Year–round association between adult males and females is common in primates, even though internal gestation and lactation predispose males to mate–desertion in the majority of mammals. Because there is little a priori support for alternative explanations, we hypothesized that permanent male–female association in primates serves to reduce the risk of infanticide by strange males whenever females and infants are closely associated. For a phylogenetic test of this hypothesis, we reconstructed the evolution of male–female and female–infant association among primates. The results of Maddison's concentrated changes test confirmed the prediction that mother–infant association, as opposed to infant parking, and female–male association did not evolve independently. Changes in litter size and activity, in contrast, were not significantly associated with evolutionary changes in male–female association. Thus, we demonstrate a fundamental link between primate life history and social behaviour, explain the most basic type of variation in primate social organization, and propose an additional determinant of social organization that may also operate in other mammals.