2001 APrimatesMemoir

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Subject Headings: Baboon, Masai Culture.


  • t how closely attached to his subjects he became.
  • life among the baboons of Kenya.
  • Judaism
  • Masai

Cited By



  • article in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/04/of-monkeys-and-men/303047/
    • QUOTE: "I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla." So begins Robert Sapolsky's new book, A Primate's Memoir, about the time he spent in Kenya's Serengeti over the past twenty years, researching a troop of baboons. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Sapolsky decided to study the relationship between stress and social hierarchy in primates — Who gets sick from stress-related disease and why? — to see what that could tell us about stress in human beings.


Book Overview

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.

Part 1. The Adolescent Years: When I First Joined the Troop

Chapter 1: The Baboons: The Generations of Israel p.13

I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla. As a child in New York, I endlessly begged and cajoled my mother into taking me to the Museum of Natural History, where I would spend hours looking at 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 elementary-school writing assignment about my plan for life, resulting in a worried note from the teacher to my mother.

Yet, whenever I wandered the Africa halls in the museum, I would invariably return to the mountain gorilla diorama. Something primal had clicked the first time I stood in front of it. My grandfathers had died long before I was born. They were mythically distant enough that I would not be able to pick either out in a picture. Amid this grandfatherly vacuum, I decided that a real-life version of the massive, sheltering silverback male gorilla stuffed in the glass case would be a good substitute. A mountainous African rain forest amid a group of gorillas began to seem like the greatest refuge imaginable.

By age twelve, I was writing fan letters to primatologists. By fourteen, I was reading textbooks on the subject. Throughout high school, I finagled jobs in a primate lab at a medical school and, finally, sojourning to Mecca itself, volunteered in the primate wing of the museum. I even forced the chairman of my high school language department to find me a self-paced course in Swahili, in preparation for the fieldwork I planned to do in Africa. Eventually, I went off to college to study with one of the deans of primatology. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

But in college, some of my research interests shifted and I became focused on scientific questions that could not be answered with gorillas. I would need to study a species that lived out in the open in the grasslands, with a different type of social organization, a species that was not endangered. Savanna baboons, who had struck no particular chord in me before, became the logical species to study. You make compromises in life; not every kid can grow up to become president or a baseball star or a mountain gorilla. So I made plans to join the baboon troop.

I have always liked Old Testament names, but I would hesitate to inflict Obadiah or Ezekial on a child of mine, so I ran wild with the sixty baboons in the troop. Plus, clearly, I was still irritated by the years I spent toting my Time-Life books on evolution to show my Hebrew school teachers, having them blanch at such sacrilege and tell me to put them away; it felt like a pleasing revenge to hand out the names of the patriarchs to a bunch of baboons on the African plains. And, with some sort of perversity that I suspect powers a lot of what primatologists do, I couldn't wait for the inevitable day that I could record in my field notebook that Nebuchanezzar and Naomi were off screwing in the bushes.

What I wanted to study was stress-related disease and its relationship to behavior. Sixty years ago, a scientist named Selye discovered that your emotional life can affect your health. It struck the mainstream doctors as ludicrous -- people were perfectly accustomed to the idea of viruses or bacteria or carcinogens or whatnot getting you sick, but your emotions? Selye found that if you got rats upset in all sorts of purely psychological ways, they got sick. They got ulcers, their immune systems collapsed, their reproduction went to hell, they got high blood pressure. We know now exactly what was happening -- this was the discovery of stress-related disease. Selye showed that stress was what you were undergoing when emotional or physical disturbances threw your body's balance out of whack. And if it went on for too long, you got sick.

Chapter 2: Zebra Kabobs and a Life of Crime p.25

Chapter 3: The Revenge of the Liberals p.37

Chapter 4: The Masai Fundamentalist and My Debut as a Social Worker p.47

Chapter 5: The Coca-Cola Devil p.57

Chapter 6: Teaching Old Men About Maps p.65

Chapter 7: Memories of Blood: The East African Wars p.71

Part 2 - The Subadult Years

Chapter 8: The Baboons: Saul in the Wilderness p.95

Chapter 9: Samwelly Versus the Elephants p.105

Chapter 10: The First Masai p.117

Chapter 11: Zoology and National Security: A Shaggy Hyena Story p.121

Chapter 12: The Coup p.127

Chapter 13: Hearing Voices at the Wrong Time p.135

Chapter 14: Sudan p.139

Part 3 - Tenuous Adulthood

Chapter 15: The Baboons: The Unstable Years p.169

Chapter 16: Ol' Curly Toes and the King of Nubian-Judea p.177

Chapter 17: The Penguins of Guyana p.187

Chapter 18: When Baboons Were Falling Out of the Trees p.197

Chapter 19: The Old White Man p.209

Chapter 20: The Elevator p.213

Chapter 21: The Mound Behind the 7-Eleven p.219

Part 4 - Adulthood

Chapter 22: The Baboons: Nick p.233

Chapter 23: The Raid p.243

Chapter 24: Ice p.249

Chapter 25: Joseph p.255

Chapter 26: The Wonders of Machines in a Land Where They Are Still Novel: The Blind Leading the Blind p.259

Chapter 27: Who's on First, What's on Second p.263

Chapter 28: The Last Warriors p.269

Chapter 29: The Plague p.275