Excerpt of A Primate's Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky
(Page 1 of 8)
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Part 1. The Adolescent Years: When I First Joined the Troop
- The Baboons: The Generations of Israel
- Zebra Kabobs and a Life of Crime
- The Revenge of the Liberals
- The Masai Fundamentalist and My Debut as a Social Worker
- The Coca-Cola Devil
- Teaching Old Men About Maps
- Memories of Blood: The East African Wars
Part 2: The Sub-adult Years
- The Baboons: Saul in the Wilderness
- Samwelly Versus the Elephants
- The First Masai
- Zoology and National Security: A Shaggy Hyena Story
- The Coup
- Hearing Voices at the Wrong Time
Part 3: Tenuous Adulthood
- The Baboons: The Unstable Years
- Ol' Curly Toes and the King of Nubian-Judea
- The Penguins of Guyana
- When Baboons Were Falling Out of the Trees
- The Old White Man
- The Elevator
- The Mound Behind the 7-Eleven
Part 4: Adulthood
- The Baboons: Nick
- The Raid
- The Wonders of Machines in a Land Where They Are Still Novel: The Blind Leading the Blind
- Who's on First, What's on Second
- The Last Warriors
- The Plague
Chapter 1: The Baboons: The Generations of Israel
I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna 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.
Yet, whenever I wandered the Africa halls in the museum, I would invariably return to the mountain gorilla diorama. Something primal had clicked the first time I stood in front of it. My grandfathers had died long before I was born. They were mythically distant enough that I would not be able to pick either out in a picture. Amid this grandfatherly vacuum, I decided that a real-life version of the massive, sheltering silverback male gorilla stuffed in the glass case would be a good substitute. A mountainous African rain forest amid a group of gorillas began to seem like the greatest refuge imaginable.
By age twelve, I was writing fan letters to primatologists. By fourteen, I was reading textbooks on the subject. Throughout high school, I finagled jobs in a primate lab at a medical school and, finally, sojourning to Mecca itself, volunteered in the primate wing of the museum. I even forced the chairman of my high school language department to find me a self-paced course in Swahili, in preparation for the fieldwork I planned to do in Africa. Eventually, I went off to college to study with one of the deans of primatology. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
But in college, some of my research interests shifted and I became focused on scientific questions that could not be answered with gorillas. I would need to study a species that lived out in the open in the grasslands, with a different type of social organization, a species that was not endangered. Savanna baboons, who had struck no particular chord in me before, became the logical species to study. You make compromises in life; not every kid can grow up to become president or a baseball star or a mountain gorilla. So I made plans to join the baboon troop.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky.