"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....Continua
This is a great book, but difficult to review. I bought it because I have been listening to Sapolsky's talks, and was struck by the humor and tenderness with which he described his baboon, in his gentle Brooklyn voice, as "spending most of their time engaged in making life miserable for other baboons", and wondered about a guy who spends his time trying to sneak up on a baboon to sample their hormones.
Sapolsky has written another great book about, well, stress and neurophysiology and that sort of thing, called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers". It is fun and very instructive.
This is nothing like it, and it is a lot more fun, a lot more personal, and not as didactic, so it is a lot more like an autobiography with baboons than a popular science book, or a travelogue.
It's hard even to list its many virtues: the fact that it made me laugh; the fact it made me feel a knot in my throat; the fact that it made me appreciate Africa in a way that is totally unsentimental; the fact that it made me reflect on our relationship with animals; and the fact that it depicted Sudan, with which I have a strange and distant relationship, in a way that thoroughly spooked me.
I can only give a flavour of the whole by quoting its memorable 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 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 plan for life, resulting in a worried note from the teacher to my mother."
I could quote from this book forever - this snippet can give you an idea of the apparently effortless flow of the prose of a guy who is, after all, by trade not a writer, in fact a guy who was by trade a zoologist and seems to have transitioned seamlessly into neurosurgery, but that's another story.
It is a profoundly humane book, funny and tender and wise and angry. By the end, when the disaster that I will not spoil for you wipes away the lives of many baboons the author had grown attached to, there is less distance, as if only then he can let his guard down:
" I write these words years later and I still have not found a Prayer for the Dead for the baboons. As a child, when I believed in the orthodoxy of my people, I learned the Kaddish. Once I said it in stunned, mechanical obeisance to my tradition at the open grave of my father, but it glorifies the actions and caprices of a god who does not exist for me, so that prayer does not come for these baboons. I have been told that in primate centres in Japan, Shinto prayers are offered to honor the monkeys that have been killed, and that the prayers are hybrids of the prayer for a dead animal offered by the successful hunter and the prayer for a dead enemy offered by the successful soldier. But even though I stalk these animals with my blowgun and I quicken at a darting, I swear that I have never been their hunter and they have never been my enemy. So that prayer does not come for these baboons. In a world already filled with so many words of lamentation, no words have come to me. ... The tidal waves of AIDS in Africa and desertification and war and hunger make my particular little melodrama seem self-indulgent and small potatoes, a tragedy for a whitey comfortable and privileged enough to be sentimental about animals on the other side of the globe. But still, I miss those baboons. "
It's a great book. It's like spending the time with somebody wiser, smarter, braver than you, whom you are willing to forgive for all of this because he is so delightfully self-effacing, and tells such incredibly funny and lovely stories, mostly not about himself....Continua