Profile DeVore

ANTHROPOLOGY is a changing field, and B. Irvine DeVore, professor of Anthropology, is a very busy man.

"Anthropology as a discipline is going through a very tough time," he says. As the field has grown over the last century, subdisciplines have become increasingly specialized, only to end up overlapping. DeVore foresees a general reorganization of the behavioral sciences within the next generation, with more research by teams of scientists from different fields, and courses taught by interdepartmental groups of faculty.

His new course, Social Relations 1080, combines two subdisciplines of anthropology-physical and social-to form one of the first interdisciplinary courses in the behavioral sciences at Harvard.

"My course expresses the same idea as the move to open up concentrations," DeVore says. He plans to invite guest lecturers to discuss aspects of human sexuality, beginning with hormonal and developmental sequences in the male and female, and ending with cross-cultural comparison of social psychology and what he calls "cognitive style."

DeVore and other professors in the biology departments have discussed a "program" in behavioral biology, which would start as a group of seminars and courses such as Soc Rel 1080 and would later develop into an undergraduate concentration and a doctoral discipline.


DeVore's own interests and research cross the four sub-disciplines of classical anthropology: social, biological, archeology, and linguistics. The Kung Bushman project in Africa includes researchers in all four fields, as well as medical doctors.

Among students at Harvard, however, DeVore is better known for his work with baboon social organization. "After I took that course," one boy said, "all I could see at parties was baboons." One reading period, two girls at Radcliffe terrorized their neighbors by re-enacting the threat and submission sequence of dominant and submissive male baboons. The "boony flicks" are popular even with students not taking DeVore's courses.

Some of the baboon films DeVore showed for Anthropology 103 and Nat Sci 17 were produced for the Education Development Commission with Jerome Bruner, for fifth-graders. DeVore now gets fan-mail from ten-year-olds, asking how they can get to Kenya, and-even better-how they can go there with him. He tries to answer all his mail, except, he says, when teachers have had all of their students write to him as a class project.

DeVore has older admirers, too. He is invited to edit more books and write more articles than he has time for (he has already authored or co-authored more than a dozen and has helped produce ten films), and serves on four committees, plus countless informal groups at Harvard. Girls in his course two years ago wept when his teaching assistant announced that DeVore was in the hospital with hepatitis. "Basically," one student who has worked with him for a year says, "once people find out how easy he is to talk to, they won't leave him alone."

He does not admit to being busier than he would like to be, but the people who work in his office seem to do most of his complaining for him. "DeVore spends one third of his time professing, and two thirds of his time administering money, as wing chairman," one student said, "and it's a waste of talent."

DEVORE came to Harvard in 1963 from Chicago via Berkeley, where he taught for a year in its "halcyon days-when they wondered when they would be as good as Harvard."

It was at Chicago that he became interested in baboons. He had always been what he calls an "inveterate keeper," and he had heard of S. L. Washburn before he arrived. "Washburn could have been teaching about little green things on Mars, and I would have been fascinated by that," DeVore says. "But since he was interested in baboons, I did baboons."

DeVore's many jobs here do not seem to leave much time for anthropology, but he will return to study the Bushmen sometime in the next year or two. His involvement in social issues in this country has not changed his belief that field work should be research, not social action.

"I'm a social action kind of person," he says, "but I am not comfortable mixing my anthropology with anything else." Relevant anthropology, he says, is largely knowing when to study something, i. e., doing research in areas of current concern. But applied anthropology (involving the anthropologist's formal recommendations to the local government) and action anthropology (social action by the people themselves based on the researcher's recommendations) are much more sensitive and complicated fields. Any increment of planned social change exposes countless new unknown factors, and the schedule of well-intentioned reforms often becomes lost in a series of mistakes and corrections.

Applied anthropology may be risky, but it is not wrong. Anthropologists feel the conflict between pure research and the desire to help because they have traditionally seen their role as protectors to the "weaker peoples or this world who are not articulate in standing up for themselves." Anthropologists try to represent the people they have studied to their governments, but most researchers avoid any more direct involvement in assistance programs.

DeVore is 36, married, and has two children. He has a friendly, easy-going manner, and apologizes when he is late for appointments or has to cut them short by a few minutes. According to a friend, he spends his leisure time working, and never sleeps. He has baboon cartoons hanging on his office doors and bulletin boards.