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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I joined the troop in the last year of the reign of Solomon. In those days, the other central members of the troop were Leah, Devorah, Aaron, Isaac, Naomi, and Rachel. I didn't plan beforehand to give the baboons Old Testament names. It just happened. A new adult male, leaving the troop he grew up in, would transfer into the troop, and during the few weeks when he'd vacillate about joining permanently, I would hesitate about giving him a name. I'd just refer to him in my notes as the new adult transfer, or NAT, or Nat, or, by the time he decided to stay forever, Nathanial. Adam was first known as ATM, for adult transfer male. The small kid who was first abbreviated as the SML kid then turned into Samuel on me. At that point I just gave up and started handing out the prophets and matriarchs and judges left and right. I would still occasionally stick with a purely descriptive name -- Gums or Limp, for example. And I was way too insecure in my science to publish technical papers using these names -- everyone got a number then. But the rest of the time, I wallowed in biblical names.

I have always liked Old Testament names, but I would hesitate to inflict Obadiah or Ezekial on a child of mine, so I ran wild with the sixty baboons in the troop. Plus, clearly, I was still irritated by the years I spent toting my Time-Life books on evolution to show my Hebrew school teachers, having them blanch at such sacrilege and tell me to put them away; it felt like a pleasing revenge to hand out the names of the patriarchs to a bunch of baboons on the African plains. And, with some sort of perversity that I suspect powers a lot of what primatologists do, I couldn't wait for the inevitable day that I could record in my field notebook that Nebuchanezzar and Naomi were off screwing in the bushes.

What I wanted to study was stress-related disease and its relationship to behavior. Sixty years ago, a scientist named Selye discovered that your emotional life can affect your health. It struck the mainstream doctors as ludicrous -- people were perfectly accustomed to the idea of viruses or bacteria or carcinogens or whatnot getting you sick, but your emotions? Selye found that if you got rats upset in all sorts of purely psychological ways, they got sick. They got ulcers, their immune systems collapsed, their reproduction went to hell, they got high blood pressure. We know now exactly what was happening -- this was the discovery of stress-related disease. Selye showed that stress was what you were undergoing when emotional or physical disturbances threw your body's balance out of whack. And if it went on for too long, you got sick.

That last piece has been hammered home with a vengeance -- stress makes all sorts of things in the body go bad, and in the years since Selye, people have documented numerous diseases that can be worsened by stress. Adult onset diabetes, muscle atrophy, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, arrested growth, impotency, amenorrhea, depression, decalcification of bones. You name it. In my laboratory work, I was studying how, on top of all that, stress can kill certain brain cells.

It seemed a miracle that any of us survived. But clearly we did. I decided that, in addition to my laboratory work on neurons, I wanted to study the optimistic side of it -- how come some of us are more resistant to stress than others? Why are some bodies and some psyches better at coping? Does it have something to do with your rank in society? If you have lots of relatives, if you hang out with friends? If you play with kids? If you sulk when you're upset about something or if you find someone else to take it out on? I decided to go study this in wild baboons.

They were perfect for it. Baboons live in big, complex social groups, and the population I went to study lived like kings. Great ecosystem, the Serengeti. Grass and trees and animals forever, Marlin Perkins country. The baboons work maybe four hours a day to feed themselves; hardly anyone is likely to eat them. Basically, baboons have about a half dozen solid hours of sunlight a day to devote to being rotten to each other. Just like our society -- few of us are getting hypertensive from physical stressors, none of us are worrying about famines or locust plagues or the ax fight we're going to have with the boss out in the parking lot at five o'clock. We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress. Just like these baboons.

Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky.

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