Skip to main content

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

Review

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons



It's a wonder Robert Sapolsky is still alive. After over 20 years
in the Serengetti studying baboons, he seems to have had more
narrow escapes at the hands of his fellow Homo Sapiens than from
any thundering herds of wildebeests or elephants stampeding through
his campground; he falls prey over the years to dozens of scams at
the hands of merchants, drivers, even kidnappers. Never is his life
more in danger than during an overland trip with a pair of Arab
truck drivers traveling through the territory of arch enemies from
a warring faction. Somehow, just when he thinks he has figured out
every conceivable method of parting with his meager and hard-earned
money, he encounters yet another diabolical scheme. Too wise too
late.   

As the son of immigrant Jews in Brooklyn, Sapolsky spent his youth
hanging around the primate diorama in the Museum of Natural
History. He dreamed of studying mountain gorillas and learned
Swahili in high school so as to prepare to fulfill what he felt was
his destiny --- to study these magnificent animals. However, due to
his father's deteriorating condition from a neurological disorder,
he veers from that course to studying the relationship between
stress and disease, and baboons seem the perfect subject. Following
graduation he embarks on a field study in Kenya. Filled with book
learning but almost unbelievably naive, Sapolsky's first hard
lesson is that the fluent Swahili he so carefully cultivated is not
the Swahili spoken in Kenya, leaving him unable to communicate to
buy essentials and procure overland transportation. This is the
first of many truths he learns about Africa: nothing is
predictable, none of the stereotypes hold true. Everything he
previously learned about Africa was either wrong, skewed, or
dangerously oversimplified. He is armed with years of book learning
on primate neurosystems, but his naivete leaves him defenseless in
dealing with the human culture.

Sapolsky's nearest human neighbors are a warlike Masai tribe and
the peaceable bushmen. He hires some of them to assist him in his
neurological research, and his encounters with his African friends
and employees are as fascinating as the adventures with his large
family of baboons. He learns that female baboons are the victims of
a birth-defined caste system, not unlike ruling class/lower class
systems common in some human societies to this day. He learns why
some males become successful leaders and why others become brutish
tyrants. He learns that baboons have a sense of humor and flawless
memories, and are capable of tricking their Homo Sapien cousins in
astonishing and often hilarious ways.

A PRIMATE'S MEMOIR is at once witty, poignant and enlightening.
Sapolsky relates that he fully expected to experience the
loneliness and isolation felt by many Peace Corps volunteers who
often sink into depression somewhere around the 10th month of their
first year, just when friends get bored with sending letters and
when the rainy season is at its peak. He was dismayed, then, to
think he was cracking up in his first month:

 

"The trouble was elephants. Did you know that female elephants have
breasts? By this, I do not mean rows of teats, a mama elephant
lying on her side with dozens of little piglet elephants nursing
with their eyes still closed. I mean breasts, two huge voluptuous
billowy mounds, complete with cleavage. I bet you had no idea, did
you? Nor did I --- it is a subject rarely broached in our public
schools. I'm out in the bush that first month, armed with
binoculars and stopwatch and notepad, spending the days carefully
watching baboons mating left and right. And then, suddenly, some
pachyderms come cruising past, and I see some elephants with these,
well, breasts. And the natural first reaction is to think, Oh
great, I'm such a horny lascivious pathetic adolescent that after a
mere month of isolation in the bush I've already cracked, I'm
hallucinating breasts the size of Volkswagens on the elephants.
Horrors, to have one's psychotic break occur so soon, and to have
it take the form of a puerile sexual obsession many embarrassing
steps below gawking at National Geographic studies. I was greatly
relieved to eventually discover that the elephants' breasts were
real, that I was not having some Marlin Perkins wet dream."

For readers fascinated by the human condition, A PRIMATE'S MEMOIR
is nearly un-put-down-able. Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of
biology and neurology at Stanford University and a research
associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums
of Kenya. He is the author of THE TROUBLE WITH TESTOSTERONE and WHY
ZEBRAS DON'T GET ULCERS, both Los Angeles Times Book Award
finalists. He is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant
and lives in San Francisco.

Reviewed by Roz Shea (HOST BKPG ROZ) on January 22, 2011

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
by Robert M. Sapolsky

  • Publication Date: March 27, 2001
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0743202473
  • ISBN-13: 9780743202473