Stanford anthropologist Arthur P. Wolf dies at 83

Wolf was known for his knowledge of early 20th-century Taiwan and as a scholar of the biological roots of incest avoidance.

Arthur P. Wolf

Stanford Professor Arthur P. Wolf died last month at the age of 83. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Arthur P. Wolf, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Professor in Human Biology and professor of anthropological sciences at Stanford University, died on May 2, 2015. He was 83.

Wolf was born on March 2, 1932, in Santa Rosa, California. Growing up in a family of ranchers and loggers, he started working at an early age, picking prunes in grade school, then working as a logger in high school. While attending Santa Rosa Junior College, he supported himself working as a miner and logger, even traveling to Alaska one summer to work in the gold fields.

After receiving an associate degree from Santa Rosa College, Wolf received a Telluride Fellowship to Cornell University where he received his bachelor’s degree in English literature and doctorate in anthropology.

Before coming to Stanford, Wolf was an assistant professor of anthropology and psychology at Cornell University. Two highlights of his career were a year he spent in England lecturing at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1964 and another year he spent as a visiting fellow at All Souls College at Oxford University in 1974.

Wolf spent many years doing field research in Taiwan, amassing a vast archive of information on early 20th-century Taiwanese households. This work and other studies in comparative Taiwan/Dutch demography continued at Stanford, where he taught in the Department of Anthropology from 1968 to 2015.

Wolf ‘s research focused on how biology and culture jointly shape the human condition. He examined family practices (including marriage and adoption), the transmission of property and population trends, as he simultaneously undertook traditional social anthropological and not-so-traditional human biological field research in Taiwan.

He was the author or editor of numerous books and articles, including Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck; Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945; and Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo.

William Durham, Stanford professor of anthropology and human biology, co-edited Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo with Wolf. Durham said, “The book was an outgrowth of a unit Arthur and I taught together for more than 25 years in the human biology core. We staged it as a debate between different perspectives on the incest taboo, putting the students in the role of judge, which they loved. He knew the topic so well, and his data were so convincing, that the best I could do most years was a tie. His writings on the topic rank as an anthropological classic and will be read for years to come.”

An engaging speaker, Wolf was a popular teacher and was once called “the best lecturer in the department” by one of his previous graduate students, Steven Sangren. “Wolf has the talent of communicating very complex ideas very effectively; he simplifies them so well that people don’t always realize the penetrating analysis that underlies them,” Sangren said. In 1976, Wolf received the Dean’s Award for Teaching in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Wolf’s lectures were a masterful combination of ethnographic narrative and social analysis,” said Sylvia Yanagisako, the Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies and professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology. “He was also a generous and effective mentor of junior faculty.”

Wolf’s participation in Stanford’s Program in Human Biology began in 1976, and his teaching and curricular innovations were a tremendous asset to the program. “I taught the Introduction to Human Biology with Arthur for 15 years, and each time, I benefited again from his exceptional ability to explain how culture and biology interact to make us human,” said Wolf’s close friend Richard Klein, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of anthropology and biology. 

Wolf is survived by his wife, Hill Gates, whom he married in 1990. Getting back to his roots, he and Gates maintained the Wolf family ranch in northern Sonoma County, which they shared with sheep, deer, feral pigs and turkeys. They were in the process of building a writers’ retreat on the property, using lumber logged from the land and doing the work themselves.