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

4.34 of 5 stars 4.34  ·  rating details  ·  3,145 ratings  ·  412 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,
ebook, 304 pages
Published November 1st 2007 by Scribner (first published 2001)
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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

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
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
David Sven
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
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
Nov 02, 2008 KatieSuzanne rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Jun 18, 2011 Mel rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
John Vibber
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.”
Dave Gaston
A nerdy, long winded memoir that stands in its own class -- still, unlike most bad books that are quickly forgotten, I’ll likely remember this quirky run-on. Sapolsky is overtly passionate about his subject and unapologetic about his intellect. He has basically spent his life (post Brooklyn) running around the back bush of South Africa darting baboons in the name of science. Yup "darting"… as in a “blow gun.” He would then carry the chimps back to his camp, measure their stress level (presumably ...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
Aletha Tavares
And I don't know why I consigned it to a corner when i first took it up to read???? It was full of humor and sensitivity that hats off to people who at least attempt to document and even try to preserve the life of such primates- often at the cost of their own life. Sapolsky has injected the right amount of humor when talking about the baboons as though he is talking about his next door neighbours! Also the sprinkling of information about his surroundings and the region- the cultural, political, ...more
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
Mary Ward
I chose this book because I have always been interested in animals and science and thought it would be a good way to explore my interests that way. This book was nothing like that though, it was the stories of Sapolsky's life while living in Africa. Between the back stories, side comments, and tales of the baboons and their males fight for dominance it is hard to get bored! I will admit though I wish I got to read more about the fights over dominance and the ever changing hierarchy of the baboon ...more
This was an excellent book; I read it because I'd borrowed a Kindle from work, just to try it out, and this was one of the books on it. It's not strictly a biography; the author jumps around a lot, and half the book is about the baboons and their society, and most of the rest of it is episodes from the author's travels in Africa. He must be a very interesting person (or exceptionally clueless) because most of the stories are completely outrageous (and laugh out loud funny); it seems like a sensi ...more
Maya Lang
How on earth did I come to care so much for a troop of baboons? Their antics, at first amusing, then endearing, soon become engrossing. You will be startled by how attached you become to them. There are other essays to be enjoyed here about Sapolsky's adventures through Africa--learning curve mishaps, encounters with the Masai, life in the bush, a pseudo-kidnapping of sorts--but it's his research subjects who offer the best material, and I always felt relieved when Sapolsky returned to them. Som ...more
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
Sapolsky is FUNNY! Tales of his research life with a troop of savanna baboons are interspersed with stories of his hitch-hiking journeys around Africa and with self-deprecating humor about his cultural naivete. I was chuckling on nearly every page, starting with his introduction: "When I went off to Africa for the first time to join the baboons, I had an array of skills and experiences that would prepare me for anything I'd encounter in that new world. I knew a great deal about the subway system ...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
May 23, 2007 Maggie rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Do you like primates?
It was a little bit of a slow read, but I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys animals/nature/that whole bit.
If this book had been all about the baboon group Sapolsky studied I would have given it five stars... but alas, it wasn't. After more than one story about slow travel through Africa and being forced to drink Cokes or eat spaghetti by enigmatic companions, I was wishing for more baboons or at least more interesting stories about the local Masai. Funny little stories an
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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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