In Memory of Dr. Alison Jolly

dr alison jolly

Alison Jolly, primatologist and conservationist, born 9 May 1937, died 6 February 2014.

A chance invitation to babysit laboratory lemurs at Yale University in 1959, where she was a graduate student immersed in the study of sea sponges, triggered a change of direction and a distinguished career as a primatologist for Alison Jolly, who has died at home in Lewes, East Sussex, aged 76.

 Driven by a commitment to the wildlife, ecology and development of one of the world’s poorest yet most iconic countries, Madagascar, Jolly became an expert on lemurs. David Attenborough recently wrote: ‘not only they but the people and land of Madagascar captured her heart’.

 She made her name as the first scientist to do an in-depth account of the behaviour of the ring-tailed lemur, L. catta, beginning field work in 1962. She discovered that this species ‑ and as it turned out most other lemurs ‑ have female dominance over males, breaking the then orthodoxy that primates were male-dominant. As she later observed, the ‘king’ of the DreamWorks animation Madagascar ought to have been a ‘queen’.

 Jolly also pioneered the argument that the evolution of intelligence has more to do with social behaviour than ecological factors. When she published her breakthrough Science paper in 1966, many thought intelligence evolved to master simple tools. Jolly speculated that more likely it evolved through the challenge of maintaining complex social relationships, a position now taken for granted.

 Working primarily in the south of Madagascar at Berenty, a private reserve of forest set in a semi-arid desert, her forty-year research of ring-tailed lemurs expressed a love and scientific fascination for another species and its environment. Lords & Lemurs: Mad Scientists, Kings With Spears, and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar (2004) is a compelling account of her work and connections with the local Tandroy population and the aristocratic semi-feudal French landowners, the De Heaulmes.

 Jolly’s perceptions were articulated with precision and clarity, notably in her classic textbook The Evolution of Primate Behavior (1972), and later in a consideration of the evolution of co-operation and inter-dependence, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution (2001). These and other works reflected her position as a woman challenging the individualist bent of masculinized sociobiology, though her passions were directed towards conservation and ecology rather than feminism. Her achievements were remarkable for a mother of four who never had a full time faculty position.

 Her approach to lemur life was holistic, arguing for approaches which worked with local people and government, and in particular nurturing a generation of Malagasy scientists, sometimes at her own expense. In many ways this reflected the influence of her beloved husband of fifty years, Sir Richard Jolly, the development economist.

 Her pragmatism together with her concerns about Madagascar’s parlous political and economic state could sometimes sustain uncomfortable involvements, such as with Rio Tinto in the development of the QMM titanium mine on the country’s southern coast. She was an advisor on the independent Biodiversity Committee set up to oversee the company’s commitment to net positive improvement in both environment and society during the life of the mine and its pledge not to cause the extinction of a species. As she said: “If you think that people and forest will somehow muddle through before the hills are scraped as bare as Haiti, then there is no reason to think that money and organization will improve life. If you look at the statistics of forest loss, you opt for the mine.”

 Enjoying an idyllic childhood in Ithaca, New York, she was the child of the artist Alison Mason Kingsbury and the humorist and Cornell scholar, Morris Bishop. She quipped that since her mother knew everything about art and her father about literature, her only choice was to become a scientist. However she was herself a marvelous story teller about animal behavior, and vivacity peppers her writing, with sifakas ‘silently soaring against the blue sky in great ballet leaps’, stopping ‘to feed with no fuss or bickering’. This approach drove The Ako Series (2005/12), a ground-breaking project to protect Madagascar’s biodiversity jewels through books aimed at the country’s children, which she wrote with her Malagasy colleague, Hanta Rasaminanana.

 She stood out as a tall American-in-England in her trademark Tilly bush hat, colourful necklaces and man-sized sneakers. Her gentle professional style and dislike of competition could veil her impressive achievements. She held a BA from Cornell, and a PhD from Yale. She had been a researcher at the New York Zoological Society, and the universities of Cambridge, Sussex, Rockefeller and Princeton. At the time of her death she was a Visiting Scientist at the University of Sussex. She was President of the International Primatological Society 1992/96 and received its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. She was awarded a Knighthood by the National Order of Madagascar in 1998 and the Osman Hill Medal by the Primate Society of Great Britain in 2008.  She received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Antananarivo and the Università degli Studi di Torino both in 2012. In June 2006, a new species of mouse lemur, Microcebus jollyae, was named in her honour, while a parcel of recently restored mining forest in Madagascar was named for her in January 2014, reflecting the hope that in so doing the people involved will be more likely to sustain it.

 Her books include Lemur Behavior: A Madagascar Field Study (1966); Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution; and A World Like Our Own: Man and Nature in Madagascar (1980). Her final book, Saving Madagascar: Conservation Diaries of Alison Jolly will be published posthumously. Jolly wrote over 100 scientific and popular articles and was featured in 20 television programmes. Her writing for children included the Fiddle stories, featuring the time-travelling adventures of a young girl, modelled on a beloved granddaughter.

 Alison Jolly is survived by her spouse, Sir Richard Jolly, four children, Margaretta, Susan, Arthur and Richard, and four grandchildren.

 Alison Jolly, primatologist and conservationist, born 9 May 1937, died 6 February 2014.

 Nick Fairclough, Margaretta Jolly and Arthur Jolly

(Submitted by Josia Razafindramanana to the Madagascar Environmental Justice Network)


5 thoughts on “In Memory of Dr. Alison Jolly

  1. This is sad news. I had the pleasure of Alison’s company whilst working in Costa Rica and we spent the day sat in the forest discussing the early days of her field work and the social turmoil’s of spider monkey society. For a budding behavioural scientist at the time it was an enthralling experience to meet an inspirational female role model. A day I shall always remember. Best wishes to Dr Jolly’s family.

    1. Dear Fidy, Elaine, and Yvette, thank you so much for your thoughts remembering Dr. Jolly. We are honored to have worked with her. Besides inspiring so many of us, she advanced science and conservation, and set a remarkable example for engaging communities.

  2. I am very sad at losing a friend and the world losing an amazing conservationist! Alison led Earthwatch groups to Berenty and I had the gift of participating in one of these with her. I was blessed to travel with her another time distributing lemur posters to schools all around Madagascar. What a beautiful soul, kind teacher, and forthright speaker and thinker. Best wishes to you, Richard and the family – you all are in our prayers. Hanta – love to talk with you again! With blessings, Gail Lash.

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