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

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  5,920 ratings  ·  700 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
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Paperback, 304 pages
Published March 12th 2002 by Scribner (first published 2001)
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Average rating 4.35  · 
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Bharath
Feb 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read Robert Sapolsky’s ‘Behave’ recently and really liked it for its tremendous insights on human behaviour. And so, as a recently turned fan of his writing, I looked up his other books and chose "A Primate’s Memoir”. This book however is more about his experiences in Africa to study baboons, and not a deep science read like ‘Behave’. This book is interesting in its own way – Sapolsky combines humour while narrating his experiences very well.

Robert Sapolsky has this strong urge to study baboo
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Megan
Aug 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Michael
Jul 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
A fascinating and entertaining read about an idealistic young naïve man raised in New York City takes to the savannahs of Kenya to study baboons and how he matured through his decades there in the 70s and 80s through experiences with both the animals and the people. As a child he was enamored by the dioramas at the museum and later by the romanticism and dedication of scientists like Jane Goodall. However, instead of chimps or gorilla his interest in the contribution of position in a social hier ...more
Roy Lotz
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 con
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Morgan Blackledge
Dec 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
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WhatIReallyRead
A solid read.

What I expected
A book about baboons and neuroscience. A blend of naturalistic descriptions, biology and scientific findings about the way baboon brain works and how this is relevant to humans.

What it actually was
This was more of a memoir than science book: there was historical and cultural perspective on African tribes and their dynamics as seen by an outsider, and naturalism: descriptions of lives of baboons. And not much in the way of neuroscience or dry facts.

What I liked

About ha
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Anna
Entertaining, informative and humorous. It deals equally with the baboons’ antics, anecdotes about the people he encounters, and the history of the region. I liked the description of the baboons’ behaviour and relationships the best.

The writing reminded me of Gerald Durrel’s books about trips to foreign lands to capture strange animals for various zoos, it has the same humorous and self-depracating style.

I enjoyed it, especially because I lived in that part of the world a few years before he sta
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Sonja Arlow
3.5 stars

I actually wanted to read Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst however as this is a new author to me and that book was quite a hefty one, I decided to rather dip my toes into a shorter book of his…. Enter the baboons.

If anyone told me I would like a book about an American scientist studying baboons in Kenya I would have told them they were bananas.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Yes, he anthropomorphized the troop’s behaviour but that just made it so much easier care abo
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David Sven
Mar 03, 2013 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
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Diane in Australia
In 1978, one week after graduating from Harvard, Robert went to Kenya to study social behavior in baboons. He was one of the first to chart the effects of chronic stress on the brain.

Very much a research 'greenhorn', he learns as he goes ... and so does the reader. He grows to love the baboons he studies and his tales of their lives is very engaging. He also tells us about getting to know his neighbours, the Masai. He is humorous, emotional, intelligent, and enthusiastic ... everything you could
...more
Brenna
Mar 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 (Again)
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
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Lee
Aug 26, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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KatieSuzanne
Feb 19, 2008 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
Rebecka
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.
Erisa
I love this book! All the stories are immensely interesting, but what I liked most of all is how deeply Sapolsky cares about his baboons, the way he writes about them, with so much affection. He treats them like family. I love it! I will miss reading about them.
Hanne
Mar 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
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Christine
Feb 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Tales of Robert Sapolsky's time studying baboons in East Africa. His experiences studying the animals and his experiences with the people of the region (Masai and Kikuyu peoples). Some interesting tales from a faraway place and some interesting observations of the baboon troop under study.
Sandie
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The best book I have read this year.
Jeanette
Jul 26, 2016 rated it liked it
Entertaining read. I was expecting a more scientific progression. Although non-fiction animal and bird observation based studies are some of my favorite non-fiction reading, this one was partially just that, but in far greater sense a travelogue/memoir. Robert being the star of the show.

The tone of self enjoyed hilarity upon his own jokes and comparisons, especially his own humongous naivete is about 30% of the total copy. Which has nothing to do with the baboons or the study but about the Afric
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Susan
"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 recou
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Adam Lewis
Aug 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
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Kat
Feb 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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Ensiform
Dec 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Amirography
Nov 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was a fun and insightful experience. It was full of amazing adventures, heart-breaking stories and lots and lots of lessons for an aspiring scientist, such as me.
Barb
Dec 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Estie
Feb 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jessi
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
AC
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
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Play Book Tag: A Primate's Memoir/Sapolsky - 3 stars 5 14 Nov 18, 2016 05:27PM  

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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. In addition, he is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya.

Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grant i
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“We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress.” 23 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!” 6 likes
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