"Sex" without DeVore

The "Sex" professor's curtain call

In a New Yorker profile, the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma '76, D.Mus. '91, explained why he chose Harvard rather than a conservatory like Juilliard. Ma said he wanted to understand a broader range of subjects--things like baboons, chimpanzees, and Bushmen. "Every single thing he mentioned was in [Science] B-29!" says Moores professor of biological anthropology Irven DeVore. "My chest swelled with pride." In 1996, several of the 25 New York-area alumni participating in a roundtable discussion on the Core curriculum called Science B-29 their most memorable course at Harvard. "That's the proudest achievement of my life," DeVore says.

Indeed, "Human Behavioral Biology," nicknamed "Sex" by undergraduates, has long been one of the College's most popular courses. Since 1970, between 12,000 and 15,000 students--close to a third of those who passed through Harvard College--have taken it. DeVore may well have taught more students than any other Harvard professor. Although two or more faculty members have always run "Sex," DeVore, who is retiring in June, has been the constant element from the start. Hence, an era ended when he gave his final B-29 lecture on December 15.

"Irv has developed a wonderfully sound model for interesting people in human evolution," says professor of anthropology Richard Wrangham, who taught this year's 500 students along with DeVore and professor of psychology Mark Hauser. (Wrangham and Hauser will continue the course next year.) Former teaching fellows have cloned versions of "Sex" that draw large enrollments on campuses like Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Penn State.

A brilliant showman, DeVore is a master of the pedagogical value of humor and shock. "I will do almost anything to get their attention," he says. "There's no excuse for boredom when you're talking about human nature." Hips gyrating, DeVore might demonstrate how buffaloes mate, or, drawing on years of African fieldwork, mimic lions in the act. (Lions copulate, he explains, 3,500 times per conception, on average.) Female bonobos (a type of chimpanzee), can have noisy orgasms, he says; they pursue vigorous, promiscuous sex lives, including homosexual liaisons that firm up alliances. "I like to be candid," DeVore says. "It comes very easily to me--there are very few topics that I consider beyond the pale."

Evolutionary in perspective, "Sex" considers animal behavior, genetics, brain science, hormones, kinship and mating systems, anthropological studies, ecology, language, and cognition. At the outset, students learn that this "is not the sex-ed course they wish they'd had in high school," says DeVore, "and there is no lab work in sexual behavior."

DeVore also declares that even though "Sex" is a "great, fun course, it's not a gut." For years, many students lagged behind in the assigned reading until DeVore began giving out reading-oriented problem sets, one of whose items would be the topic of a 10-minute quiz at the start of the weekly section meetings. Section leaders--about half of whom have doctorates--handle discussion of intricate examples, freeing lecturers to paint the big picture.

Several factors motivate DeVore's retirement, including a desire to spend more time with his wife, Nancy Skiles DeVore, and their two children and four grandchildren. He has several writing projects under way; in all of these, his theoretical outlook, grounded in sociobiology, figures importantly. Fieldwork adventures--including years with !Kung Bushmen and Pygmies in Africa--have also taken a toll on his body. DeVore's personal data sheet, "Trauma and Morbidity Highlights, 1964-90," a kind of reverse curriculum vita, tells how he has been struck by lightning in the Kalahari, stung by a giant jellyfish in New Guinea, infected by parasites in Zaire, and nearly gnawed to death by a wild stallion in Wyoming. "You've got to be a tough man to eat boiled owl," he says, quoting a proverb from his native Texas. The tropical diseases are the worst hazards; DeVore laughingly notes, "The doctors at MGH used to rub their hands together when they knew I was coming back--they'd see things they hadn't seen before."

In "Sex," generations of students have also seen many new sights, and in this they emulate DeVore himself, who, since his birth in Joy, Texas, population 8, has continually expanded his horizons. "The quest of my life--through religion, philosophy, social anthropology, biological anthropology--has been to understand human nature," he says. "I've never succeeded. What I have been able to do is to sharpen my questions."

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