they learned about human behavior from DeVore? Those of us who were involved in “Sex” saw this now and then: a Hollywood movie with one of Irv’s examples from the animal world worked into the script, or a novel with such a reference, etc. … yup, the writer or director was one of those students.

One of my first meetings with DeVore was at the home of David Maybury-Lewis, down the street from Irv’s house. DeVore pulled me aside and assigned me to be the head teaching fellow for that course. I was horrified. He forced me into the job. I did it poorly, since I was an archaeologist with virtually zero background in the field and most of the other TA’s (about eight of them) were advanced PhD students or post docs. Eventually I learned the ropes but I think I managed to avoid being head TA ever again (Jay Phelan, my Suaboya, was not so lucky, that became his job for many years). I later served as Irv’s understudy, when he was getting a series of brain surgeries. I waited in the wings to step onto the lecture hall floor in case he succumbed. That never happened, but I did take a couple of the lectures while he was in hospital. I gave his lectures as he would have given them, including jokes and personal stories (but with the personal stories in third person). When he returned he re-told all the jokes and personal stories in case I had messed them up. Like I said, he could be annoying. But I digress.

By the time I was on DeVore’s teaching staff, the Harvard Ituri Project, started by Bob Bailey and Peter Ellison, was well underway and I was sent off to do my PhD fieldwork there. That project was also championed by DeVore, he was in the field there for a while.

DeVore had a major impact on Harvard’s Anthropology department. He was mainly responsible for the division of that department into autonomous wings, which eventually led to the separation of the biological anthropology wing from the rest of the Department. This is important because the entire field in the US was under similar pressures. When Harvard “split” into wings, all the other departments were free to ask themselves if they should too. I remember the very famous head of a very major anthro department visiting to see what a split department looked like. Over subsequent years some split, some entrenched.

DeVore was instrumental in shaping the faculty of the whole department, but mainly the biological anthropology wing. It is fair to say that David Pilbeam, Peter Ellison, and Richard Wrangham are on that faculty in large part because of Irv.

As I say, my relationship with Irv was complicated, but it was good. I was his last PhD student, though he had a hand in the careers of other later students. I was his confidant (one among others) and he was mine. We often met up at the end of the day in his office to debrief, he’d have a drink. He kept his scotch in a fake book flask. Then we would leave together, and he’d drive me home, or I’d drive him home, or we’d go to his place to hang out.

Of all of these things that happened in his career, the research and the effects on the field of Anthropology, his wife Nancy DeVore was as much a part as he. Irv’s deployment of his advisory duties often involved Nancy. Nancy taught me a lot about writing and editing, for example. Over the last few years, his daughter, Claire, has taken on the difficult burden of caring for a difficult person having a difficult time. Claire is as unique and potent a person as her father. I love both of you, Nancy and Claire.

I’ll probably say more at another time. That’s all I’ve got now. Meanwhile, here is an obit at the NYT.


Photo from AnthroPhoto, a Nancy and Claire DeVore project.