Study Guide

A Primate's Memoir

by Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year,” Robert Sapolsky begins his memoir of twenty years of studying stress in baboons—and in humans, including himself—in East Africa. “I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”

Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research of the National Museum of Kenya, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. A Primate’s Memoir, intoxicating in its flamboyant eloquence and endearing in its occasional self-deprecations, interweaves descriptions of his observations of two generations of baboons in the Serengeti National Park with confessions of his often ill-fated attempts to communicate with the native Masai and other Africans, whose behaviors were far less easy to comprehend. Sapolsky’s lively, high-octane personality charges his prose with the same fiery purpose that he brought to his work in 1978 when he first settled in to watch a troop of baboons upon whom he bestowed Old Testament names, such as Solomon, Leah, Aaron, Isaac, Naomi, Rachel, and Benjamin.

Sapolsky was one of the first researchers to chart the effects of chronic stress on the brain both in animals and in humans. He sought to learn how a baboon’s social behavior, social rank, and emotional life are related to what diseases it gets, especially stress-related diseases. To measure the symptoms of stress in his baboons, he daily had to shoot one or more with an anaesthetizing dart, carry it back to camp, take samples to measure the blood hormones, stress hormones, antibodies, cholesterol, and other indicators of health, and then release the ape, all the time making sure that no other males harmed it while the anaesthesia was taking effect. Sapolsky describes the delight he took as he improved in this rare skill:

I am the angel of death. I am the reign of terror, the ten plagues, I am a case of the clap, I am the thing that goes bump in the night, De Shadow, death warmed over. I am the bogeyman with cat eyes waiting until midnight in every kid’s clothes closet, I am leering slinky silent quicksilver baboon terror, I am Beelzebub’s bill collector. Another baboon successfully darted. Euphoria.

Sapolsky divides his book into four parts, named for the four stages of a baboon’s life: “The Adolescent Years,” “The Subadult Years,” “Tenuous Adulthood,” and “Adulthood.” Though he does not tell his tale in strict chronological order, and rarely provides the date of the remarkable encounters and endeavors he endured, the reader can follow Sapolsky’s own maturation through the chapters as he learns to recognize scams worked by the poverty-ridden Africans upon Americans, learns to understand—a little—the philosophies and kindnesses and deceits of the neighboring Masai, and, most delightfully, learns the personalities of the baboons in the troop that he observes.

A great many of the twenty-nine chapters are concerned with his visits to towns outside the Serengeti, to Nairobi and Mombasa and heavenly Katire, and in one suspenseful, occasionally terrifying, and poignant passage, with his pilgrimage to the Ruwenzoris, the famous Mountains of the Moon, to see the rare mountain gorillas and to visit the grave of legendary primatologist Dian Fossey (1932-1985).

Sapolsky saw much weirder behavior among humans than among his baboons. His research assistant, Samwelly, was at heart an architect and builder, and when not on call would frenziedly build huts all over the campsite; when elephants came to eat the huts, he would steadfastly rebuild them the following day. When Sapolsky came back from watching baboons one day, he found their nearby trickle of a river gone; Samwelly had dammed it up to provide them a lake, which Sapolsky regretfully had to order him to undam.

He visited Kampala, Uganda, to witness the chaos following the overthrow of dictator Idi Amin; was coerced by Rhoda, his first Masai friend, and other village women to drive a blood-spattered “crazy” woman who had killed a goat with her bare hands to a hospital an hour away; he was beaten and robbed by Kenyan soldiers at an army checkpoint after an attempted coup in 1982. He hiked up fifteen-thousand-foot Mount Karisimbi with a sullen young ranger who, Sapolsky was convinced, meant to murder him.

Even more fascinating are the chapters about the baboons. In chapter 15, “The...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)