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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
    Paperback:
    Mar 2002, 304 pages

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In addition to matriarchs such as Naomi, the troop had some august older males as well. For example, there was Aaron, definitely past his prime, but still a force to be reckoned with. He was decent, quiet, had a lot of affiliative friendships with the females, didn't beat up on anyone too much. He still walked with a limp resulting from his moment with destiny. A few years earlier, Solomon was number 3 in the hierarchy, a young kid on the way up. Aaron was number 2, great shape, on the edge of his primacy, breathing down the neck of the then alpha, someone merely recorded in the archives as Male 203. One memorable morning, Aaron and 203 had their showdown, a stupendous fight that seesawed for hours. And at a critical moment, showing the strategic brilliance that would serve him in good stead for years to come, Solomon entered the fight, ably taking on both while they were preoccupied and exhausted. Result: number 203 dead, Aaron badly injured, Solomon settling in to his reign.

While the troop consisted of sixty-three members in 1979, these were the ones around whom the central events swirled. There were others, of course. Isaac, a young adult male a few years from his prime who was already having the good style to hang out with Rachel's family. Poor bedraggled Miriam, who had an endless string of colicky kids. The young sisters Boopsie and Afghan, who were so slinky and hypersexual, so salacious in the way that they would present to males by sticking their left foot over the guy's face, that I couldn't bring myself to give them matriarchal names from the Good Book.

It was during my first season in the troop that time no longer stood still for Solomon, that the inevitable shadow of mortality finally took form as Uriah. Uriah was a young kid, big as a barn, who transferred into the troop that spring and without any regard for precedent, for history, for the powers of intimidation, went about overthrowing Solomon. I've always suspected that Uriah was simply too dim to be intimidated by a stylist like Solomon, to appreciate the almost Oriental minimalism with which Solomon sent waves of nervous displacements, controlled the flow of tubers, matings, groomings. Uriah bowled over Joshua and Benjamin, quickly defeated Aaron, Isaac, some of the other big males. On one audacious morning while Solomon was consorting with the estrual Devorah, Uriah stepped between them and attempted to mate with her. Solomon had his first fight in years. Solomon trashed Uriah, gave him a deep canine slash to the shoulder, ripped his upper lip, sent him running with a fear grimace and his tail up in the air (the baboon equivalent of the tail between the legs). And then the next morning, Uriah challenged Solomon all over again.

Over and over it went throughout the spring, Uriah repeatedly being defeated and, apparently incapable of detecting a pattern, coming back again and again. He'd threat-yawn in Solomon's face, fight him over a carcass, scare away females when they groomed Solomon. Getting thrashed repeatedly. And slowly, he was wearing Solomon down. The latter was losing weight, looking more punchy in each fight. When male baboons fight, they lunge at each other openmouthed, flailing with the knife-sharp canines that are longer than those of adult lions. One morning, for the first time, Solomon backed up as the two fenced in this way. This was the first time he had ever given up ground, even for an instant. He ultimately won the fight, but got a facial slash in the process. More challenges, more time spent looking over his shoulder. Uriah was the nightmare of those who age -- an opponent too young to know yet what fatigue feels like. One afternoon, between fights with Uriah, Solomon was challenged by another high-ranking male, who, two months earlier, shrank before Solomon's gaze. Solomon won, but it involved more fencing and a sustained chase where the male reversed on him a few times. The threads were unraveling.

Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Sapolsky.

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