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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky is about the author's time living with a baboon troop in East Africa.

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The book opens with Sapolsky discussing how his reality of living with the baboon troop differed from the life he expected as a child—he thought he'd "become a mountain gorilla." He was interested primatology as he grew older, and he chose to study the discipline. He also volunteered at medical institutions and at a museum. When the time came to focus, though, he realized that baboons were more suited to his research, and he focused on them instead of on gorillas.

Sapolsky chooses to study stress-related disease and its relationship to behavior. He has been studying how stress can kill specific types of brain cells in his lab work. When he begins to study the troop of baboons he plans to live with, he gives each one an Old Testament name, like Solomon, Leah, or Devorah. He spends more than twenty years with them at various times, coming and going as a part of their society.

Sapolsky's time in Africa is marked by adventure, unrest, and at times his own lack of preparedness. For example, he learns the wrong kind of Swahili before his trip, not realizing that there are different varieties. People aren't able to understand him when he arrives in Nairobi. He's also taken advantage of in some situations because he doesn't understand the language or the locale. He overpays for things, pays fake government taxes charged by a hotel clerk, and gives money to someone with a sympathetic story who he later realizes begs professionally. Nonetheless, he is charmed with the location and with his work.

He heads out into the bush when his permits clear, and he meets the baboon troop. He's also aware of nearby villagers and the Masai warrior tribe that he says is fierce and warlike. As time passes, the professor who is overseeing his work forgets to send money again and again. Sapolsky has to travel a long distance to even call to remind him and can't afford to continue doing so. When he realizes he can't get money from home, he decides to scam thieves who want to take his money. He convinces them that if they do a currency exchange now, he'll meet them with a great deal of money later—and then he doesn't meet them.

Sapolsky mixes memories of his travels with his interactions with the baboon troop. He describes having to tranquillize them to get blood samples; he would have a seventy-pound baboon he had to smuggle to his Jeep without the others in the troop noticing. He returns home to further his studies and then goes back to Africa to do more field research. While there, he makes friends with the Masai tribe and a woman named Rhoda who lives with them. He's also taken captive by a group of men who are led by a man he calls Pius. He escapes from them when Pius becomes ill from drinking and the other men are distracted.

Life goes on for Sapolsky, who travels from the United States, where he studies, to the baboon troop each year. While he's gone, his assistants Richard and Hudson collect data on the baboons for him, and the men become friends. At home, Sapolsky meets a woman named Lisa who later becomes his wife. She meets the rigors of the Serengeti even more readily than Sapolsky did. Her presence there encourages kids from the nearby villages to come to play, and the women Sapolsky has met also come to camp more often to talk to her.

At the end of the book, Sapolsky describes how his baboons and others are made ill through contaminated food. They get tuberculosis from contaminated meat the Masai sold. Though he tries to find ways to stop it from happening, there's nothing he can do. The TB outbreak takes more than a dozen of the baboons from his troop.

Sapolsky explains that he still works with the baboons but chooses not to get attached to them. He is more focused on the academic side of the research than performing great deals of behavioral observation. He and his wife have had two children, and it's on those children—Benjamin and Rachel—and his wife that he focuses.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1846

“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 Baboons: The Unstable Years,” Sapolsky amusingly describes the results of the alpha male Saul’s having been overthrown by a junta of younger baboons but with no clear leader taking his place:

All hell broke loose for months afterward. . . . Ranks flip-flopped daily. . . . Chaos reigned. Everyone was scheming, spending hours forming coalitional partnerships that would collapse within minutes of their first test. . . . The number of fights went through the roof, as did the rate of injuries. Nobody ate much, nobody was grooming, sex was forgotten. Public works projects were halted and mail service became unreliable.

Sapolsky’s observations and dartings and blood samplings were invaluable, leading to a variety of scientific publications throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s:

By the end of the years of instability in the troop’s hierarchy, I had been making pretty good progress with my scientific research. It was now clear to me that if you had a choice in the matter, you didn’t want to be a low-ranking male. They had elevated levels of a key stress hormone all the time, indicating that everyday life was miserable enough to activate a stress response. Their immune systems didn’t seem to function as well as did those of dominant animals. They had less of the good version of cholesterol in their bloodstreams, and I had indirect evidence that they had elevated blood pressure. . . . I was finding that the hypersecretion in those baboons was due to the same constellation of changes in the brain and pituitary and adrenal glands that gave rise to the hypersecretion in depressed humans.

Sapolsky found that the key to handling stress might be cultivating friendly relations with one’s troopmates. Male baboons who spent the most time grooming and being groomed, spending time with females who were not in heat, and playing with infants had the lowest levels of stress hormones. He also learned that rank did indeed matter. The top baboons in a stable dominance hierarchy—first Solomon, and later Saul—had lower stress-hormone levels than did the mid-ranking young males who thought they had a chance at leadership one day, and certainly less stress than the lowest in the pecking order, who were harassed by anybody who had come off worst in a fight or was generally having a bad day.

Sapolsky spent his summers in the Serengeti, having to return to the United States for university semesters to write his thesis and, eventually, to publish and lecture. He hired two Kenyans, Richard (brother of Samwelly) and Hudson, to collect data on the baboons whenever he had to leave. The three became lasting friends. Sapolsky recalls fondly the time when Richard decided to take revenge on the neighboring Masai, who harassed him because he was a mere farmer’s boy and not a warrior. The Masai based their arrogance on their daily habit of drinking cow’s blood; Richard and Sapolsky arranged a drama in which it appeared that they insouciantly drank baboons’ blood. The Masai were so horrified that, afterward, they left Richard alone.

Sapolsky recounts his meeting with the lovely Lisa in the United States (they were eventually to marry) and his triumphant presentation of his Serengeti to her when she visited for the summer. To his embarrassment, she communicated more expertly with the Masai villagers than he did, and met the rigors of camping with no qualms.

Lisa was present during the tragic summer whose events conclude the book. The baboons of the neighboring troop, who were in the habit of feeding from the garbage heap of a tourist lodge, became ill with tuberculosis. Sapolsky was drawn in to investigate against his will, and after much dirty detective work discovered that a handful of corrupt men lay behind the fast-spreading disease. He describes their outrageous indifference in feeding the apes the viscera of tuberculoid cattle, his attempts to expose the scandal before his own beloved baboons could sicken, and his anger and frustration and helplessness. There was nothing he could do, he reports sadly and with lingering anger, because baboons are not endangered, and they are nobody’s favorite animal.

The roll call of the dead in the final pages will bring tears to the loyal reader, but it is not the only chapter that remains after the book is finally closed. Long after, the reader will remember with pleasure Sapolsky’s delight in the antics of his baboons, will share his fascination with their soap-opera lives of manipulation and struggle for dominance and first steps in parenting and displays of affection. Many funny moments will also remain in the memory: Sapolsky’s research assistants wearying of his endless meals of rice, beans, and canned Taiwanese mackerel in tomato sauce; their awe of the crates of steaming dry ice and liquid nitrogen that he used to store his medicines and samples; his pride that

nearly two decades later, darting remains in my blood. The other night, I was at the movies and watched some matron amble down the aisle past me, and my first thoughts were “85-90 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.” I am still delighted to be doing this for a living.

Sapolsky has been called, and with good reason, “the world’s funniest neuroscientist.” He told an interviewer for the online magazine Salon that he had received some censure from colleagues for writing a very accessible book, that a scientist is sneeringly termed “Saganized” (for media figure and famed astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan) if he writes for a popular audience, and that therefore he cannot possibly be serious about his own science anymore. Sapolsky shrugs this off. He is clearly influenced by the work of Farley Mowat, the Canadian biologist whose many popular works included Never Cry Wolf (1963), which was adapted in 1983 as a film; Mowat’s works were very funny, very moving, and often accused of anthropomorphism. Sapolsky likewise shrugs off the charges of anthropomorphism; reading between the lines of A Primate’s Memoir, the reader sees that he is constantly comparing baboons with humans, not only physiologically but as social animals as well, and the humans rarely come off looking superior. Sapolsky’s book never slows, always charms and horrifies, and seems likely to become a classic in the field of primatology.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 1, 2001, p. B5.

Booklist 97 (January 1-15, 2001): 891.

Library Journal 126 (February 15, 2001): 197.

New York 34 (February 26, 2001): 99.

The New York Times, April 19, 2001, p. F1.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (April 1, 2001): 14.

Publishers Weekly 248 (February 19, 2001): 81.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, February 26, 2001, p. A6.

Time 157 (March 12, 2001): 93.

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