2013-02-03 A Primate's Tale
This week I finally finished Robert Sapolsky's 2001 coming of age story: "A Primate's Memoir". In it Sapolsky briefly covers his early life in New York in an idealist Euro-jewish family, but mostly it's about his time in the Maasai Mara studying baboon clans. Many times while reading it I wished that I had discovered this book (and that it had existed) in the 80s. While reading the chapter of his first year there, of his insecurities and admiration of other scientist, I was transported to my own undergraduate years. Sapolsky would have been another good role model of how incredibly curious and sensitive a young scientist could be. Separately, his honest/open/unabashed telling of his sometimes ugly encounters with Maasai people would be have also enriched my trip to the area several years ago. While in the Maasai, my impression of the locals was limited to the regaled and friendly Maasai men and women who worked at my lodge. My only out-there encounter was during a bush walk where my guide casually mentioned that he would soon marry a second wife. Hearing him say this first hand helped me immensely to retain the moment. Through Sapolsky's book I connected with surprise as if I was there and with the thought that I would have a very different impression of Maasai village life. Four stories come to mind still. First the story of the woman who wanted to spend money on her children's education but found that her husband (man of the house?) had used the saved money to get drunk, and how the village men supported this behavior! The large rate of alcohol abuse was also surprising, and worse still the practice female genital mutilations!! Actually, it probably took having someone like Sapolsky living in the wild near them with gifting resources like medicine to relay these kind of stories. Or, I suppose it could have been a Massai themselves that would have written the story - but such few memoirs share this much dark information about one's own culture. I would have found little out by broaching these taboo subjects with someone who was expecting a tip... The book, of course, also covers some wonderful encounters with baboons - though their behaviors I mostly knew from other readings, such as how the transmission of culture among baboons was demonstrated when the death of the aggressive males in a troop (from eating tubercular meat) transformed the troop into a non-aggressive one.
- It can be beneficial to read memoirs of scientist's who work abroad.
- Not only humans can have culture.
- It is human to idealize.
- Small traditional villages can change slowly (in part because there can be aggressive dominance-seeking members).