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A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons Paperback – March 12, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Robert Sapolsky, the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and other popular books on animal and human behavior, decided early in life to become a primatologist, volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History and badgering his high school principal to let him study Swahili to prepare for travel in Africa. When he set out to conduct fieldwork as a young graduate student, though, Sapolsky found that life among a Kenyan baboon troop was markedly different from his earlier bookish studies. Among other things, he confesses, he had to become a master of shooting anesthetic darts into his subjects with a blowgun to take blood samples, a mastery that required him to become "a leering slinky silent quicksilver baboon terror." He also had to learn how to negotiate the complexities of baboon politics, endure the difficulties of life in the bush, and subsist on cases of canned mackerel and beans.

His memoir is, in the main, quite humorous, although Sapolsky flings a few darts along the way at the late activist Dian Fossey--who, he hints, may have indirectly caused the deaths of her beloved mountain gorillas by her unstable, irrational dealings with local people--and at local bureaucrats whose interests did not often coincide with those of Sapolsky's wild charges. It is also full of good information on primates and primatology, a subject whose practitioners, it seems, are constantly fighting to save species and ecosystems. "Every primatologist I know is losing that battle," he writes. "They make me think of someone whose unlikely job would be to collect snowflakes, to rush into a warm room and observe the unique pattern under a microscope before it melts and is never seen again." --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Few would relish a job requiring proficiency with a blowgun as well as a willingness to put up with parching heat, low pay and copious amounts of baboon shit. But for Sapolsky (The Trouble with Testosterone), a Stanford professor and MacArthur grant recipient, it was literally a dream come true. As a boy in New York City, he'd wanted to live in one of the African dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. One week after graduating from Harvard in the mid-1970s, he got his chance: he went to Kenya to study social behavior in baboons. Hilariously unprepared for the challenges of living in the bush, the na ve grad student learned to deal with supply and transportation snafus, army ants and giant cockroaches, safari tourists, dinners of canned spaghetti coated with a mixture of sugar and rancid camel's milk, and surreal government bureaucracies. He developed great fondness for "his" baboons, whose behavior seemed uncannily like that of a bunch of quarrelsome human adolescents, and discovered that their interactions didn't necessarily conform to accepted theories. While Sapolsky's primate observations are always fascinating, his thoughts on Africa and Africans are even more compelling. As funny and irreverent as a good ol' boy regaling his friends with vacation-from-hell stories, Sapolsky can also be disarmingly emotional as in his clear-headed tribute to late gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, and his final chapters, which reveal his rage and impotence as he watched his baboons succumb to a horrific plague. Filled with cynicism and awe, passion and humor, this memoir is both an absorbing account of a young man's growing maturity and a tribute to the continent that, despite its troubles and extremes, held him in its thrall. Agent, Katinka Matson. (Mar. 1) Forecast: Heralded by Oliver Sacks and Edward O. Wilson, and with a well-placed excerpt of this book in Discover magazine, Sapolsky will venture out on a seven-city author tour that should help bring him to the attention of readers interested in animals, Africa, ecology and travel.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (March 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743202414
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743202411
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (177 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate's Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He lives in San Francisco.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Anyone who begins a book by telling us that he "had never planned to become a savanna baboon when [he] grew up" deserves a read. Such an opening promises witticisms and wisdom and A PRIMATE'S MEMOIR doesn't disappoint. The story is captivating whether Mr Sapolsky is telling us about his experiences in Kenya or about the interesting life of...his extended family? The book is only part scientific study: the effect that stress has on primate social behavior; it is also a travelogue, a little bit of cultural anthropology, a comment on globalization and economic inequality, a memoir of course, and finally, a pure joy to read.
Although it is now widely known that stress affects health, Mr Sapolsky's work has shown that this differs among individuals. He has also exploded the myth of the supremacy of the alpha male in primate groups. Among the baboons he shows complex social arrangements where important leadership functions are carried out by senior females; and what else but a complex social order would show - as his troop did - that lower ranking males suffer higher stress levels and greater ill health? After twenty years of on and off study Mr Sapolsky has naturally grown fond of the baboons. He gives them Old Testament names not from affection, but simply because they exhibit individual personalities. The King of the troop is naturally Solomon and Nebuchanezzar is a vengeful, attacking female.
The book is never sappy and does not romanticize the beasts and that is good - because wild animals they certainly are. A troop is an appropriate name for a group of baboons. Perhaps squad could work also because when approaching an unknown there is an element of military purposefulness and discipline about their behavior.
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50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
As much fun to read as any book by Redmond O'Hanlon or Gerald Durrell, A Primate's Memoir is funny, irreverent, and full of adventure, while also being a serious scientific study of the savanna baboons of Kenya. Sapolsky's goal is to determine the relationship of baboon stress levels to their overall health over a period of years. A neuroscientist, he observes the social hierarchy and interactions of his baboon group, guesses which individuals appear to be most stressed or most relaxed and then checks their hormones and blood chemistry, not an easy procedure, given his clever and not always co-operative population. Sapolsky, who works alone, must first outwit the baboon, use a blowgun to dart him, follow and wait for him to become unconscious, and then carry him half a mile or more to his portable lab facilities, where he then draws blood and does measurements. The baboons, of course, react to stress the way humans do.

The title of A Primate's Memoir is deliberately ambiguous--it is both Sapolsky's memoir and that of his baboon population, and his experiences and interactions with the outside world are remarkably similar to theirs. Leaving the relative safety of the game reserves and hitchhiking into dangerous territories during his "down time," Sapolsky describes his travels with enthusiasm, impeccable timing, and great, self-deprecating humor, subtly selecting details which show how similarly he and his baboon population deal with their worlds' uncertainties.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By solange on April 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Sapolsky devotes very little time to himself in this memoir, partly because he has so much of interest to say about his acquantainces (human and baboon) in Kenya. The title aptly describes his location of himself in the evolutionary picture. There are several kinds of primates in this story, but all have similar flaws and gifts--baboons as well as humans. Unlike many people who write about animals, Sapolsky doesn't credit the baboons with a wiser or kinder lifestyle. He makes it abundantly clear that they can be mean, selfish, and stupid--and then he turns around and makes exactly the same points about humans. Yet there's a very warm sensibility about all of his encounters. Sapolsky is capable of enjoying the humour in many situations, and is also redeemingly honest about his scientific motivations--he really likes playing with dry ice and cutting up dead things.
The framework of the book is Sapolsky's decades-long study of a baboon group, but this is by no means the majority of the subject matter. Spending three months of every year in Kenya, Sapolsky witnesses its many political changes, makes lasting friendships with some of the locals, and gains a unique perspective from which to critique both his original and his adopted cultures (his chapter on various scams perpetrated against tourists, both in Kenya and New York, is hilarious).
The writing, often conversational and humourous, gains in power from this natural style. In the final chapter, disease strikes the baboon group Sapolsky has come to know so well, and his narration of the tragedy is simple, honest, and all the more devastating because of it.
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