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A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

4.32  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,883 Ratings  ·  487 Reviews
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 R
ebook, 304 pages
Published November 1st 2007 by Scribner (first published 2001)
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Aug 19, 2010 Megan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read this This is coming from a right-brained person who never would have given this book a second glance had it not been forced on her by a friend. It's an irreverent and thoughtful tale of a neuroscientist's years observing a tribe of baboons in Kenya to learn about their social hierarchy and resulting stress levels. I loved it for its ability to make you relate to a tribe of alternately loving, back-stabbing, calculating, snobby, inclusive baboons like you would family; the fact that Sapolsky ...more
This book has been one of the many unread books sitting on my shelves and mocking me over the years. I had heard such good things about it, and the subject seemed so congenial to my interests, that I was excited to some day crack it open; but other books, seemingly more vital and pressing, kept popping up. Finally, I’ve burned through it; but I’m afraid the book didn’t quite justify the long anticipation.

In his autobiography, George Santayana writes: “Ghastly are those autobiographies that conta
Mar 29, 2011 Weinz rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

Coming from a family complete with calculating betrayal, ruthless treachery, judgmental snobbery, snarled canines and drool I easily was able to identify with Sapolsky’s primate family and his love/hate relationships with them. He’s a storyteller and created engaging anecdotes from his 20 years in Africa completing his thesis.

The memoir is a serious scientific study of baboon troops in Kenya that the writer dumbed down to appeal to the masses. The analytical side of me wanted more of his results
David Sven
Mar 30, 2013 David Sven rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I enjoyed this a lot more than I was expecting. I read it as part of a buddy read to expand my literary palate.

The story is the memoir of American Zoologist Robert Sapolsky, and his life studying baboons in Africa to determine the relationship between stress and disease in humans. The book was very easy reading and Sapolsky's humour was catching as he relates his first experiences as a young, naive, anything is possible, biologist encountering Africa for the first time, to working with the actua
Nov 02, 2008 KatieSuzanne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Andy
Recommended to KatieSuzanne by: NPR
Shelves: favorites, book-club
I loved this book! I loved it and then I loved it even more. It is written so well and has a little bit of everything in it. There's really cool science, history, humor, and more, all written in a way that anyone can understand and follow. I found myself reading out load to friends the chapter about the man who was a machine. That part still makes me laugh and the end made me cry like a baby. Then I reread the end and cried some more. I think if I was having a kid or buying a dog anytime soon I' ...more
Apr 06, 2013 Lee rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I cannot remember the last time I read a non-fiction book; it has been a while. So it was with interest when a friend choose this book for a group of us to read. We have a bit of a buddy read group and once a month one of us gets to choose something completely different. The purpose is to get us out of our reading comfort zone.

A Primates memoir is way out of my normal genre, but I have to say I enjoyed the change. I also have to say that I was expecting something completely different to what i g
Mar 03, 2012 Brenna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Sapolsky was already on my list of scientists I admire due to his groundbreaking research on chronic stress and its role in disease. But this memoir propelled him to the upper ranks of my personal heroes. I was so moved by Sapolsky’s subject matter and his sensitive and emotional handling of it that I literally wept when I finished the book. I think my reaction freaked out James a bit when he came home from work to find me bawling on the sofa, but when I was enough under control again to ...more
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
If you ever doubt that we humans share an ancestor with other primates, just read a bit about the behavior of male baboons! You may recognize your husband, president, son, or even yourself.

Over a period of twenty years, Robert Sapolsky spent about three months of every year in Kenya observing the same baboon troop. He darted the male baboons with sedatives at different times and took blood samples to see what experiences caused the greatest production of stress hormones. (Couldn't do the females
There is a way to read this book. It’s difficult in the winter when it’s snowy outside and you really need those five blankets closeby, even though the heating is on maximum. This is an outdoors book. This weekend we had beautiful spring weather, so I put on my walking boots, packed the book, food and water in my backpack and off I went. Then somewhere in the middle of nowhere, with only fields and trees surrounding me, I finished this book. Now, that’s the way to read it!

The baboon parts in the
This is a highly amusing, perhaps even too amusing, book. I wouldn't have minded more hard facts and less jokes, because this does end up in the "easy entertainment" camp. (Except for the ending, which is mostly just sad.) The insights into Kenyan corruption, Masai life and hazardous traveling in Africa are all great. The book deals as much with that as it does with baboons.
Morgan Blackledge
OMG. Sapolsky is an absolute treasure. His books and lectures are quirky, irreverent, funny as hell, brilliant, informative and utterly original.

His Stanford course on behavioral neurobiology (see it for free on YouTube) is a masterpiece. I have watched the entire thing (it's like 36 hours long total) at least 3 times. And I'm fixing to watch it again in preparation for the affective psychology course I'm about to teach.

As a psychology lecturer, I'd be green with envy if I was in the same speci
Jun 26, 2015 Ensiform rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The author, a field biologist, recounts many anecdotes and events he participated in from twenty years of study and travel in Africa. A brilliant collection of essays, it uses his study of baboons in Kenya (measuring stress levels among members of various rank in the troop) as a starting point for some broader observations and comments on the African, and human, experience. It gives insight into the proud Masai warrior, the corrupt soldier and Nairobi bureaucrat, the dying breed of the old colon ...more
Adam Lewis
Having recently finished a creative nonfiction class with a healthy reading list populated with memoirs, I can say that Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir” is the best one of that genre that I have had the chance to read.

In it we are treated to the author’s adventures in Africa studying baboons over the course of about two decades. But the focus retains a healthy balance between two types of primates – the troop of baboons and that other most complex primate – homo sapiens. Sapolsky has to deal wit
Feb 21, 2008 Christine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought Sapolsky's writing rode a fine line between hilarity and being just a little too contrived to reach hilarity. However, Contrived or not, he brings home the reality and intrigue of an apparently fearless young man conducting research in a very foreign land. A Primate's Memoir leaves me also riding a line between wanting to move to Africa and become a primatologist who studies savanna baboons, and wanting to cower in my refrigerator next to my insulin, where I probably won't be eaten by ...more
Jan 25, 2016 Barb rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A few years ago I received, as a gift, a Great Course lectures series DVD, comprised of 24 lectures titled Biology and Human Behavior: The neurological Origins of Individuality by Stanford professor and MacArthur Foundation "genius" award recipient, Robert Sapolsky. The fact that he is also a reciprient of the Stanford University's Bing Award for Teaching Excellence is not surprising considering that the lectures were very, very good. I liked them so much, especially Sapolsky's droll delivery, t ...more
"I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla."

- from A Primate's Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, is the story of Robert M. Sapolsky's fieldwork as a young graduate student in Kenya. The goal of Sapolsky's graduate work was to determine the relationship of baboon stress levels to their overall health over a period of years. Sapolsky recount
I read by far too few fact-based books and biographies. I appreciate reading them when I do, but I rarely buy them. Why is that, I wonder? I did however succeed in reading this book! It was part of a buddy read, and I'm happy we read it.

Sapolsky spent his many years in Africa studying baboons, as the title suggests, and while reading about his studies was much interesting what did it for me was reading about the African Experience and the culture. He describes it very vividly, and as I have been
Jan 12, 2014 Estie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a trip this book is! I was expecting an account of some scientists experience working with monkeys out in the African bush. But this book is so much more than that! It's a colorful ADVENTURE by a hilarious yet straightforward kid/guy/hippie/researcher/scientist. His research interests in baboons is what led him to the African bush, but that only forms a part of what this book is about. The reader is treated to accounts of his hitchhiking trips to various African countries (including war tor ...more
This is a book by an animal lover, a loner, a Jewish white guy from New York, a primate and cultural observer of baboons and of (mostly black) Africans whom he meets in his fieldwork in Kenya. His stories of the baboons are tender, revealing, uncomfortably familiar, as primate cultural stories often are. The stories of the Africans are spotty. Sometimes, I feel I am reading an astute cultural observer (Africans' rites, tribal relations, ghost stories), but other times I couldn't shake the creepy ...more
70% is enough for me to clock it in as read and move on. The book is an account of the every manic and intelligent Robert Sapolsky's experiences in bizarro-land (Africa)..., as HE paints it. Much of it is interesting, wonderfully well-written; but in the end, it is idiosyncratic, personal (without being revealing of character -- he mentions things he's too embarrassed to reveal..., and then doesn't reveal them), and it wearied me -- so time to move on. 70% is a lot further than I get in a lot of ...more
John Vibber
Apr 02, 2014 John Vibber rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Thirty years ago Robert Sapolsky wanted to study stress in baboons and humans. He was a young neurologist/primatologist willing to live with hyenas, lions, and spear-wielding Maasai if that allowed him to steal blood samples from baboons. This is the journal of his maturation among primates, his own species and otherwise. It is an intensely funny, yet deeply poignant story. For me it was the most enjoyable naturalist adventure I’ve read since Farley Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf.”
Sep 18, 2008 Julia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm really struggling with the star system at GoodReads. Keeping Moby Dick as my five-star yardstick, EVERYTHING is going to fall a bit short of that, but this is a 4 3/4 star book. It's giggle-in-bed funny (see below for my favorite passage), gives all kinds of interesting insights into Africa, and it's personal and moving -- a very smart, no-nonsense accountant in my book group choked up yesterday while describing the ending. Sapolsky is a past winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" ( ...more
It took me forever to read this book and then I just gave up half way. I gave 2 stars insead of one though because I had a misapprenhension of what kind of book it is. I thought it was about baboons. Actually it's a series of essays about a young American's adventures in Africa while he is there studying baboons' stress hormones. The African adventures are loosely linked by chapters of baboon observations.

As an animal book, this totally stinks. Sapolsky makes mundane observations of baboon soci
Of all the "I spent years and years of my life following around X animal and studying them in the wild" books, this is, by far, the most entertaining of them (Sorry Mrs. Goodall, I still love you dearly).

Robert Sapolsky has written an absolutely wonderful account of his time with the Savanna baboons, and has made it not only spectacularly revealing, but frighteningly engaging as well. This book reads like a novel. We become as invested in the various baboon characters as much as any storybook f
Jun 18, 2011 Mel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: science geeks of the neuro- or zoo- variety
As a science geek, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. My only complaint is actually my own fault – I failed to catch the wordplay in the title, so I was expecting something more focused on his work. Instead, only about half of it (maybe a little less) focuses on the daily experience of field biology – the rest acts as a travelogue. But that's by no means a bad thing, because he has really interesting stories to tell there, as well.

The last chapter, though, completely blew me away – I have an e
Jan 28, 2013 Jess rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the most hilarious books I've read in years. Sapolsky is a consummate storyteller and his life has been one adventure after another so he has plenty of fodder for stories. The first one- Orthodox boy from Brooklyn goes to Africa to live with and study baboons- is enough for a book in itself. There's more than humor here though, Sapolsky shares his feelings for the troop of baboons he's followed for years and the deep sorrow he and other scientists feel when they have to watch the ...more
Oct 09, 2015 Fredrik rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fakta, biografi, lydbok
Fantastisk lydbok!

Forfatteren, som også er forsker ("field biologist"), Robert Sapolsky, skriver om hvordan det er å studere bavianer i Kenya. Han beskriver relasjonene bavianene seg i mellom (og har gitt dem alle navn som Obediah, Joshua, Rachel, osv, alle kristne navn), og selve livet i Kenya på den tiden, samt hans opplevelser der.

Det er mye morsomt å lære. Både om bavianer og om Kenya/Afrika på den tiden, og hvordan utviklingen har gått i de 20 årene boken ble skrevet. Lærte mye om masai-sta
Misael Rivera Elías
Ay, ese ultimo capitulo :(

Amanda Webster
Aug 13, 2015 Amanda Webster rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I began reading this book with great anticipation and then struggled to finish it for many reasons. My academic dream was to become a primatologist and study gorillas, so he piqued my interest immediately with the opening chapter. After a couple of dozen pages, though, the book primarily focused on his exploits away from the baboons, apart from a few small chapters interspersed therein. I expected much more scientific writing and analysis that what is offered in this book. The book contains far ...more
Jun 02, 2015 Santhosh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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Robert Maurice Sapolsky is the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University.
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“We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress.” 5 likes
“Suddenly, I get this giddy desire to shock these guys a little. I continue, “These baboons really are our relatives. In fact, this baboon is my cousin.” And with that I lean over and give Daniel a loud messy kiss on his big ol’ nose. I get more of a response than I bargained for. The Masai freak and suddenly, they are waving their spears real close to my face, like they mean it. One is yelling, “He is not your cousin, he is not your cousin! A baboon cannot even cook ugali!” (Ugali is the ubiquitous and repulsive maize meal that everyone eats here. I almost respond that I don’t really know how to cook the stuff either, but decide to show some prudence at last.) “He is not your cousin!” 3 likes
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