Robert M. Sapolsky: A Primate's Memoir

Robert M. Sapolsky
A Primate's Memoir
Scribner

 

IF CHIMPS AND gorillas are the upper crust of the primate world, then baboons are its hoi polloi. Far from endangered, and lacking the cuteness factor of their more sophisticated cousins, baboons rank low on the human evolutionary sympathy scale. And then there are those flaming-pink-callused asses that look so vulgar in the savanna sunlight.

Turns out there's more to baboons than sharp canines and inflamed bottoms. Robert M. Sapolsky, a biologist and neurologist at Stanford who has devoted more than 20 years of field observation to these primates, has found that baboons, much like humans, are experts at generating social stress for one another. In turn, they follow humans in succumbing to stress-related disease. Unlike humans however, they don't smoke, guzzle aqua vitae or eat pot roast, so they are in effect superior subjects when it comes to understanding pure, socially created stress disease.

A Primate's Memoir is Sapolsky's recollection of years of fieldwork with a single troupe of baboons in the Serengeti plains of southwestern Kenya. A lifelong primate enthusiast (by early high school, he was writing fan letters to primatologists and teaching himself Swahili) Sapolsky discovered his troupe when he was but 21 years old and has been returning to them until recently, growing more attached each year. So it is that Sapolsky's baboons, like Jane Goodall's chimps and Dian Fossey's mountain gorillas, have acquired human names. These are of the archaic, Old Testament variety--Obadiah, Uriah, Nebuchanezzar--and some other names you'd never wish upon your worst enemy's newborn. Their personalities, as observed by Sapolsky's sharp but playful eye, are fascinatingly distinct and at times invoke the chaos of the extended Mediterranean family's Sunday lunch: the tiresome power struggles between this and that cousin, the gawky and precocious teenagers knocking into things and pissing off the important uncle at the table, the strung-out and ignored mother of five back in the kitchen, her hands buried in pastry dough.

The baboon troupe and his interactions with it are central to Sapolsky's book, but A Primate's Memoir is rife with fiercely interesting tangents, involving, for the most part, his Masai neighbors. There's Samwelly, Sapolsky's indispensable camp guard who decided one day, out of boredom, to divert a whole river; the evil Pius at the watering hole, who forced Sapolsky to drink endless Coca-Colas; and a host of other six-foot-tall, rail-legged characters brandishing spears and slurping cows' blood. Sapolsky strikes an equally resonant chord with stories of his travels to neighboring East African countries, particularly Rwanda, where he treks for days through high-altitude mud slopes to catch a glimpse of the mountain gorilla, and perchance come to understand the murder of Dian Fossey, his childhood idol. He finally spots a small troupe headed by a silverback male, and evokes a truly mesmerizing moment. The account on offer in A Primate's Memoir--a delightful combination of biology, anthropology, adventure, and opinion--often guides the reader into such a realm of discovery.

 
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