Book: A Primate's Memoir

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A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky
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Publisher: Scribner

This book was also published with the subtitle Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa.

“I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla,” writes Robert Sapolsky in this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist’s coming-of-age in remote Africa.

An exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya, A Primate’s Memoir interweaves serious scientific observations with wry commentary about the challenges and pleasures of living in the wilds of the Serengeti—for man and beast alike. Over two decades, Sapolsky survives culinary atrocities, gunpoint encounters, and a surreal kidnapping, while witnessing the encroachment of the tourist mentality on the farthest vestiges of unspoiled Africa. As he conducts unprecedented physiological research on wild primates, he becomes evermore enamored of his subjects—unique and compelling characters in their own right—and he returns to them summer after summer, until tragedy finally prevents him.

By turns hilarious and poignant, A Primate’s Memoir is a magnum opus from one of our foremost science writers.

Reviews

Amazon.com

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

Barnes and Noble

For readers who love tales from the wild, especially ones about our closest relatives, like Gorillas in the Mist, Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and research associate with the Kenyan Institute of Primate Research, has written a humorous and poignant memoir of the years he spent in the bush with savanna baboons. Sapolsky is a wonderful writer, and his previous books—Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and The Trouble with Testosterone—were both Los Angeles Times Book Award finalists.

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