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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Eventually, Ruth had to settle for Joshua, a young lanky kid who had transferred into the troop the year before. Quiet kid, didn't make trouble, had a serious, unflappable look about him. Masturbated a lot in the bushes. By October 1978, Joshua had developed a crush on Ruth, who was none too pleased. For two months he pursued her ardently. He'd lope after her and she'd run away with her adrenaline twitches. He'd sit next to her and she'd get up. He'd groom her carefully, pulling ticks off of her, and she'd scoot off the second he'd stop, to go moon around some hunk male. Once, while she preened and presented to Aaron, Joshua sat watching and got an erection.

Such shows of male devotion occasionally do move even the most crazed of adolescent female baboons, and by December, Joshua was with her constantly during her estrus swellings. They were not particularly adept at the whole business, and even years later, Ruth's incredible nervousness when any male actually did attempt to approach her had probably cut into her reproductive success considerably. Nevertheless, in May, she gave birth to Obadiah.

This was one weird-looking kid. He had a narrow head and long stringy hair that formed an elongated wing in the rear; he looked like a dissipated fin de siècle Viennese neurotic. Ruth was a nervous wreck of a mother, retrieving him when he got two steps from her, scampering off with him whenever another female approached. Joshua turned out to be a rarity among male baboons, a superb, devoted father. This actually makes sense to people who worry about such things. Your average female -- more desirable than Ruth but less so than Devorah -- will mate with perhaps five or six different males over the week of her estrus. A low-ranking guy on the first day, when she is least likely to be ovulating. By a day later, he's forced away by someone higher ranking, and so on, until a very high ranking male (perhaps the alpha) is with her on her peak day. Thus, five months later if a kid shows up, all anyone can do is get out his calculator and decide that he has a 38 percent chance of being the father. Expect no help from him in that case. In the case of Joshua, however, the sole suitor of Ruth for her months of young, blushing estrus swellings, he was 100 percent sure. To use the harsh economic terms of sociobiologists, it was in his evolutionary interests to parentally invest in the kid.

He carried Obadiah around when Ruth was tired, helped him climb up trees, nervously stood by him when lions were spotted. There was a hint of overprotection, perhaps; Joshua clearly didn't understand child play. Obadiah would be in there wrassling with his buddies, having a fine time, when Joshua would suddenly pounce into the center, defending his child from his menacing playmates, bowl the kids over, tossing them every which way. Obadiah would look confused, perhaps the nonhuman equivalent of the excruciating embarrassment kids feel when parents prove how lame they are. The kids would run screaming to their moms, who'd give Joshua grief, even chase him at times. But he never learned. Years later, when he was the alpha male, Joshua would still be breaking up Obadiah's adolescent wrestling matches with his friends.

Around the same time that Joshua joined the troop, Benjamin showed up. They were contemporaries, although Joshua came from the troop on the eastern mountain, and Benjamin came from the troop on the Tanzanian border. Still just emerging from my own festering adolescent insecurities, I had a difficult time not identifying utterly with Benjamin and his foibles. His hair was beserko. Unkempt, shocks of it sticking out all over his head, weird clumps on his shoulders instead of a manly cape that is supposed to intimidate your rivals. He stumbled over his feet a lot, always sat on the stinging ants. He had something odd going on with his jaw so that every time he yawned, which was often, he had to adjust his mouth manually, pull his lips and cheeks back over his canines. He didn't have a chance with the females, and if anyone on earth had lost a fight and was in a bad mood, Benjamin would invariably be the one stumbling onto the scene at the worst possible moment. One day, early in that first year in the troop, I was observing Benjamin. When collecting behavioral data, you pick someone randomly (so as not to bias the data by picking only those who are doing something exciting), and follow him for an hour, recording every behavior. It was midday, and two minutes into the sample, Benjamin took a nap under a bush. An hour later, at the end of that riveting sample, everyone had moved off. When he awoke, he didn't know where the troop was, and neither did I. We were lost together. I stood on the roof of the Jeep and scanned with my binoculars. We looked at each other. I finally spotted them, little black specks a few hills over. I drove off slowly, he ran after me, happy ending. After that, he would sit next to me when I worked on foot, sit on the bonnet of the Jeep when I worked out of the vehicle. It was around then that I decided he was my favorite baboon and bestowed upon him my favorite name, and everything he ever did subsequently reinforced that feeling. Many years later, long after he is gone, I still keep his picture with me.

Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky.

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