Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Primate's Memoir Study Guide

Subscribe Now

In A Primate's Memoir, Robert Sapolsky tracks the development of his own life alongside that of the baboon troop he studies. Each section shows changes in the author as well as in the nature of his research and subjects.

The book opens with "The Adolescent Years," wherein Sapolsky describes both his childhood fascination with primatology, his work to become a researcher, and his initial years with the baboon troop in East Africa. His story is one of excitement and enchantment. Despite falling prey to scams on his arrival in Africa, he is in love with the continent and excited to begin his research there. Even when he is taken hostage by a gang, he seems more frustrated and scared than anything deeper. It's not something he dwells on. Everything is easy and fun and exciting.

The next section is called "The Subadult Years," and Sapolsky explains early on how he has changed since he first came to live with the baboon troop. He says,

I returned to Kenya for the reign of Saul, feeling altogether more weathered and worldly than the quivery kid who’d started out there a few years earlier. I now had a passport full of visa stamps plus a persistent fungal problem from Uganda that made me a perennial teaching tool for dermatology grand rounds at the medical school. I had come to own two ties and had recently been forced by circumstances to eat dinner in a Manhattan restaurant that required the wearing of one.

The baboon troop has evolved and has a new leader. In the same way, Sapolsky is evolving and changing. He hires people to oversee the baboons while he's gone so that he can attend to finishing his thesis. Sapolsky is less idealistic and more focused on his career at this point.

In "Tenuous Adulthood," Sapolsky explains that there are unstable years in a baboon's life and that this affected the entire tribe. It was a time of upheaval for him and the troop. The analysis of their blood tests showed that there was a stress hormone increase that was present all the time when compared to earlier tests; they were unhappy. He says that "amid this scientific progress, I was forced to admit that I was no longer a kid out there." He's bored with the repeated meals of beans, rice, and mackerel. His back aches and it's more difficult to move tranquilized baboons. At this point, he has his PhD and is moving on to his postdoctoral work. He isn't having the crazy adventures that he had when he was younger, and he is more internally-focused.

The last section is called "Adulthood," and it's here that Sapolsky faces true tragedy and change. Not only does he meet the woman who becomes his wife—Lisa—but he also loses many of the baboons in his original troop. He opens the chapter by saying that "by all the criteria of all sorts of different tribes, I was now an adult." He describes both having a credit card and meeting Lisa. However, happiness turns into tragedy when his baboons get tuberculosis from contaminated meat. In the end, Sapolsky explains that the love he once gave to his baboons now goes to his family and that he is more focused on the practical aspects of his research than he once was.