Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate’s Memoir

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A Primate’s Memoir Summary

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A Primate’s Memoir is a non-fiction book by Robert M. Sapolsky, published in 2002. Sapolsky studied a group of baboons in order to determine the effects of stress on life expectancy, and also experienced a  personal cultural awakening while doing this work in Africa.

Sapolsky begins by recounting his childhood enthusiasm for the African dioramas at the museums he would visit, and his desire to someday live within one. This dream came true when Sapolsky was 21 years old, directly after his graduation from Harvard University, when he joined his ‛baboon troop.’ Having traveled to East Africa to study baboons, he gives the animals he will be observing Old-Testament biblical names: Solomon, Leah, Rachel, Aaron, Benjamin, and Isaac. His goal is to study the effects of chronic stress, which will require him to shoot a baboon with a sedative dart every day in order to take blood samples and measure many biometric markers.

The baboons Sapolsky studies are young adolescents, and Sapolsky sees many parallels between them and himself. Not only is he very young, he is also a fish out of water in Africa, quickly realizing that he is completely unprepared for life in the wilderness of another continent. Initially, Sapolsky is clumsy in capturing the baboons, and he quickly realizes that when he returns the animal to the wild he must stand guard over it until it wakes up, or the other baboons will attack it. Slowly, he becomes more skilled with the dart gun. He humorously compares himself to the Angel of Death as his skill in capturing baboons increases.

Sapolsky also recounts his dealings with the Masai tribe, who live in the area. He initially finds them frustrating, as they appear to be unreliable and deceitful. As he spends more time with them, however, he comes to realize that he lacks the correct references to understand them, and has been mistakenly applying his own cultural standards to them. His relationship with the tribe improves along with his dart skills. When a group of wealthy American tourists arrive on a safari, Sapolsky is amused to witness the many scams and deceits that the locals inflict on them, but has little sympathy for people who make no effort to understand the world they are temporarily invading.

Sapolsky visits nearby Nairobi and Mombasa, and travels to Ruwenzoris, also known as the Mountains of the Moon. He is dazzled by their raw natural beauty. While there, he visits the grave of Diane Fossey, the legendary primatologist whose memoir Gorillas in the Mist was published after her death. He also gets to see the mountain gorillas she worked with, another lifelong ambition. Sapolsky has an emotional reaction to this visit, and expresses his gratitude to the people like Fossey who work to increase our knowledge of primates.

Sapolsky observes his research assistant, a man named Samwelly, constantly building huts in their campsite. Samwelly is a frustrated architect, and builds constantly in a form of obsession. Elephants routinely arrive and eat the huts that he has built from local vegetation, and Sapolsky watches him get up the next day and begin rebuilding the huts. He notes that this behavior is less logical than what he observes in his baboons, to whom he has grown very affectionate. He detects unique personality traits in the animals, who behave very much like unruly teenagers, much to his amusement. He also observes several power struggles between competing alpha males in the troop, but the troop prospers overall, with several pregnancies adding to their numbers.

When the ruling alpha, Saul, is deposed by a group of other males, the triumphant conspirators begin warring with each other, to the detriment of the troop overall. Meanwhile, Sapolsky is progressing in his own career and is on the verge of becoming a fully-fledged professor, which brings metaphorically similar instability to his life and work.

As a professor, Sapolsky meets a woman named Lisa. He falls in love and marries her, and they live and work together in Kenya, and for a time he is incredibly happy in his life and work. However, the baboons in his troop begin to fall ill, and Sapolsky quickly traces the problem to infected meat that the incompetent and uncaring locals would sell at market. This led to the baboons contracting bovine tuberculosis, a deadly and fast-moving plague. Sapolsky works tirelessly to try and save his baboons, but the plague decimates the troop, which also serves to end his research as his subjects are mostly deceased. Sapolsky ends the book on a note of anger and frustration over this preventable tragedy, and legitimately mourns for the baboons he had come to regard as personalities deserving of affection and respect, but then notes in the final pages that the baboon population has recovered. He relates his joy when he returns and gets to see how ‛his’ baboons are doing.