Excerpt from A Primate's Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Primate's Memoir

A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

By Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2001,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2002,
    304 pages.

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Even younger than Joshua and Benjamin were David and Daniel. They had just joined the troop, still seemed frazzled by the trauma of their first transfer, the months of being outsiders in a new troop, away from friends and family, amid hassling strangers, on the edge of the troop and exposed to predators. They hadn't come from the same natal troop, but they were lucky enough to have shown up at the same time, and lucky enough to have temperaments that caused them to cling to each other instead of harass each other. They were inseparable, little more than kids, and spent their time playing and wrestling. One afternoon, I discovered the two of them off in the field near the forest, managing to panic an entire nursery herd of baby giraffes, stampeding them back and forth across the savanna. Each giraffe probably weighed fifty times as much as Daniel or David and could have stomped them easily. Instead, the disconcerted baby giraffes ran away from these strange tiny furball devils yapping at their feet.

There was one adult male who I felt certain had grown up in the troop, had never transferred out. Of the hundreds of baboons I would eventually know, Job had to have been dealt the worst set of cards. Savanna baboons are gorgeous animals; muscled, contoured woolly bears. Job was rail thin and had far too large a head for his body. He had tremors and spasms and palsies and seizures. His hair fell out intermittently, and each rainy season, his orifices would bloom with fungi. He had long fragile limbs and mange on his tail. As far as I could tell, he'd never hit puberty: undescended testes, no secondary sexual characteristics like large canines or cape hair or a deep voice or muscles. He was no idiot, though, and went about life with the alert canny vigilance of someone honed by constant fear. I had all sorts of theories as to what was wrong with him, gleaned from endocrinology textbooks that swam with disturbing pictures of glandular disasters, people standing naked in front of height charts, their eyes blacked out with a rectangle. Hypothyroid cretins and acromegalic freaks, exophthalmic nightmares and card-carrying hermaphrodites. Kleinfelter syndrome was my leading guess for Job, but I never found out. He was undiagnosed, beyond being certifiably weird and sad.

Predictably, he was tortured, chased, harassed, beaten, mauled, slashed, and terrorized by every male in the troop who needed an outlet (and more than once by both Leah and Devorah). New transfer males, pipsqueak adolescents, would be shocked and pleased to find that there was at least one individual lower ranking than they in their new troop. In the years that I knew him, I never saw him win a single dominance interaction. His only solace was Naomi's family -- old Naomi, daughter Rachel, and grandkid Sarah. To use technical lingo, Naomi's family were mensches, and they soon became my favorite lineage. There was no mistaking them or their relatedness. They all had short bowlegs and little round tugboat torsos, and these crazy muffy faces that made them look like a family of barn owls. They were a middle-ranking lineage, had many friends, and helped each other. And helped Job. I could never prove it, but I felt sure that Job was Naomi's son, the troubled sick one who could never have survived a transfer to another troop and never had the androgenic drive to try, that adolescent male itch to pick up and try one's luck in the New World of another baboon troop. Naomi fretted over him, Rachel would ferociously defend him from harassing juvenile males, Sarah groomed him. One morning, Job, on the periphery of the troop, was cut off from the rest when he was surrounded by a herd of grazing female impalas. Nearly Bambis, for god's sake, innocuous as you can get, things that baboons hunt. But Job became frightened of them, started giving alarm barks until old Naomi and Rachel waded through the impalas to sit with him till they had gone and he felt safe.

Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky.

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