For this edition of Los Lunes Son Para Libros, the book under discussion is Robert M. Sapolsky’s The Primate’s Memoir. I found this book in a hostel in Peru. I looked at it a few times before I actually decided to pick it up and read it. Lets just say I was glad I did.
The cover art originally drew me in. I definitely did not listen to the age old adage, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ It pictures a baboon sitting on a rock with a pen and notepad in its hand. In the background are more baboons climbing trees. At first I thought the cover art signified that the book would be told from the perspective of a baboon. As it turns our however, the book is entirely about Sapolsky’s adventures in Africa as a primatologist. And now that I am thinking about it, he too evolved from a primate so the title is actually an interesting play on words.
Currently, Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and professor of biology at Stanford University. However he is reflecting over a period of 20 years when he was a biology graduate student and fascinated with primatology. Specifically, he studied baboons in Kenya. He is essentially the Jane Goodall of baboons.
Sapolsky originally went to Kenya to study stress-related disorders in baboons. In other words, he wanted to study how stress impacted the health of baboons. Why baboons you ask? Well he explains that most major primates were already being studied heavily. Besides that, he references how baboons are an incredibly unique and advanced species of primates. They communicate, organize in diverse ways, leave time for leisure (and pleasure) and live long complicated lives. His research found that stress indeed has negative impacts on the health of baboons, much like it does for humans. He found that certain baboons were at higher risk of stress-related disorders based on their placement in the social hierarchy. Meaning the alpha males and females were healthier than the runts of the group. This all sounds intuitive, but the way Sapolsky writes about his reseaerch and the adventures that come with it make for an incredibly interesting story.
Sapolsky writes in a very unique way. He walks the line between academic primatology and comedy. The way he embedded himself in his research is very apparent. Each baboon has a name (all biblical for some reason despite him being an atheist), each baboon has a personality and certain behavioural traits and each baboon is very important to Sapolsky. Despite the sometimes violent nature of field research, mostly through Sapolsky tranquilizing and caging baboons in order to take samples and sometimes conduct autopsies, he cares deeply about his research subjects. His ability to blend satire into his writing leaves the reader chuckling every couple of pages. Even during the the tense moments Sapolsky is able to provide comedic relief and a deep breathe from his audience.
Sapolsky writes as if he was one of the baboons. Which is why I think the cover art is the way that it is. He blurs the line between researcher and research subject. He becomes so utterly invested in his research, and begins to produce such good research, that he becomes one of the leading investigators on baboon primatology. Despite him saying he continues ‘to get no work done’, he is able to return year after year with research grants. Eventually, he becomes a recognized local in the area. He becomes very close with the local Masai tribes. Some of Masai end up working with Sapolsky as assistants and security guards. He coordinates with other researchers in the area, helps with baboon problems in the safari parks and eats free lunches at the tourist lodges.
As always, someone normally says it better, so we’ll end this post with a review of Sapolsky’s book on the inside cover:
“A witty concoction blending field biology, history, hilarious cross-cultural mishaps, and hair-raising adventure. What Jane Goodall did for chimpanzees, Birute Galdikas for orangutans, and Dian Fossey for gorillas, Sapolsky does in spades for baboons”