Irven DeVore

On Tuesday, 23 September, I lectured to my Primate Ecology and Social Behavior class about how methods of measuring behavior have changed since the first pioneering studies in field primatology. As an example of the importance of methodology, I used baboon troop progressions, a controversy starring Irv DeVore. That night, I learned from Greg Laden that Irv had died that same day, a couple of weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

I first met Irv twenty years ago, when I visited Harvard as a prospective graduate student. He sat at the big desk in the corner office of the Peabody Museum, at the top of the stairs. The bathroom outside his office stank of cigarette smoke because that’s one of the few places in the building he could get away with smoking. Irv looked a bit like Colonel Sanders: white hair, mustache and goatee, a tall southern gentleman, wearing a khaki field vest like he had just gotten back from safari and hadn’t had time to change clothes. The books packing the tall bookshelves included classics that Irv had edited: Primate Behavior: Field Studies of Monkeys and Apes (1965), Man the Hunter (1968) and others. From the walls hung artifacts from Africa: bows and arrows, spears, wood carvings.

We talked about baboons. At the time, I was working for Jeanne Altmann, managing data for the Amboseli Baboon Project, and had spent about ten months at Mpala Research Camp in Kenya habituating baboons for a Kenyan PhD student, Philip Muruthi. Irv told me about his own days studying baboons in Kenya.

Starting in 1959, as a student of Sherwood Washburn, Irv studied baboons in Amboseli and Nairobi National Park. At the time, very few people had studied primates in the wild in any detail. This was the same year that George Schaller began his pioneering studies of mountain gorillas, and a year before Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees at Gombe. As this figure shows, Irv started studying baboons right at the start of an exponential increase in hours devoted to field studies of primates:

Time devoted to field studies of primates (from Altman, 1965)
Time devoted to field studies of primates (from Altman, 1967)







When I first met Irv, I was mostly ignorant of the many disputes in the history of baboon studies. The example I used in class the other day, about baboon troop progressions, was something that I only learned about later. It’s little more than a footnote now in primate studies, and perhaps not worth dwelling on, but is something I keep coming back to, as an example of methodology, an illustration of how science works, and a point of departure for thinking of Irv’s long and influential career.

By the 1950s, anthropologists were beginning to take seriously the idea that humans had evolved in Africa. Raymond Dart had discovered the oldest known hominin fossil, Australopithecus africanus, in South Africa (Dart, 1925). In attempting to reconstruct the likely behavior of Australopithecus, Dart drew on what was then known about baboons, which were the most conspicuous primates living where the fossil had been found:  on the open plains on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Dart knew that baboons sometimes hunted and ate meat, which he used to support his view of Australopithecus as having made the transition from “fruit-eating, forest-loving apes” to  “the sanguinary pursuits and carnivorous habits of proto-men” (Dart, 1953).

Washburn hit on the idea of studying baboon behavior while at the 1955 Pan-African Conference in Prehistory in Northern Rhodesia, with Raymond Dart and Louis Leakey. Primarily a comparative anatomist, Washburn had dissected many baboons, which were considered vermin and could be shot at will. But at the Victoria Falls Hotel, Washburn began actually watching live baboons, and found their behavior fascinating, and relevant for testing many ideas about human evolution (DeVore, 1992).

Back in his home base at the University of Chicago, Washburn recruited DeVore to study baboons. At the time, Irv was a grad student in cultural anthropology, with no formal training in animal behavior. As a pioneering researcher, though, Irv quickly became the expert on baboon behavior. He and Washburn published their findings widely, in Scientific American, in edited volumes about primate behavior and human evolution, and in a series of educational films and pamphlets.

One of the puzzles in human evolution was how our ancestors could have survived on open plains inhabited by dangerous carnivores such as lions and leopards. DeVore and Washburn saw baboon troop progressions as an adaptation to keeping safe in this hazardous environment:

Illustration of a baboon troop progression from Hall & Devore (1965)
Illustration of a baboon troop progression from Hall & DeVore (1965)

A baboon troop that is in or under trees seems to have no particular organization, but when the troop moves out onto the open plains, a clear order of progression appears. Out in front of the troop move the boldest troop members-the less dominant adult males and the older juvenile males . . . Following them are other members of the troop’s periphery, pregnant and estrus adult females and juveniles. Next, in the center, comes the nucleus of dominant adult males, females with infants, and young juveniles. The rear of the troop is a mirror image of its front, with adults and older juveniles following the nucleus and more adult males at the end. This order of progression is invariably followed when the troop is moving rapidly from one feeding area to another during the day, and to its sleeping trees at dusk . . . (DeVore & Washburn, 1963)

There was a clear adaptive logic to this organization:

The arrangement of the troop members when they are moving insures maximum protection for the infants and juveniles in the center of the troop. An approaching predator would first encounter the adult males on the troop’s periphery, and then the adult males in the center, before it could reach defenseless troop members in the center. (DeVore & Washburn, 1963)

This idea that baboon societies were geometrically organized for protection appealed to people and became widely cited. As late as 1997 or 1998, I found a textbook in an elementary school in rural Uganda that contained a description of baboons that must have been adapted directly from DeVore’s publications. It faithfully replicated claims about the baboon troop progression, illustrated with line drawings of baboons.

Irv soon moved on from baboons to study hunter-gatherers and work in various ways to bring evolutionary theory into the study of human behavior. In the meantime, other researchers began studying baboons, including Stuart and Jeanne Altmann, who began doing fieldwork in Amboseli in 1963, soon after Irv’s pioneering studies there. Stuart was a leader in the newly emerging field of primatology, having studied rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago and howling monkeys in Panama. As a graduate student of E. O. Wilson at Harvard, Stuart was one of the first researchers to use the term “sociobiology,” which he used to describe his approach to studying rhesus monkeys on Cayo. In his 1962 paper on rhesus monkeys, Stuart lists Irv as one on of the visitors to Cayo, sometime around 1957-58, so Irv must have visited Cayo before his own first trip to Kenya. Irv studied baboons for a few years; the Altmanns worked together for decades, establishing a long-term project that continues to examine many different aspects of baboon behavior and ecology.

In the midst of documenting many aspects of baboon lives, Stuart made a concerted effort to study baboon progressions (Altmann, 1979). This passage from the methods section of his 1979 paper illustrates the meticulous observations he undertook to test the hypothesis that baboon movements represent an orderly geometry:

Baboons in progressions were censused at opportune times during the course of several projects. With experience, we learned to anticipate their route of progression. From a position ahead of and to the side of the anticipated route, we selected a line of sight that was as free as possible of obstructing vegetation. We picked out some small visual marker, such as a rock or the edge of a distant tree, that would clearly fix the line of sight or ‘counting point’. Then, as each individual in turn walked past this imaginary line, its age-sex class was recorded. Whenever two individuals were close together as they passed the counting point, the order was determined ‘horse race style’, i.e. depending on whose nares crossed first. If an individual turned back across the counting point, then crossed it a second time, it was counted as being in its second position. Whenever possible, individual identifications were made. . . .  During many of these censuses, a second observer not only confirmed observations but also continued to observe individuals that were inadequately observed by the primary observer, who remained with eyes fixed on the counting point so as not to miss the next individual. Observations were facilitated by using 7x, 35mm (or 10x, 50 mm) binoculars, propped in position so that the observer could keep continuous watch on the counting point. Data were usually dictated into a portable cassette recorder, thereby eliminating any need to look down to write. (Altmann 1979: 49-50)

Analyzing data recording during many such observations, Stuart found that baboon progressions were essentially random, rather than strictly ordered:

In none of the baboon groups that we have studied is there a fixed progression order, either by individual or by age-sex class. Indeed, we have seen members of virtually every age-sex at every place in the group, including adult females with small, clinging infants in the front and rear of the group. (Altmann, 1979: 51)

So, as it turns out, Irv’s initial hypothesis about the geometry of baboon troop progressions was wrong. Irv would later tell his class of 500 students that he had done it all wrong, that none of the methods he used then would pass muster today. But Irv was one of the first. He was proud of his baboon films, which he said were the  first wildlife films to use synchronized sound (rather than simply adding sound in later). These films served as many students’ first introduction to baboon behavior. He drew attention to baboons and other wild primates as important subjects for understanding human nature and evolution. He inspired and taught generations of students who followed, including many who would become major figures in primate studies, including John Fleagle, Peter Rodman, Sarah Hrdy,  Patricia Whitten, Jim Moore, Barbara Smuts, Karen Strier, and others.

Irv was my co-advisor for my first years in grad school, and though this formal role lasted only a year or two, I learned a great deal from him , especially while serving on the team of Teaching Fellows for his giant lecture course, Science B-29.

While Irv nurtured and inspired primatologists for his entire career, long before I met him he had switched his focus back to humans. Starting in the mid-1960s, he helped launch modern studies of hunter-gatherers, advising Richard Lee and a series of others in studies of the !Kung San, who as a result became the proto-typical hunter-gatherers. The !Kung exhibit on the ground floor of the Peabody Museum beautifully depicted the material culture and lifeways documented by this project, with video interviews describing the rapidly changing conditions of their lives in more recent years.

In the 1970s, Irv embraced and promoted sociobiology, mentoring pioneers in the field including Bob Trivers and Sarah Hrdy. In the 1980s he assisted at the birth  of evolutionary psychology, advising John Tooby and mentoring others who became leaders of this new field.

When I was a graduate student, writing up my thesis, Irv dropped by my office one day, and noticed a copy of Primate Behavior on my shelf. He asked, “What are you doing with that old thing?”

Perhaps it was false modesty, but he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would consult his old tome. I think he felt keenly that his earliest work had been supplanted by the rapid progress of primatology.

His obituary in the New York Times states:

While true that he never wrote a groundbreaking book that lasted the ravages of time, he was most proud of his students and spent his life nurturing them, mentoring them (as long as that didn’t include actually writing the letter of recommendation) and forcing his wife to edit their theses.

Irv published a number of books and other works, but his  list of publications doesn’t come close to reflecting his intellectual influence.

For evolutionary anthropology, Irv DeVore played a role a little bit like that played by Socrates in Greek philosophy.

As far as we know, Socrates never wrote anything. Instead, Socrates served as a teacher, asking questions, probing minds, encouraging people to question received wisdom.

Socrates never held a university position, or taught students in a formal classroom. Irv was a professor at Harvard and regularly taught a class of 500. However, like Socrates, Irv was most influential in informal settings. In Plato’s dialogues, the main source of information we have about Socrates, we often see Socrates as a guest at dinner parties. Irv seems to have been most at home, and most influential, in the Simian Seminars, the informal meetings that took place a couple of times a month at his home.

By the time I started grad school, the Simian Seminars were mainly the stuff of legend. We saw Irv regularly, as a lecturer, in seminars, and at beer hour (where he complained about the bitter, hoppy microbrews that the grad students favored), but the heyday of the Simian Seminars seems to have been from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Sarah Hrdy writes about them here.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates discusses philosophy with a gathering of young men. It’s basically a dinner party. The discussion begins with an exchange between Socrates and an old man, Cephalus, who, seeing the end of his life approaching, busies himself with making sacrifices to the gods, to make sure things go well for him in the afterlife. Cephalus is pious and conventional. The conversation really gets going only after Cephalus leaves to make more sacrifices to the gods.

The Simian Seminars seem to have been a place where old Cephalus was not invited: a safe zone from pieties and conventional thinking.

At Simian Seminars almost no idea or topic was too sensitive, too politically incorrect or too bawdy to be off limits. This openness was made possible by an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect, and affection, which was very deliberately cultivated by the DeVores. (Hrdy, 2005)

In The Republic, the main impiety committed by Socrates was to talk about Justice without reference to the gods. As Plato describes in another work, The Apology, in the end Socrates was tried and executed for impiety. Among his crimes: teaching the young that the planets were not gods but were instead made of stone. But while Socrates may have held materialist views in regards to the planets, he still talked frequently of gods, daemons, souls, and an ideal world, arguing that the material world we see around us is a mere shadow of a higher reality.

Irv promoted an even more profound impiety: a serious embrace of evolutionary thinking. Daniel Dennett describes evolution as “the universal acid” (Dennett, 1996). It cuts through everything. Irv saw this and embraced it, and encouraged his students and friends and colleagues to think hard about what an evolutionary understanding of human nature really means.

Unlike Socrates, Irv was never tried for thought crimes, or forced to drink hemlock. But he did attract critics and and controversy. In Primate Visions , Donna Haraway uses DeVore as her main example of “the bad old days” before primatologists took notice of female primates. The schools of thought that Irv championed, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, have long attracted controversy, and have been criticized by some for having a sexist bias. At least some of this criticism seems to result from people focusing on the titles rather than the contents of books. For example, many people seem to think that Lee and DeVore’s 1968 book Man the Hunter is devoted to celebrating the macho side of human evolution. Those who have read the book, though, will know that the authors actually argued against some widely held male-centered views. For example, Lee and DeVore argued that hunter-gatherer societies are often not organized along lines of male kinship (in contrast to the prevailing view at the time). Although the book’s title emphasized the meat hunted by men, inside the book the authors emphasized the importance of plant foods, which were mainly collected by women.

Because Socrates wrote nothing that survives, we know about him only from what was written by others. His followers, Plato and Xenophon, depict Socrates as a paragon of virtue and intellect; the playwright Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a clown. Similarly, Irv is perhaps better known from the words of his disciples and detractors than from his own work. And while detractors depicted Irv as someone focused on alpha male baboons and hunting men, as a mentor Irv championed both his male and female students. In Plato’s dialogues, only men participated in the philosophical discussions with Socrates. In the 1970s, some 2300 years later, women were still often excluded from important discussions. As Sarah Hrdy describes, though, the Simian Seminars welcomed women from the very beginning:

For many graduate students, these gatherings were the core of an unbelievably heady education. The format was especially important for women students, who in those days would often have been excluded from post-seminar gatherings where men talked out the issues over a beer, somewhere else. (Hrdy, 2005)

Irv was a pioneer. He was not a master of collecting or analyzing large datasets. But he was a great story teller. As a lecturer, he held the attention of hundreds of undergraduates every semester for decades.  Students laughed at his jokes and remembered details of his stories for years to come. He inspired many people to go out and check his stories, to prove him right or wrong. Most importantly, his overall vision of how to answer questions about human nature is, I think, spot on. To understand human nature, we need to take evolutionary theory seriously. We need to approach the world with an open, critical and creative mind. We need to test hypotheses with empirical data, not just philosophical introspection. We need to pay particular attention to the behavior and ecology of our primate cousins, and to people living as hunter-gatherers. Evolutionary principles hold enormous promise for explaining the behavior of people everywhere and everywhen. And in a lifetime devoted to implementing this vision, Irv championed collaborative work, took chances on unconventional students and ideas, and was not afraid to admit when he was wrong.

Irv DeVore at his last lecture, 15 December 2000. (Photo by Randall Collura)
Irv DeVore at his last lecture for Science B-29, 15 December 2000. (Photo by Randall Collura)










Altmann, S. A. (1962). “A field study of the sociobiology of rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 102: 338-435.

Altmann, S. A., Ed. (1967). Social Communication among Primates. Midway reprints. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Altmann, S. A. (1979). “Baboon progressions: order or chaos? A study of of one-dimensional group geometry.” Animal Behaviour 27: 46-80.

Dart, R. A. (1953). “The predatory transition from ape to man.” International Anthropological and Linguistic Review 1(4): 201-218.

Dennett, D. C. (1996). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York, Simon & Schuster.

DeVore, I. and S. L. Washburn (1963). “Baboon ecology and human evolution.” African Ecology and Human Evolution. C. F. Howell and F. Bourlière, Eds.. Chicago, Adline: 335-367.

DeVore, I. and S. L. Washburn (1992). “An interview with Sherwood Washburn.” Current Anthropology 33(4): 411-423.

Hall, K. R. L., & I. DeVore (1965). “Baboon social behavior.” Primate Behavior: Field Studies of Monkeys and Apes. I. DeVore, Ed. New York, London: 53-110.

Haraway, D. J. (1989). Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York, Routledge.

Hrdy, S. B. (2005). “Milestones for Irv DeVore and the Simian Seminar.” Evolutionary Anthropology 14: 90-92.

Lee, R. and I. DeVore, Eds. (1968). Man the Hunter, Aldine Transaction.

Plato (1991). The Republic of Plato, Basic Books. Translated by Allan Bloom.