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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  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 304 pages
    Mar 2002, 304 pages

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Part 1. The Adolescent Years: When I First Joined the Troop

  1. The Baboons: The Generations of Israel
  2. Zebra Kabobs and a Life of Crime
  3. The Revenge of the Liberals
  4. The Masai Fundamentalist and My Debut as a Social Worker
  5. The Coca-Cola Devil
  6. Teaching Old Men About Maps
  7. Memories of Blood: The East African Wars

Part 2: The Sub-adult Years

  1. The Baboons: Saul in the Wilderness
  2. Samwelly Versus the Elephants
  3. The First Masai
  4. Zoology and National Security: A Shaggy Hyena Story
  5. The Coup
  6. Hearing Voices at the Wrong Time
  7. Sudan

Part 3: Tenuous Adulthood

  1. The Baboons: The Unstable Years
  2. Ol' Curly Toes and the King of Nubian-Judea
  3. The Penguins of Guyana
  4. When Baboons Were Falling Out of the Trees
  5. The Old White Man
  6. The Elevator
  7. The Mound Behind the 7-Eleven

Part 4: Adulthood

  1. The Baboons: Nick
  2. The Raid
  3. Ice
  4. Joseph
  5. The Wonders of Machines in a Land Where They Are Still Novel: The Blind Leading the Blind
  6. Who's on First, What's on Second
  7. The Last Warriors
  8. 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.

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