A Primate's Memoir

  • Author: Robert M. Sapolsky
  • Published: 2001

I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.” So begins A Primate’s Memoir, a wonderful collection of recollections and stories from acclaimed neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, about his years of field work in Kenya amongst the wild baboons of the Serengeti. Sapolsky describes his life as unconventional. You can say that again. It is the tale of an intelligent young Jewish man from Brooklyn, whose intellect, curiosity, and charming naiveté lead him to one of the most dangerous places on the planet, to live amongst a ferocious collection of medieval-like primates, in order to learn more about human health. Luckily, the irony is not lost on Sapolsky, who spins his tales with a jovial wit and engaging self-mockery that I imagine few nueroscientists could pull off.

What I wanted to study,” writes Sapolsky, “was stress-related disease and its relationship to behavior. How come some of us are more resistant to stress than others? Why are some bodies and some psyches better at coping? Does it have something to do with rank in society? If you have lots of relatives? If you hang out with friends? If you play with kids? If you sulk when you’re upset about something or if you find someone else to take it out on? I decided to study this in wild baboons.

Of course we now know of the terribly adverse effects long-term stress can have on physical health, but this was hardly a field of agreed upon science when Sapolsky set out on his adventures, and we have brave experts like him to thank for our advancements in well-being. Why baboons? Sapolsky explains, “They were perfect for it. Baboons live in big complex social groups, and the population I went to study lived like kings. Great ecosystem, the Serengeti. Grass and trees and animals forever, Marlin Perkin country. The baboons work maybe four hours a day to feed themselves; hardly anyone is likely to eat them. Basically, baboons have about a half dozen solid hours of sunlight a day to devote to being rotten to each other. Just like our society - few of us are getting hypertensive from physical stressors, none of us are worrying about famines or locust plagues or the ax fight we’re going to have with the boss out in the parking-lot at five o’clock. We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress. Just like these baboons.”

Thus we are tossed headfirst into a monarchal society of some of the most captivating animals on the planet. The deep relationships, sensual trysts, indelible personalities and byzantine social hierarchies of your average baboon troop are astonishing. It’s Game of Thrones with red rumps - impossible not to get sucked into the drama. Sapolsky writes about his baboons with the love of a brother, the detachment of a biologist and the enthusiasm of the village gossip. It’s a compelling mix - and makes for great reading. 

His tales of stalking, darting and tranquilizing these complex beings are bizarrely fascinating. It becomes an insanely difficult art form - a dangerous game of cat and mouse, involving all sorts of different techniques, trickery and strategy. Baboons are no fools, and don’t take kindly to being anesthetized and hauled off for blood samples. Sapolsky eventually becomes so proficient that other scientists pay him as a hired gun to dart their baboons. Nearly two decades out of the bush he still thinks about it. “The other night I was at the movies and watched some matron amble down the aisle past me, and my first thought was ’85-95 kilos, .9 cc’s of anesthetic. Go for her rump, lots of meat. Her husband will probably defend her when she goes down, but he has small canines.” 

Sapolsky’s comic gifts are evident in many chapters - his trek up the Ruwenzori mountains with a guide he’s convinced wants him dead, his fight with a large naked Masai woman covered in goat innards, his various victimizations at the hands of unscrupulous villagers and his terrifying cross country road trip with a crew of Somali smugglers. But there are tragedies too, and Sapolsky can switch from lighthearted adventure to blunt misfortune with the ease of many of our best storytellers. The devastation of rapacious tourism and relentless poaching on Africa’s beautiful wildlife leaves a bitter taste - as does the book’s tragic final chapters when a tuberculosis outbreak ravages Sapolsky’s beloved tribe.

But for all the struggle, it’s also an invigorating tale of scientific inquiry, with a fish-out-of-water undercurrent that all non-neuroscientists can relate to. Not only did his research contribute to a scientific understanding of how to best cope with disease, but his writing makes a powerful argument for conservation - cherishing our wilderness for its beauty and potential to save humankind. It becomes apparent early on how alike we are to our animal brothers, and that our own society mirrors these baboons in powerful ways. Let it serve as a reminder that although the biggest and most domineering individuals may oftentimes run the show, it is the quiet, insightfuland unassuming who usually make the most lasting impacts - much like Sapolsky himself. A Primates Memoir hits you in the head, and the heart. No blowdart required.