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.


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A memory of his thoughtfulness and kindness: When we had our daughter, Julia, 19 years ago, Irv brought over a giant cowhide that I was to wrap around me to carry Julia in, so I would never have to put her down, like a good hunter-gatherer. It weighed about a hundred pounds. I loved him so much. I send my deepest heart felt sympathies for Nancy and Claire, other family, and for the rest of us, too.

By Martha Tappen (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

Greg, your eulogy is spot-on. Irv was a giant in the field of anthropology and one of Harvard's greatest professors. He truly embodied the spirit of interdisciplinary research. When he plunked down on the red couches outside his office, one never knew where the conversation would go. You only knew that you would leave much the wiser and better for it. Our sympathies go out to his family.

By John Shea (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

I spent two nights at Irv's home in July, telling stories into the wee hours. Frail as he was, he still was a grand presence.

By Mark W Moffett (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

I spent two nights at Irv's home in July, telling stories into the wee hours. Frail as he was, he still had a grand presence.

By Mark W Moffett (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

Mark, I remember an earlier visit by you ... you were on your way out to Berkley I think. Lots of grand presence then too.

I think that it is fair to say that much of what today goes under the name of Biological Anthropology has Irv's fingerprints on it, not just primate and hunter-gather studies, but the many spinoffs that he recognized were important, from reproductive biology to evolutionary psychology to brain evolution research (which he was happy to support me in pursuing). The truly inspiring and daunting task of team-teaching with him for years, shaped my career, even if I did not directly follow in his footsteps. And the uncountably many Simian Seminars in his living room were without question the most challenging mind-expanding learning experiences I can remember. Though we lost touch over the years, I never forgot the warmth, wit, and curiosity that graced the formative years that were my graduate and first faculty experiences. He will be missed but his influence lives on in dozens of institutions and researchers around the world.

By Terry Deacon (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

For those of us who were fortunate to be grad students when Irv was in the Department we can only imagine how much poorer our experience would be without his stories, humor, B-29 lectures, rare tropical diseases and smoke coming from the office. But it was not until his 60th birthday celebration seminar when I realized how incredibly influential he was for the whole field and for creating new sub-fields within Biological Anthropology. As Terry said “his influence lives on in dozens of institutions and researchers around the world”.

Deepest sympathies for Irv's family and friends.

By Grazyna Jasienska (not verified) on 25 Sep 2014 #permalink

How do you thank someone who built the launching pad for your career, did the countdown, pushed the button, and then continued to fire booster rockets for years afterward? Someone who taught you how to do fieldwork, how to teach, how to lecture at home and abroad, how to prepare papers and books for publication, and in certain ways how to live? Who, with the help of his wife Nancy, opened his home to you at countless times for seminars, conversation, mentoring, dinners, late-night soup, and just plain friendship? You can’t, and even when he was alive and well you couldn’t get very far with thanks because he always brushed them aside and moved on. But he did all that for me and for many others, and he did parts of it for too many others to count. Meanwhile, he helped establish scientific primatology, helped found hunter-gatherer studies, established field sites in the Kalahari and the Ituri that still yield research results decades later, and held generations of Harvard College students—four to five hundred at a time, which must have added up to tens of thousands—in the palm of his strong hand. The young scientists and scholars he helped in early stages of his career, many of whom have reached great prominence, are ensuring through their own teaching and writing that his impact will be permanent and literally incalculable. I was privileged not only to be his graduate student and to be folded into the Harvard Kalahari Project with the !Kung (Ju/’hoansi), a life-changing experience to put it mildly, but also to teach side by side with him as a junior professor for five years. When my eldest was two weeks old he and Nancy came by and ordered her mother and me to go out for a couple of hours while they babysat. When she was a toddler he delighted in delighting her, and when she was three he walked her around the block outside Mount Auburn Hospital while her brother was being born. My gratitude to Irv could not be properly expressed if I kept on saying thank you until the end of my days. But today I am grateful too that he is no longer in distress, and hopeful that Nancy, daughter Claire, the grand-kids, and all who loved him will find true comfort and peace. Irv DeVore was always larger than life, and now he is larger than ever, forever.

By Mel Konner (not verified) on 26 Sep 2014 #permalink

Just now learned of Irv's death from Greg's blog and his moving tribute. I am stunned, sad, surprised, and for that matter buffeted by a myriad of emotions too complex to record here.

Stunned and saddened? The reasons are obvious. But surprised? Indeed yes! Because we who knew Irv also knew (on the basis of some pretty robust evidence) that he "should" have died — perhaps countless times — much earlier. Of all the predictions one would NOT have made about Irv in the late 80s (when he became one of my graduate school advisers), certainly one would have been that he wouldn't live to see his own eighties. Had Irven Devore been a cat, his quota would have been used up long ago.

Mel Konner's eloquent tribute above describes Irv as "always larger than life." Yes indeed, but to me he was something rather more. Sitting in his office I felt his presence like an ineffable cosmic force field. Accompanied by a frisson of intimidation, all the more unsettling because I've never felt that, before or since, despite having had the good fortune to know and admire many incredibly impressive individuals.

You see, Irv for all his graciousness and support, never mind avuncular vibes — is the only man (including my own father) who struck me viscerally as THE quintessential alpha primate. The effect surely wasn't as strong as that of his kindness or intellectual acuity, yet it was there and, yes, a bit unsettling. The cognitive dissonance I felt was real and ultimate meta-rational. I may have been in Irv's troop, but I was assuredly not in charge.

Irv's professionally successful progeny have and will weigh in here. Like them, I TF'd B-29. Like them, I often saw the scotch — it would somehow always emerge in the first few minutes of our meetings (initially, I naively and egotistically assumed that it was I who was "driving" him to drink). Somehow I failed to notice the "fake book flask" Greg mentions. Perhaps I was distracted by the dense cigarette smoke threatening to asphyxiate me despite Irv's various gadgets designed to override the Peabody Museum's ban on same. Actually, it occurs to me that we shared the same personal physician, until Irv finally "fired" him because the former kept pestering him to quit.

Alas, unlike my fellow commenters here — and despite Irv's nurturing — I professionally (in the parlance of pediatricians) "failed to thrive." So, fast forward to this past summer, a mere four months ago: Irv and I sat side by side, waiting for our respective lab tests in the basement of Harvard's outpatient clinic (UHS). I actually thought he looked pretty good, even energetic, albeit frail. But poor Irv — how kindly and patiently he listened as I vented my sadness and shame for [because of poor health and personal failings] not living up to his expectations, i.e., for not doing him and my other mentors proud. Do you know what he said? "Don't ever say that, Joe!. You haven't disappointed us. We — I — will always love you." Then the phlebotomist called his name.

But speaking of health. (As for smoking, he did (or so he told me) eventually quit.) Click on the New York Times link in Greg's post. Nowhere (no less in the Times) have I ever read an obituary that lists a cause of death as "noncompliance." Would that all obits were so honest, what a boon to public health that would be! But then, no one familiar with Irven DeVore's contributions could fail to appreciate that appellation's irony, qua his death, as a reference to his anthropological achievements in life.

To Nancy and the rest of Irv's family and close friends, my very deepest condolences. And to fellow readers of Greg's blog, please treat yourself to this YouTube interview/tribute — "A Conversation with Irven DeVore" — courtesy of the Annual Review of Anthropology (2012) and Peter Ellison:

By Joseph A. Marcus (not verified) on 28 Sep 2014 #permalink

Correction/Clarification on my comment above:

Of all the predictions one would NOT have made about Irv in the late 80s (when he became one of my graduate school advisers), certainly one would have been that he wouldn’t live to see his own eighties.

OOPS — That nasty ol' double negative. I meant, of course, "that he would live to see his own eighties."

ALSO — Would be curious as to who submitted the obituary in the New York Times. This is a personal, paid obituary — i.e., essentially an ad — as opposed to the news-type obituary written by the newspaper editor. Certainly Irv DeVore's stature as a 20th-Century American anthropologist would more than justify the latter; cf. Clifford Geertz, K.C. Chang, Margaret Mead, David Maybury-Lewis, and dozens of other anthropologists whose deaths have been so reported.

Is such a formal obituary (in the Times, the Globe, or any other media) in the works for Irv?

By Joseph A. Marcus (not verified) on 28 Sep 2014 #permalink

It's difficult to even express the debt of gratitude I owe Irv. I had the great good fortune to be one of his last "projects" before he retired. He definitely took a chance on me and I hope that I manage to live up the confidence he expressed in my abilities at an early age. Serving as head TF for B-29 was a watershed professional experience for me. I'm pretty sure that nearly all of my lecture chops are derived in one way or another from Irv.

My interview for admission to the Anthropology department happened in Irv's back yard over drinks. He and I got into a very heated debate, which bordered on a yelling match. My girlfriend at the time, who had joined us that evening, couldn't believe that I had screwed things up so badly. She was sure I had killed any chance I had of going to Harvard. Well, as it turns out, Irv loved it.

This was just the first of the many debates (sometimes scotch-fueled) we would have over the years in that corner office on the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum. I miss those debates and I particularly miss watching as he clearly took such joy in recounting how one of his favorite proteges -- Sarah Hrdy, Barb Smuts, Bob Bailey, or any number of others -- had already shown how whatever position I was arguing was false. Seeing that avuncular joy took a bit of the sting out of losing every debate!

Happy trails, Irv. You touched a lot of lives and made the world a better place for it!

By James Holland Jones (not verified) on 30 Sep 2014 #permalink

Irv was serving as the director of the Peabody Museum when I arrived as a post-doc in 1996 (I am now a curator there). What an amazing, indefatigable man of more than 9 lives, and one of the best raconteurs I have ever met. As noted by previous posters, Irv embodied a rather dazzling combination of traits and was utterly unique. Despite his intellectual brilliance, curiosity and wide ranging interests he always maintained a down to earth quality and had a great capacity for empathy and understanding of the human condition. He was a "true believer" who genuinely cared about both anthropology (and its potential) and real people, and animals, which was very endearing and quite unusual among the senior members of the Harvard anthropology department. He could, and did, talk to anyone. At an institution that doesn't value teaching very highly, Irv became one of the most popular teachers in the history of Harvard. His presence and impact was huge and he will be missed in equal measure.

By Castle McLaughlin (not verified) on 01 Oct 2014 #permalink