Robert M. Sapolsky Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Robert M. Sapolsky
Photo: Robert M. Sapolsky

Robert M. Sapolsky

An interview with Robert M. Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky discusses A Primate's Memoir, Africa, and the primates he observed and studied.

In the book you touch on some of the cultural and societal changes you have witnessed in your over twenty years of summers in Africa. What aspect of bush life has changed the most during the years you've spent there? What the least?
I am taking "bush life" to mean Masai life, rather than that of the more westernized, agricultural tribes. Probably most broadly, there has been one big shift; when I got there, ambition, hope for one's kids, goals were built around being a more successful Masai -- figuring out a way to have more cows, more wives, more children. And what has shifted is that ambition now takes the form of wanting outside things: a watch, a pair of pants, a cassette player or even of wanting to be someone else (without having much of a sense of what anyone else's life is like). The Masai have realized that they are not the center of the universe, and thus not even of the Masai universe. In terms of what has changed the least, I keep thinking of the phrase, "Despite the new goals, the Masai still go about trying to achieve them with the same Masai rules and values." But I'm having trouble sorting out what exactly I mean by that.

The stories you relate reach back to your very first visit to Kenya. How did you go about writing the memoir? Did you use journals from your visits, or were all these stories etched into your memory?
I wrote the memoirs over the last ten years, working primarily from two sources. The first were journals I've kept in Kenya for these 23 years. This turned out to be less useful than anticipated, however, in that they usually were either mildewed and unreadable from some flood in my camp, or so interminably boring in details of day-to-day life that I couldn't force myself to read through them. Far more useful was getting letters of mine returned from friends. For all those summers, I'd sit around in camp with no telephone, no radio, minimal access to the outside world. You get mighty obsessed about the occasional mail deliveries, and thus you get highly motivated to write to everyone on earth, in the hopes of prompting a reply. So anytime something interesting would happen, I'd write 25 or so one-page-aerogram versions of it over the next few days, all on a clunky, museum-piece manual typewriter. This turns out to be pretty good training for story-telling, I suspect.

As far as primates go, are baboons easy or difficult to observe and study? What traits make them accessible, and what traits make your job tricky?
Actually, they're among the easiest to observe, and one of the few that I could have done my physiology studies on. They live in these big social groups out in the open; you're not craning your neck to watch someone up in the trees, or trying to shoot him with a blowgun dart. They're not endangered, there's a lot known about their physiology, they're big, which means there's a lot of meat on them to aim for when you're darting and they have lots of blood. The social groups remain reasonably intact year after year, and they're easy to recognize. Some of the drawbacks, which came through in Chapter 3, are that they're so damned smart -- once they figure out that you're up to something with the dart gun -- and so potentially aggressive.

You write about how excited you were each summer to rejoin the troop. Did the baboons recognize you after your absence? Did you every have trouble differentiating them?
As far as I can tell, they would recognize me. For one thing, the first day back after a year away, I'd be able to get far closer to them than would some stranger. Potentially, though, that might not be because they'd recognize me, but because I simply walked towards them in a more comfortable, less unnerving way. However, the thing that suggests there really was recognition was that individuals who seemed to like me would sit next to me. Benjamin, for example, would have those behaviors year after year, while males who weren't thrilled about me -- Solomon, for one -- would have consistent responses over the years as well. In terms of recognizing them after a year away, it would be hard the first week; last year's kid is now some muscular adolescent, someone else suddenly looks decrepit. But it would come back pretty quickly.

You tell many stories of scams and government corruption. Why is this sort of dishonesty so rampant in Kenya? Has it changed?
My sense is that it is worse than ever, although it may not be to my advantage, in terms of future research permits there, to admit to this. As for why the corruption, all the obvious reasons: a) the country's made up of a zillion different historically hostile tribes arbitrarily thrown together as a country by the Brits; b) life is short, there are few official safety nets (e.g., unemployment insurance, pensions), so there are few moral qualms about taking care of your own, no matter what; c) there's not yet any sort of history of democracy, of regulation of profiteering -- this is a very young, very capitalist country; d) the outside world and all its wealth provides tremendous incentives for corruption -- the amount and indiscriminate nature of foreign aid, the fact that the amount of money that would eventually be paid for, say, a rhino horn dagger will trickle down to paying the poacher enough money to cover his kids' school fees for years; e) the fact that the west encourages the illicitly wealthy in the developing world to hide their loot in western institutions (e.g., Swiss banks). All this has to be evaluated, though, in the context that the rest of the world is just as corrupt (including ourselves with, say, a couple of procedural problems with presidential polling in Florida), and this is the only place I've ever been in where I wasn't living in some hermetic academic cloister.

Often your African neighbors beheld you and your customs with as much curiosity and wonderment as you beheld them and theirs. What Western custom most surprised or confused your neighbors?
A number of them. Contact lenses. Adults liking milk. Laws against bigamy. People voluntarily eating fish. The fact that the wealthiest man in America (say, Bill Gates) probably owns very few cows. We westerners getting upset over animals dying. Any public signs of physical affection between spouses/significant others, parents and children.

How does living in urban America compare with remote Africa, in terms of your personal level of stress, ease of living, emotional health, etc? Do you feel more at home in either place? Is it difficult to go back and forth between the two?
In the early years, the transitions were horrible. I'd leave for the field and squeeze half the year's emotional intimacy in the final weeks. I'd come back from the field and be a dysfunctional recluse for weeks afterward. By now, the transition is simple. Somehow, I hardly even get jet-lagged. In terms of comparing my life in the two places, basically, I can do more useful work here with my research, but I'm happier there. When I'm there, 95% of the time I can relax in a way that I never can here. And the other 5%, I am stressed because of some horrific, shit-in-your-pants piece of reality that evaporates all the neuroses and angst for weeks afterward, which is heavenly.

Can you explain the differences between your research on baboons in the wild and research that is conducted in the lab?
Twenty years ago or so, the two threads of research were very related. In the lab I was studying why an excess of stress hormones had adverse consequences for health (in particular, damaging neurons), while with the baboons, I wanted to understand what social factors predicted who secreted more or less of those stress hormones. The lab work, meanwhile, has gotten more and more reductive over the years, as my lab now does gene therapy to try to save neurons from neurological diseases. The field work, in contrast, has become larger in scale. These days, I study things like differences in "cultures" between troops of baboons, how the cultures are propagated, the consequences of the differing cultures for the health of individuals.

What path is your research taking now? Do you continue to go to Africa?
I continue to oscillate between the lab and the field, although far less of the latter than in the past. My most recent season there was only 3 weeks, and I'll be lucky to spend that much time there this coming summer.

Interview reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Scribner.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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