Irven DeVore started out as the son of a small-town Texas preacher. By the age of 17, DeVore was ministering the gospel at the head of the church. He enrolled at the University of Texas to study theology and philosophy, but later switched to anthropology. After completing graduate studies at the University of Chicago, DeVore went to East Africa to observe apes in 1959, the same year Jane Goodall began her famous field studies on chimpanzees. Increasingly, he says, he became fascinated by human nature and what makes people male or female.
DeVore is currently Curator of Primatology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. He also teaches at Harvard University, most notably Science B-29, in which he is known for exceptionally lively and sometimes raunchy lectures. For instance, he discusses the mating habits of elephant seals, orangutans, hangflies, ostriches, lions, and chimps to name a few. “I teach by humor and shock,” acknowledges DeVore, whose course uses evolutionary theory, social behavior, language acquisition, and brain anatomy as context for examining human behavior.
DeVore hasn’t spent his entire career in the classroom. He has 20 years of field experience studying human hunters and gatherers. He has lived among baboons in Kenya, Bushmen in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, and the Efe Pygmies of Zaire. DeVore has been struck by lightning in Botswana, stung by giant jellyfish in New Guinea and infected by parasites in Zaire.