Thu
Sep 2 2010 9:09am

“A number of humans and a number of baboons”: Robert M. Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir

Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir is non-fiction, but it’s one of the most engaging things ever written. It’s another one of those books like Backroom Boys that you have no idea you want to read, but that you will love to pieces. Robert Sapolsky is a neuroscientist and primate researcher. In this book, he writes about his life and the lives of a tribe of baboons in Africa. He doesn’t lose the distinction between people and animals at all, but he writes about them in the same way, and not at all in the way people usually write about animals, or about people for that matter.

The only way I can describe the book is by quoting it, so here’s the first paragraph:

I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savannah baboon when I grew up, instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla. As a child in New York I had 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 plans for life, resulting in a worried letter from the teacher to my mother.

The whole book is like this, only better. He goes to Africa and observes baboons, he advances in his tribe as a scientist, he becomes friends with Kenyans. It’s a series of anecdotes, many of them funny and some of them terrible, all true, and surprisingly fascinating.

There’s a kind of earnestness about most writing of this kind which Sapolsky avoids. There’s a contrary kind of patronizing jocularity which I don’t think he’d recognise if it came up to him playing the bagpipes. He writes about baboons, and gorillas, and people, and for that matter hyenas and elephants, as if they’re all part of a spectrum of interest and intelligence. He talks about his naivety being taken in by scams and his desperation when his professor doesn’t send funds for months on end in the same tone as he talks about the baboon interactions. He sees getting his Ph.D. as the same kind of thing as the way the baboons advance in their hierarchy. He observes himself and everything around him with a wry intelligence. He’s always serious, but he’s also often hilarious.

I want to quote you another bit. There’s a story about his friend who studies hyenas being invited to a carnivore behavioural conference, funded by the U.S. military, who behave very oddly and tell various stories (some of which might be true) about why they are suddenly interested in carnivore behaviour. It ends:

Obvious possibilities as to the true story of what went on:

a) The carnivore biologists are just saying they never heard from Colonel Chuck again and are actually in cahoots with him up to their ears, sworn to secrecy.

b) The whole meeting was an exercise for Colonel Chuck and his pals in order to learn how to bribe, bully, cajole, and manipulate scientists. The carnivore biologists were just for practice, and they’re now pulling this off on rocket scientists.

c) Colonel Chuck and his army pals were actually herbivores in disguise, trying to gain information about carnivore hunting strategies.

This is a lovely lovely book and a joy to read—it’s also insightful about both baboon and scientist behaviour and has some interesting snippets about the recent history of Africa and wildlife management in Kenya. It would also make a great present for somebody who likes to read and has already read everything you’d normally give them.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

13 comments
William S. Higgins
1. higgins
I thought it was going to be about an Anglican bishop.
CarlosSkullsplitter
2. CarlosSkullsplitter
The Somali truckers. Really, that whole chapter, and the whole book. But the Somali truckers.
Nancy Lebovitz
3. NancyLebovitz
Sapolsky is great! I didn't know he had a new book out.

If you want to start a new series about non-fiction likely to be of interest to sf fans (considering that you're running out of alphabet), I'm heartily in favor.
Nancy Lebovitz
4. NancyLebovitz
Oops-- not a new book, just one I hadn't heard of.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Nancy: This isn't a new book, it's 2001. And this is part of my regular writing about what I'm re-reading, which does sometimes include non-fiction.
CarlosSkullsplitter
6. Yatima
Bluejo, you and I have almost exactly the same (superb!) taste in books. I forced this on everyone after I read it and blubbed all through the chapter you have to blub through. I also thought I was the only person on earth to have read The Book of the Dun Cow.
CarlosSkullsplitter
7. marksch
One of my favorite books of all time!
He's also a fantastic college lecturer:
"Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition"
http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/coursedesclong2.aspx?cid=1597

The Teaching Company only uses the top 1 in 5000 college teachers for their course. The course above is one of my favorites. Courses are often drastically reduced for sale, too.
Ursula L
8. Ursula
Jo, how do you find these things?  

Browsing a bookstore only goes so far.  I'm curious as to what your book-choosing techniques are, as mine seem to be evolving into "what has Jo written about?"
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Ursula: Something really outside my normal reading like this, I generally find because somebody recommends it to me and then I check if it's in the library and it is. (I love libraries. There's literally nothing to lose by trying something.)
So really, just the same as you, only with different people.
CarlosSkullsplitter
10. Raskos
He writes about baboons, and gorillas, and people, and for that matter
hyenas and elephants, as if they’re all part of a spectrum of interest
and intelligence...

Something like Gerald Durrell, I thought. In any case, that's not jsut an astute summation of Sapolsky's attitude, it's a sensible worldview in itself.

The biological fieldwork flavour he got just right - to be expected, of course, but it's hard to get this across to anyone who doesn't do it themselves, or see why anyone else would.
CarlosSkullsplitter
11. Anna Feruglio Dal Dan
Great mind think alike! I just finished this and blogged about it, and like you, I loved it. Only you articulated it better. Sapolsky has several lectures and video and audio files out there, and all of them sound like this book: serious, shy, wry, hilarious and deep. He's somebody you really really want as your college professor, or a party guest, or better still, a lifetime companion, but I understand he's spoken for.
CarlosSkullsplitter
12. sdm7g
The Somali truckers AND the bloodsickles ! Don't forget the bloodsickles.
Bronwen Reid
13. bronwen
I'm hoping that this is more on-target than the usual Amazon "if you liked that you'll like this", but if you liked Sapolsky, you may very well enjoy "The Innocent Anthropologist" by Nigel Barley. It's another older book (mid 1980s?) and an intelligent satire of anthropology and western perceptions of "the other".

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