Barbara Smuts and Robert Smuts
Robert Smuts (1920–2003) and Barbara Smuts (1950–) are father and daughter scholars recognized for their interdisciplinary work in evolutionary psychology. Barbara Smuts has conducted research on social relationships and social cognition in primates and other species. Robert Smuts conducted historical research on women’s labor participation and later contributed to theoretical discussions on sex roles within evolutionary psychology. The two scholars worked together at the University of Michigan and collaborated to produce a seminal paper on the evolution of sexual coercion.
Barbara Boardman Smuts is a biologist and anthropologist whose research has addressed the evolutionary significance and proximate maintenance of social relationships in primates, canines, and cetaceans. She received her B.A. in anthropology from Harvard University in 1972 and her PhD in neuro- and biobehavioral sciences in 1982 from the Stanford University Medical School and continued at Stanford as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. She served on the anthropology and psychology faculty at the University of Michigan between 1984 and retirement in 2013. After retirement, she continues to conduct research on social behavior in domestic dogs.
Smuts established her early career as a primate behavioral ecologist. After receiving undergraduate training from evolutionary anthropologist Irven Devore and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, she conducted a doctoral research study of male-female social relationships in a troop of wild olive baboons (Papio cynocephalus) in Gilgil, Kenya. This 2-year study culminated in the publication in 1985 of the book Sex and Friendship in Baboons (Smuts 1985). This was among a handful of texts that formed the foundation of modern primatology by applying rigorous data collection and analysis methods while maintaining important elements of an ethnographic approach. Smuts documented the special social relationships, or “friendships,” that formed between female baboons and one or more males in their groups. Males protected female friends and their offspring from attacks by other individuals and, in turn, received preferential mating access to the females. These findings emphasized a role for female choice and alternative male mating strategies in a system typified by male-male competition, stimulating broader interest in the complexities of primate social relationships. These findings, and later research on other primates, have spurred continuing research and debate into whether males form friendships with females and their young as parenting investment, in order to protect offspring that they may have sired; as mating investment, in order to increase their chances of mating with the female in the future; or both. Smuts and David Gubernick produced an important comparative analysis on this issue, outlining predictions for both paternal effort and mating effort hypotheses and arguing that paternity certainty alone is an inadequate predictor of male interactions with infants across species (Smuts and Gubernick 1992). Smuts published additional articles on her field studies with baboons, including analyses of gestural communication (Smuts and Watanabe 1990) and reproductive rates (Smuts and Nicolson 1989). She collaborated with co-editors Dorothy Cheney, Robert Seyfarth, and Richard Wrangham on the comprehensive text Primate Societies (Smuts et al. 1987), a taxonomically based review of social behavior in primates which is widely implemented as a text in undergraduate anthropology and psychology courses. Linking her interests in primatology and human behavior, Smuts also coauthored a transformative paper on The Human Community as a Primate Society (Rodseth et al. 1991), which identified key evolutionarily derived features of human social organization by positioning humans within the context of primate socioecological diversity.
In evolutionary psychology, Smuts is perhaps best known for a series of influential papers advancing an evolutionary perspective on male aggression against females. A 1992 paper used comparative evidence from primates to propose an evolutionary perspective on male violence against women (Smuts 1992a). Smuts argued that many forms of intersexual aggression function to facilitate male reproductive strategies via the control of female sexuality. By viewing sexual violence as an evolutionary phenomenon rather than merely as a social problem, Smuts was able to generate a number of testable predictions about the prevalence of coercive behavior across human societies, suggesting potential countermeasures. A 1993 paper, coauthored with her father Robert W. Smuts, provided a comprehensive evaluation of the potential sexually selected functions of male aggression against females, along with female counter-strategies, in a wide range of mammals (Smuts and Smuts 1993). This paper provided an operational definition of sexual coercion and argued for the recognition of sexual coercion as a third form of sexual selection. In 1995, Barbara Smuts extended this framework to argue that male incentives to control female sexuality underlie the origins of patriarchy (Smuts 1995). This work placed Smuts with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Jane Lancaster, and others as a key figure in “Darwinian feminism,” a paradigm shift in biology that increased the attention to females as active players in the evolution of human and animal societies.
Smuts’ research has covered a wide range of topics relevant to the development, maintenance, and function of long-term social relationships. This has included studies of chimpanzee social relationships (Baker and Smuts 1994; Wrangham and Smuts 1980), infant development and mother-infant interactions in wild bottlenose dolphins (Mann and Smuts 1998, 1999; Smolker et al. 1993), social play and friendships in dogs (Bauer and Smuts 2007; Smuts 2014; Trisko et al. 2016; Ward et al. 2008), and the evolution of cooperation (Pepper and Smuts 2000). Smuts has also authored more personal work on her experiences with animals as individuals (Smuts 2001, 2006) and has provided commentaries for Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Natural History magazine, American Scientist, The New York Times, and National Public Radio. She won several prestigious awards, including the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation, the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution from the American Psychological Association, and the John Burroughs Association prize for Best Nature Essay of 2001.
Robert W. Smuts received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Queens College in 1941. He attended Harvard Business School, but his education was interrupted by service in Patton’s Third Army in World War II. After the war, Smuts spent 8 years at Columbia University as a lead investigator for the Conservation of Human Resources Project and the National Manpower Council. His influential book, Women and Work in America, provided a historical analysis of the changing role of women in the workforce between 1890 and the early 1950s (Smuts 1959). This report documented the factors that led increasing numbers of women to seek work outside the home, the obstacles they met there, and the shifts in societal attitudes about women’s role in the economy. In a related paper, Smuts used the historical context of this research to question the government’s labor force statistics, which, owing to changes in how women’s labor was documented, painted a rosier picture of increases in female workforce participation than was warranted (Smuts 1960). These works were notable because, in providing objective documentation of changing women’s economic roles, they also highlighted the large disparities still present in opportunities, conditions, and compensation. In a similar vein, Smuts wrote about the underutilization of African Americans in the workforce, arguing that segregation and discrimination remained significant obstacles for educational and employment opportunities (Smuts 1957).
Smuts left Columbia University to work in public relations at Ford Motor Company, where he wrote speeches for Henry Ford II and other top executives. After retirement, Smuts took graduate courses and engaged in seminars in evolution and behavior led by a cadre of eminent evolutionary biologists, including G.C. Williams, W.D. Hamilton, Peter Grant, and Richard Alexander. These experiences cemented an early interest, shared with his daughter, in the role of biological factors in human behavior and historical cultural change. From this perspective, he wrote on cultural shifts in body image for women, noting that while fatness was once a valued indicator of health, fertility, and resource access, modern Western societies value thinness (Smuts 1992b). Drawing on his earlier work, Smuts attributes this change to increased women’s economic participation, arguing that, in an environment where starvation is no longer a significant threat, women use thinness as a signal of status and a means to compete with each other and with men. This paper elaborates a theme of Smuts’ writing in evolutionary psychology, that behavior is highly responsive to context, such that evolutionarily novel conditions may drive new and unexpected strategies. His argument has been interpreted as a critique of the adaptationist program in evolutionary psychology (Tooby and Cosmides 1990), which has emphasized the importance of past environments for shaping current psychological adaptation. The conceptual debate is exemplified in Smuts’ engagement with David Buss’ work on commonalities in mate preferences across cultures (Buss 1989; Smuts 1989, 1991a, b).
Barbara and Robert Smuts, together and independently, have produced foundational, multidisciplinary works on the evolution of social interactions and the processes of cultural change that comprise essential knowledge for scholars in evolutionary psychology and anthropology.
- Baker, K. C., & Smuts, B. B. (1994). Social relationships of female chimpanzees: Diversity between captive social groups. In R. W. Wrangham, W. C. McGrew, F. B. M. de Waal, & P. G. Heltne (Eds.), Chimpanzee cultures (pp. 227–242). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Pepper, J. W., & Smuts, B. B. (2000). The evolution of cooperation in an ecological context: An agent-based model. In T. A. Kohler & G. G. Gumerman (Eds.), Dynamics in human and primate societies: Agent-based modeling of social and spatial processes (pp. 45–76). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Smuts, R. W. (1959). Women and work in America. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
- Smuts, B. B. (1985). Sex and friendship in baboons. Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
- Smuts, B. B. (2001). Encounters with animal minds. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5–6), 293–309.Google Scholar
- Smuts, B. B., & Gubernick, D. J. (1992). Male-infant relationships in nonhuman primates: Paternal investment or mating effort? In B. S. Hewlett (Ed.), Father-child relationships: Cultural and biosocial contexts (pp. 1–30). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
- Smuts, B. B., Cheney, D. L., Seyfarth, R. M., Wrangham, R. W., & Struhsaker, T. T. (1987). Primate Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar