Ecologist Jeanne Altmann and ethicist Peter Singer honored with Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

Two Princeton professors, Jeanne Altmann and Peter Singer, have been awarded 2023 Frontiers of Knowledge Awards by the BBVA Foundation. The awards recognize basic research and creative work worldwide that significantly enlarges the stock of knowledge in a discipline, opens up new fields, or builds bridges between disciplinary areas.

Altmann, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Emerita, is one of three recipients of the 2023 Ecology and Conservation Biology award, recognized “for their outstanding contributions to the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of animals.” Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, is one of two recipients of the 2023 Award in Humanities and Social Sciences for his work focusing on the ethical consideration of animal rights.

Jeanne Altmann

Jeanne Altmann

Altmann shares her award with Susan Alberts, Professor of Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, and Marlene Zuk, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. 

“It’s a great honor to receive this award — and to share it with two of my colleagues, including one I’ve worked with particularly closely, Susan Alberts,” said Altmann. “One thing I like very much about the BBVA awards is the great diversity of people and projects they have honored over the years.”

The award citation honors the scientists for their contributions to exploring how relationships — including male-female interactions or those between parasites and their hosts — can explain animal behavior. 

Altmann's half-century study of baboons began in 1963, when she traveled to Kenya’s Amboseli National Park to conduct a 13-month study of the park’s resident baboons. In 1971, she set up the Amboseli Baboon Project, an innovative study that over five decades has followed some 2,000 individuals and continues to this day. Alberts joined the study in 1983 and now co-directs it with Altmann and two other scientists. 

Because of baboons’ comparatively short lives, Altmann and Alberts have studied several generations of primates over their full lifespans in a long-running field study that is a landmark of its kind.

“One things that’s fun about baboons is that they really do act like families — including the males, many of whom do act paternal,” said Altmann. “Mothers and daughters support each other. Early studies of baboons assumed that the females’ dominance rank was not important. They focused on males, but it turns out that male dominance is very short-lived and and very dramatic — very noisy — but the long term consequences are not necessarily as significant as with females.”

Alberts described her mentor as a “central player in what became a shift in the entire field towards a greater understanding of primate social behavior.” 

Altmann joined the Princeton faculty in 1998. A native of New York, she earned a degree in mathematics from the University of Alberta (Canada) and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Chicago.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Singer shares the award with Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

"I am delighted to receive the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and I thank the foundation for its support of those areas," Singer said. "It is particularly apt that I am sharing this award with Steven Pinker. We don't agree on everything, but we share something extremely important: the conviction that seeking evidence and applying reason is the way to gain knowledge and make progress towards a better world."

The award citation calls Singer “one of today’s most influential moral philosophers.” His work, the award committee said, “has marked a turning point by extending the scope of ethics, providing a basis for their application to the animal domain. This signal contribution has had major consequences for international animal welfare legislation as well as for moral progress.”

"His arguments have transformed moral reasoning both in its content and in its global public reach, not only on a single topic but on several," said Melissa Lane, Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and director of the University Center for Human Values, one of Singer's nominators for the award.

Singer, the foundation’s announcement noted, rose to international prominence with the publication of his book "Animal Liberation" in 1975. The book “rocked the foundations of ethics almost fifty years ago by expanding the scope of moral consideration to encompass other species,” the announcement said. 

"Given the hostility, and sometimes ridicule, that greeted "Animal Liberation" when it was first published in 1975, it is gratifying to have my work on animals recognized in this way," Singer said. "Animal Liberation Now," the first fully updated edition since 1990, is scheduled for release in May from HarperCollins.

Singer joined the Princeton faculty in 1999. A native of Melbourne, Australia, he earned bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees from the University of Melbourne and a B.Phil. degree from the University of Oxford.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards are decided each year by committees of internationally reputed experts in their respective fields. The awards are intended to recognize basic research and creative work leading to theoretical advances, models and fundamental perspectives on the natural, social and technological worlds; technological innovations and developments; and the creation of outstanding works of art and music. Earlier this year, Timothy Besley and Torsten Persson, who taught at Princeton early in their careers, were honored with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Economics, Finance and Management.

The awards consist of €400,000 (about $430,000) divided equally among the recipients, a diploma and a commemorative work of art. Altman and Singer will receive their awards at a formal ceremony in Bilbao on June 19 and 20. 

Princeton faculty and researchers who received Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in previous years include Charles Fefferman, the Herbert E. Jones, Jr. ’43 University Professor of Mathematics (2022); Simon Levin, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (2022); Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of psychology and public affairs (2019); Peter Grant, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, and B. Rosemary Grant, senior research biologist, emeritus, (2017); Syukuro “Suki” Manabe, a senior meteorologist in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and 2021 Nobel Laureate in Physics (2016); Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus, and 2015 Nobel Laureate in Economics (2011); and Isaac Held, senior meteorologist in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and associated faculty in HMEI (2011).