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 by Robert M. Sapolsky X
A Primate's Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 304 pages
    Mar 2002, 304 pages

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So I would go out and study the behavior of baboons, see who was doing what with whom -- fights, trysts and friendships, alliances and dalliances. Then I would dart them, anesthetize them, see how their bodies were doing -- blood pressure, cholesterol levels, rate of wound healing, levels of stress hormones. What would individual differences in behavior and psychological patterns have to do with the individual differences in how their bodies were working? I wound up studying only the males. You wouldn't want to anesthetize females when they were pregnant, or when they had a dependent nursing kid, and that's most of the time for most of the females. Thus, I settled in with the males and planned to get to know them very well.

It was 1978; John Travolta was the most important human alive, white suits were sweeping our proud nation, and Solomon was in the final year of his rule. Solomon was good and wise and just. Actually, that's nonsense, but I was an impressionable young transfer male at the time. Nevertheless, he was a pretty imposing baboon. For years, the anthropology textbooks had been having a love affair with savanna baboons and their top-ranking male, the alpha male. According to the books, the baboons were complex social primates living in open grasslands; they had organized hunts, a hierarchical rank system, and at their core was the alpha male. He led the troop to food, spearheaded the hunts, defended against predators, kept the females in line, changed the lightbulbs, fixed the car, blah blah blah. Just like our human ancestors, the textbooks ached to say, and sometimes even did. Most of that turned out to be wrong, naturally. The hunts for food were disorganized free-for-alls. Furthermore, the alpha male couldn't lead the troop to food during a crisis, as he wouldn't know where to go. The males transferred into the troops as adolescents, while the females spent their whole lives in the same troop. Thus, it would be the old females who remembered the grove of olive trees past the fourth hill. When predators attacked, the alpha male would be in the thick of it, defending an infant. But only if he was absolutely certain that it was his kid who was at risk of becoming someone's dinner. Otherwise, he had the highest, safest spot in the tree to watch the action. So much for Robert Ardrey and 1960s anthropology.

Nevertheless, within the small, parochial, self-interested, unreflective, petty world of male baboons, being alpha was hot stuff. You might not really be the troop leader, but you got to do about half the matings, sit in the shade when it was hot, enjoy the best food with a minimum of effort merely by ripping off someone else's lunch box. And Solomon excelled at all of this. He had been alpha male in the troop for three years, an inordinately long time for a male's tenure. The grad student who preceded me with the troop said that Solomon had been a ferocious and canny fighter back when he defeated his predecessor, but by the time I got there (and secretly instituted the name Solomon -- his boring published identification number I will never divulge), he was in his silver years and resting on his laurels, persisting out of sheer psychological intimidation. He was damn good at it. He hadn't had a major fight in a year. He would just glance at someone, rouse himself from his regal setting and saunter over, at the most swat him, and that would settle things. Everyone was terrified of him. He swatted at me once, knocked me off a rock, shattered my going-away-to-Africa-gift binoculars, left me terrified of him as well. I immediately dropped any plans I might have had of challenging him for the alpha position.

Most of his days he spent lounging with the many infants who he felt certain were his kids (i.e., no one else went near the female baboon during the part of the cycle she conceived), stealing the occasional tuber or root that someone else had dug up, being groomed, consorting with new females in heat. As of late, the hot number in the troop was Devorah, daughter of Leah, who was probably the oldest member of the troop, the alpha female, and one incredibly tough cookie. Male baboon ranks shift over time; as someone grows into his prime, someone else snaps a canine and is out of business. Females, on the other hand, inherit their rank from their mothers; they get the rank below mom, kid sister gets one below that, and so on, until the next lower-ranking family starts. So Leah had been sitting on top of that pile for at least a quarter of a century. Leah would harass Naomi, around her age and the matriarch of a much lower-ranking family. Old Naomi would sit down to a midday rest in some nice spot in the shade, and Leah would bash on over and boot her out. Naomi, unruffled, would find someplace else to sit, and, unable to resist, Leah would do it again and again. I would marvel at the antiquity of it. Some years before, Jimmy Carter was jogging at the White House, people were buying Pet Rocks and trying to look like Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and the aging Leah was giving Naomi grief. Even further back, the My Lai massacre occurred, people were wearing cranberry bell-bottoms and dancing on waterbeds, and the prime-aged Leah was forcing Naomi to groom her. Further back, Lyndon Johnson was showing off his gallbladder scar while the adolescent Leah was waiting for Naomi to fall asleep during her midday nap before hassling her. And way back when people were still protesting the Rosenbergs' being executed and I was positioned in my grandmother's lap in her nursing home for us to be photographed with the Brownie camera, Naomi, the toddler, had to give the branch she was playing with to Leah. And now they were two decrepit old ladies still playing musical chairs in the savanna.

Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky.

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