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July 2016: Biography Memoir > A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons--Robert Sapolski (4 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments 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 hierarchy to stress and disease led him to study of the more accessible and less lovable baboons. Monkeys with a lot more aggression and rigidity in their dominance hierarchy, with less cooperativity and altruism, and more of the element of enslavement to the hormone estrous cycles controlling sexual behavior.

His stories constantly impose a human frame of reference to primate society he comes to know so well. This is a separate issue from his science, which is not the major focus here. He can’t resist giving them personal names and admiring or reviling the personalities of individuals. The nobility of Saul and his stable, benign dictatorship as alpha, and the vicious or incompetent regime of others who followed. The charming friendship of Ruth with a lower ranking male, Benjamin, who seems uninterested in becoming top dog. Conversely, his reflections on the Masai and Kipsagi tribesmen near the national park that he interacts with and befriends and on the truckers, beggars, government officials, and scam artists he encounters on trips to Nairobi or hitchhiking trips to neighboring Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda are subject to comparisons with his baboon society.

The mix of tales about baboons and human society makes for a lively and often poignant or funny tour of primate nature with Sapolsky’s own development as an overriding theme. The many vignettes and essays on particular topics are organized into the following sections: Adolescent Years, Subadult Years, Tenuous Adulthood, and Adulthood. Usually he is self-deprecating and humble, but other times he is sweeping in his critical outlook on the character of tribal groups, classes of workers, or individual personalities. That is somewhat the same contradictory perspective I get out of the travel writings of Theroux. But here there is more self-analysis and reaching for insight about the human condition.

For example, he recounts many cases where he is subject to shakedowns and scams. But he becomes more forgiving after he himself has to resort to subterfuge and theft to survive when his graduate advisors fail at one point to send him funds from his fellowship. At another point he learns that the park rangers are killing game like zebras and selling the meat, but his judgement is modified after learning how the government has been failing to meet their payroll. His biggest showdown over corruption comes when he gets involved with addressing a plague of tuberculosis among the baboons and learns its origin is from the baboons eating infected cattle refuse at the dump site of a tourist lodge. He is helpless to intervene with the guilty Masai individuals selling the cows, the lodge butcher making a profit from the cheap meat, and the bribed inspector because the government couldn’t countenance the bad press and impact that an expose would have on the ecotourism economy.

Sapolski’s writing style is sometimes transcendent and leaps off the page. For example, at one point he is suffering from diarrhea in the middle of the night:
During one wave, I suddenly found myself cramped over in front of my tent stark naked, painful, liquid acidic craps, and the humiliation of it all, surrounded by six elephants, quiet, quizzical, polite, murmuring, almost soliticitous, their trunks waving in the air investigating my actions and moans. They watched my agonized shitting as it were an engrossing, silent Shakespearean tragedy performed in the round.

In another section about his early inspiration and later disillusionment with the work of Dian Fossey, he ends with his responses upon visiting her grave among those of gorillas at the research station in mountainous reserve in Rwanda:
Fossey, FOSSEY, you cranky difficult strong-arming self-destructive misanthrope mediocre scientist, deceiver of earnest college students, probably cause of more deaths of the gorillas than if you never set foot in Rwanda. Fossey, you pain-in-the-ass saint, I do not believe in prayers or souls, but I will pray for your soul, I will remember you for all my days, in gratitude for that moment by the graves when all I felt was the pure cleansing sadness of returning home and finding nothing but ghosts.

In another story, he talks about a trip to Uganda he took in 1979 “to go see the overthrow of Idi Amin.” At first he thinks this impulse has to do with challenging his Quaker ideals of pacifism from college days with the witnessing an undeniably just war, but in retrospect he realizes:
Ah, this is nonsense. I was twenty-one and wanted an adventure. I wanted to scare the shit out of myself and see amazing things and talk about it afterwards. And for the previous month, I had been missing someone badly, and I thought going to a war would make me feel better about it. I was behaving like a late adolescent male primate.

Upon hearing a truck blown up in Kampala he gets quickly cured of his romantic foolishness. When the Tanzanian soldiers in the process of liberating the county assume he is a spy and threaten him with rifles, he is barely saved by a lorry driver’s entreaties. On way back to Kenya he visits the site of the Nile’s origin in an outflow from Lake Victoria and discovers a body suspended in the flow with a rope:
I must remember every detail, so I can tell people about this. I thought, I want to forget this, I want to get the hell out of here, to be home, to be safe. And I stood there, transfixed, unable to move from that spot.
Decades later, in the neurobiology classes I teach, I always spend some lectures on the physiology of aggression. The hormonal regulation of it, the areas of the brain having some influence over it, the genetic components of it. …But somehow, almost embarrassingly, I spend more and more time talking about aggression. I think each year I lecture longer because of that man with his head tied to the dam and because of how long I stood there looking at him, unable to leave. I think it is because of the ambiguity of aggression. It is the most confusing emotion to me, and with the defenses of an academician, I clearly believe that if I lecture about it enough it will give up and go quietly away, its simultaneous attraction and repulsion will stop being so frightening to me.


All in all, a worthwhile excursion to Africa and experience with its peoples and creatures by a scientist learning to become a better human.


message 2: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6749 comments This one sounds fascinating, and I know the perfect person to gift it to as well. I really liked the narrative voice in the excerpts you pulled.


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Anita wrote: "This one sounds fascinating, and I know the perfect person to gift it to as well. I really liked the narrative voice in the excerpts you pulled."

You can feel him sometimes trying to be charming, ironic, or entertaining in turns, but enough places he lets his hair down and reveals his flawed human self. No pictures so an e-book gift isn't a disadvantage.


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