A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
written by robert sapolsky
5 out of 5 soaring monuments constructed to the human condition
Somewhere in the canon of writing there’s a special edge where nonfiction writers balance precariously, trying not to get shoved over the cliff by condescending literati. Get too close to these selfappointed guardians of form and you’ll notice their characteristic squint, like a cowboy on the range, born of endlessly peering over severe reading glasses. Their arms are great slabs of iron from lifting heavy tomes and holding the line against spirited journalists making a break towards artistic celebratory. Nonfiction has never quite been worshipped like its more refined sister—-it may index the world in some detailed, important way, but fiction catalogues the vast, gleaming ephemera of our collective unconscious. And although each temple has its share of embarrassments (walmart romance novels and james patterson in one, ad lingo and business doublespeak in the other), art herself has traditionally stood with our literary enforcers. But red rover, red rover, let’s send someone new over.
Robert sapolsky is a primatologist, neurologist, macarthur recipient, stanford professor, writer, and allaround complex human being. He’s firmly in the nonfiction camp; all his books come out of his own research, experience, and interests, namely, stress, neural disease, morality, primate social behavior, religious doubt, the vagaries of human emotions, and everything else under the sun. I first read his essay collection the trouble with testosterone in college, a bedraggled copy that found its way into my hands through powers unknown. I loved it unabashedly, in the way you do when a book comes along and opens a door on a magic, wondrous country you’ve overlooked. Sapolsky’s closest authorial colleague may be anthony bourdain; he has the same rolling, irresistible, easytofollow style that sweeps you up in its arms and takes you from one adventure to another with such unflinching, tender honesty that you can’t help but declare undying love. To any fiction reader who’s thinking about changing temples, I always recommend the same two books---kitchen confidential and a primate’s memoir.
‘I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned on being a savannah baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.’
And so sapolsky opens his book, introducing us to himself, his primate obsession, and his baboons---a troop he studied and lived next to for more than twenty years, spending part of the year in kenya and part in the states. Afflicted by an orthodox upbringing and a sentimental streak he quickly christens them solomon, leah, devorah, aaron, isaac,...and so on.
‘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...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.’
We learn why baboons at all---he wanted to study stress-related disease and its relationship to behavior, and baboons, intensely social creatures with a glut of time for ‘being rotten to each other,’ are perfect. Before long we’ve settled in with him as he tracks the baboons, records enough backstabbing and trysts to make even shakespeare raise a brow, and anesthetizes them by blow dart to take blood, fecal, salival, and hormonal samples. The life of a field biologist.
Some blasphemy: a suitably swashbuckling life can hold up to for any grand fictional adventure (cue much muttering from the literature harpies). Street scammers and black market deals in nairobi; baboon politics and daily tribulations; stumbling on fellow primatologist dian fossey’s ghostly, abandoned cabin with its side plot where she’s buried next to her favorite gorilla; hitching ten days through the desert on a sweltering, jampacked barge where human and goat shit mix freely; living right next to the masai and their exclusive diet of cow milk and cow blood; the hopelessness of lawn care during the annual wildebeest migration; getting essentially kidnapped from an impromptu road trip to uganda and made to drink cans of cocacola morning, noon, and night; arriving in some town in sudan desperately in need of a toilet, a friendly policeman claiming ‘you are our guest! You must just be free’ and making sapolsky crap in the middle of the main street while most of the small town looks on encouragingly; taking a masai friend for his first bookstore, ice cream cone, and elevator ride; vile, horrorgore dissections of mysteriously sick baboons whose lungs have nearly dissolved, forcing sapolsky to tear the ribcage out like some dr. mengele demolitions expert.
And pervading all of it, a great, tearful, wonder-full, stricken humanity. Somehow sapolsky, through such honest writing, manages to be the person we wish we could be at all times---inquisitive, open, tough, vulnerable, funny, heartfelt. Alive, in all its glory and anguish.
One of the most striking chapters is his acceptance of his role as a neuroscientist and, necessarily, animal torturer. His shift from studying behavior to studying behavior’s role in neural degeneration meant more lab work, more mice in cages waiting for their turn in hell.
‘...the suffering that the animals would undergo there was appalling. They’d undergo strokes, or repeated epileptic, seizures, or other neurodegenerative diseases...all to find out how a brain cell dies, and what can be done to prevent it.’
Who wouldn’t struggle to ethically justify inflicting ‘dripping, searing amounts of pain’? He looks back on his transformation from throwing up after his first surgery on a rat to, as a postdoc, training students to carve their own questions into animal carcasses.
But somehow, sapolsky’s humanity is magnified, not diminished. We grimace and mentally offer a shoulder when his scientific, detached interest and undeniable compassion are at odds. It’s excruciating to read as he must not only dissect the baboons but in some cases take up his scalpel---still bloodcrusted from last time since how could you repeatedly sterilize it in the kenyan bush?---and slit animals’ throats because they’re doomed anyway and the autopsy data are critical. I watched him from my living room as he wars with revulsion and despair while mustering a few threads of a good scientific investigation, feeling his profound sadness as he holds a dead baboon’s hand and buries him with olives and figs and sings russian folksongs from his childhood, and I thanked god that was never me and yet paradoxically wished it had been because then maybe I’d have a piece of sapolsky’s spirit.
It’s usually fiction’s privilege to leave us gutchecked and inspired. Nonfiction has explanations and examples and descriptions, but rarely big, lingering questions. But here is one nonfiction book, at least, that leaves us with a spiritual bellyache, clutching our heart and mind and guts as we try to reconcile whatever it means to be a human animal on this planet.