A Primate’s Memoir – Robert M Sapolsky
First Published: 2001, Jonathan Cape
This Edition: 2002, Vintage
From the back of the book: “Book-smart and more than a little naive, Robert Sapolsky left the comforts of college in the US for a research project studying a troop of baboons in Kenya. Whether he’s relating his adventures with his neighbours, Masai tribesmen, or his experiences learning how to sneak up and dart suspicious baboons, Sapolsky combines irreverence and humour with the best credentials in his field.”
Thoughts: Robert Sapolsky is a biologist. A neurologist, if you want to be picky. Now, he has all the duties and pressures that being a Professor in his field has to offer. This book takes you right back to the beginning, collecting data for his work on the physical effects of stress.
Writing fan mail to primatologists as a child will only get you so far. I should know, I tried it. Sapolsky took it one step further and became one himself, and this retelling of his experiences in the field is both informative and entertaining. Heading off to Kenya to dart baboons for his research, Sapolsky does a good job of introducing his new subjects, who come across as you would expect a good monkey troop to do. They squabble, they groom, they play, they work their way up the hierarchy, fall down it with a crash, and they forage for lunch. But they also have the dangers of the outside world to face, some of which we encounter in these stories.
One amusing scene documents an absolute nightmare of an attempt to dart a baboon. It’s so disastrous that you can’t help but internally shout “What are you doing? Just give up already!” But as with all comic writing it had to happen in order for us to read about it years later. It certainly makes you realise that even experts have to start out somewhere. I include this here because a friend of mine is brought to hysterics every time she comes across it, contributing to it being her favourite non-fiction book of all time. That’s quite some praise!
Although the baboons are the focal point of this book, the majority of the writing seems to account the author’s travel experiences. This is where his sense of humour comes in, mainly at his naivety and questionable decisions on the move, one of which sees him ordering hundreds of sodas at the hands of a gang who partially kidnap him, seemingly just for fun. These stories provide the substance for most of the middle section of the book, with the baboons taking a backseat to the human primates, but as we re-enter baboon society properly towards the last part of the book things start to get serious.
As disease strikes, the fate of his beloved monkey companions hangs in the balance. Investigating the cause and studying those that are unwell clearly intrigues the scientist in Sapolsky, but he has worked with this troop for two decades, and these animals have become a huge part of his life. This really comes across towards the end of the book, where his writing becomes more fluid, and I couldn’t put it down until I knew how things turned out. This was, for me, Sapolsky’s finest writing, despite his admission that: “These are not a crafted, balanced set of events, and the telling of them will not be particularly crafted either.”
Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points
Favourite Line: “They seemed like two maddened, paranoid forest gnomes.”