A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
Robert M. Sapolsky
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In the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Robert Sapolsky, a foremost science writer and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, tells the mesmerizing story of his twenty-one years in remote Kenya with a troop of Savannah baboons.
“I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla,” writes Robert Sapolsky in this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist’s coming-of-age in remote Africa.
An exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya, A Primate’s Memoir interweaves serious scientific observations with wry commentary about the challenges and pleasures of living in the wilds of the Serengeti—for man and beast alike. Over two decades, Sapolsky survives culinary atrocities, gunpoint encounters, and a surreal kidnapping, while witnessing the encroachment of the tourist mentality on the farthest vestiges of unspoiled Africa. As he conducts unprecedented physiological research on wild primates, he becomes evermore enamored of his subjects—unique and compelling characters in their own right—and he returns to them summer after summer, until tragedy finally prevents him.
By turns hilarious and poignant, A Primate’s Memoir is a magnum opus from one of our foremost science writers.
into his ass. Unconscious in four minutes. Musk triumph power loins dawn-of-man science. It was all I could do to keep from savaging his soft underbelly with my canines while he was down. Darting. As I said, the main thing I wanted to learn when I first joined the troop was what a baboon’s social behavior, his social rank, his emotional life, has to do with what diseases he gets, especially stress-related diseases. Why are some bodies, and some psyches, more susceptible to such diseases than
the African dioramas, wishing to live in one. Racing effortlessly across the grasslands as a zebra certainly had its appeal, and on some occasions, I could conceive of overcoming my childhood endomorphism and would aspire to giraffehood. During one period, I became enthused with the collectivist utopian rants of my elderly communist relatives and decided that I would someday grow up to be a social insect. A worker ant, of course. I made the miscalculation of putting this scheme into an
chased, thrown, gored, catapulted, and stomped by endless buffalo. He would start home, cackling and wheezing and singing, bent under the weight of the fish, pausing to polish off the bottle, and like clockwork, like the flow and ebb of the seasons, a buffalo would inevitably leap out of the bush to get him. Buffalo would scamper in from miles away to nail Thomas, toss him over their shoulders, and send his fish sailing into mudholes, thorn bushes, high into trees. His attraction for buffalo was
going on? I stopped the river, he said. Yeah, I can see that, but why? Now it will not run away, it will not dry up now that the rains have stopped. In theory, the dam was wonderful; for years I had fantasized about damming the river. The river fed into the Mara River, which fed into Lake Victoria, which fed the Nile, and I figured that if I blocked our river, eventually Cairo would be reeling, the Suez Canal disrupted, the Indian raj isolated, and Queen Victoria and the whole empire under my
nowhere else to go. They make their way up there and discover it’s heaven. Cool, shaded. Water! All the people I’ve ever met living on the desert plateaus are euphoric, slap-happy, dazed with their fortune. On one plateau I went to near the Ethiopian border, where a cold spring poured water coursing through the plateau and down into Lake Turkana, the entire population seemed to live in the water. You’d walk along the river; every forty yards there’d be another group swimming. Join us, they’d