A Primate's Memoir

by Robert M. Sapolsky. Scribner, 2001. 303 pages.

Kenya, more than any other country in Africa, has a certain glow in the Western imagination. Writers of talent or even genius, from Ernest Hemingway and Isak Dinesen to Beryl Markham, have celebrated its wildlife and its natural beauty, and created a larger-than-life country populated with such archetypal figures as the noble Masai warrior, the great white hunter, and the intrepid scientist. Even the Mau Mau rebellion and the country's eventual independence failed to shatter the golden myth, and Kenya's durable status as the continent's most popular safari destination has helped keep the myth alive, as Western tourists come to witness the herds of wildebeest and the Masai with their spears and scarlet robes.

A book like A Primate's Memoir, which deftly dismantles many of these cherished myths, is long overdue. In providing it, Robert Sapolsky has produced one of the funniest books ever written about Africa -- a book whose humor, unlike that of potential rivals such as Peter Biddlecombe's French Lessons in Africa, doesn't depend on the easy exercise of poking fun at foreign customs from the viewpoint of a comfortable visitor.

A Primate's Memoir is also one of the few books on Africa to deal intelligently with both the continent's wildlife and its human inhabitants. Sometimes, in fact, the distinction seems to disappear. Each section of the book begins with a chapter on the colony of baboons that Sapolsky studied over the course of twenty years. Even those of us who accept that chimpanzees and gorillas have personalities may find it startling to be told that a baboon he calls Obadiah "looked like a dissipated fin de siècle Viennese neurotic" or that Rebecca, daughter of Bathsheeba, "lacked the classic looks of her mother, but had a fresh baboon-next-door quality to her." But while we are being entertained we are also learning how baboons handle stress (the initial subject of his research), as well as how they play, hunt, choose their mates, and struggle for status.

Sapolsky learned a great deal about what motivates baboons, or how typical baboons will behave in certain situations. But every so often a baboon would do something completely unpredictable. Male baboons, for instance, will protect their own children, or at least those with a reasonable chance of being their own children -- a calculation that requires some brainpower, as female baboons may mate with different males at different times when they are more or less fertile. But when two young baboons were threatened by a lion, these considerations made no difference to a male named Benjamin. Although "there was no way in hell either of these kids was his," Benjamin faced down the attacker, "yelling, threat-grunting ... snarling like a lunatic," until the lion retreated. Benjamin, understandably, was one of the author's favorite baboons, but Sapolsky is just as frank about characters such as the "mean, stupid, and untalented" Nebuchanezzar, who liked to snatch infant baboons from their mothers.

In writing about the people he encounters in Africa, Sapolsky exhibits the same mixture of skepticism and admiration that he shows in his field research. Regarding the Masai, his neighbors in the field, he doesn't so much attempt to demythologize as to add perspective to the usual picture. When his research began, young Masai men still had to kill a lion with a spear to become warriors, and "wedding parties still always featured big tureens of coagulated cow's blood for dessert." But Sapolsky is frank about drunkenness among Masai men, and pauses to reflect on the fact that warrior nomads are less popular among more peaceful farming peoples than they were to the romance-seeking British settlers.

Taking a swipe not only at those settlers but at the modern-day expatriates who have followed them, Sapolsky notes that today's tour operators "follow the grand British tradition in Kenya Colony, which was to instantly become alcoholic adulterers and, worse, insufferably boring popinjays." He is impatient with the legend of the great white hunters, many of whom responded to bans on hunting by becoming game wardens and safari operators. "I definitely don't have any careful statistics on the subject -- how many became conservationists, how many simply liked blowing away animals, what percentage really did manage to look taciturn and handsome at dawn on the savanna. I'm just clearly not crazy about the whole scene."

To his credit, Sapolsky is perfectly willing to poke fun at himself, especially at the ignorant, idealistic, semi-hippie from New York City that he was when he first appeared on the savanna. He catalogues his qualifications for field research in Africa point by point, noting that in addition to having read a great number of books he had "backpacked extensively in the Catskill Mountains" and even "managed to make a campfire once, allowing me to melt my Velveeta cheese on my crackers, instead of eating them cold, as was my typical meal on a backpacking trip." In Kenya he subsists on a diet of rice, beans, and canned mackerel.

Like many of the funniest books, this one has a hidden core of grief and rage. In this case the grief stems from a preventable tragedy that befell his baboons, and the rage is at those who were responsible. Sapolsky's animus for the tourist industry is more understandable when we discover the role of a local game lodge in what happened. The heartbreaking finale of the book attests to the author's love for Kenya and for the primate relatives who accepted him as an honorary savanna baboon.

From A Primate's Memoir:

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 light bulbs, 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 otherwise likely to become 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.