Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

I was 128 pages into this one when I realized something horrible, and 183 pages in when I decided to do something about it.

What was the horrible thing? It was that this book, billed to me on NPR and in its jacket copy as “an exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya,” was, in fact, not very much about baboons at all.

And what did I decide to do about it? I decided to go back and count the pages that actually talk about the behavior of baboons. There are 61 out of 304, or 20%. That’s not very much information about baboons in a book that is supposed to be about baboons.

So what else is here? What fills the 243 pages or 80% of the book that is not about baboons? The most prevalent subject, it turns out, is not Sapolsky’s baboons, but Sapolsky himself. Sapolsky and his supposedly wacky adventures in Africa. Evidently the titular primate is not a papio cynocephalus but a homo sapien.

Except his wacky adventures don’t seem exactly wacky to me.

One child does not accompany him, however, as that one got some sort of fever and encephalitis during his first rainy season, so far as I can reconstruct, and was left a hydrocephalic monster with the neurological reflexes of a newborn. Rhoda and her husband spent god knows how many months’ salary to buy an absurd, poignant British perambulator, circa 1940, that now sits in the mud and cow-dung house, the swaddled bug-eyed head of the kid peering out from it, moaning chronically.

Rhoda and her husband are people, and evidently so is their “hydrocephalic monster” child, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Sapolsky’s account of them. He seems so intent on presenting himself as an aloof observer, dispensing snark in equal portion to all comers, that he manages to dehumanize everyone he comes into contact with and himself in the bargain.

Here, he talks about the sights one is likely to see on the streets of war-torn Nairobi.

Around noon, I discovered the current disadvantages of being a naked man in Nairobi. The place had always had a disproportionate share of naked people in the streets--it had always struck me that when people in Nairobi who were not that many generations (or even years) removed from the bush had their occasional psychotic breaks, the first addled thing they would do was toss off all their Western clothes. (Years later, my clinical psychologist wife, in her conversations with Kenyan colleagues, would confirm my impression that this was indeed a common event.) So Nairobi had always had more than its share of ranting and raving naked men and had treated them with a certain aplomb. Now it meant trouble. Many of the air force rebels had taken refuge in Nairobi buildings and alleyways, when their triumph had come up short. The lucky ones would find someone to waylay--kill the guy, steal his civilian clothes, and slip into the crowd with his identity card in their teeth. Those not so fortunate were all independently reaching the same odd conclusion--dump the air force clothes and make a run for it naked. Every few hours an air force desperado would make his nude run and be gunned down by an army unit, and it was around noon that I got to see my first street execution. Army flatbed trucks intermittently rumbled through with naked corpses. They stopped for traffic lights in a way that was both incongruous and calming, leading to an odd air of normalcy.

I really struggled with his tone. I couldn’t figure it out, and eventually came to resent it and him. Does nothing rattle this guy? Did it bother him to see these horrific things? If not in the affected now of his writing desk, then at least at the time when the raw and ruthlessness of it all rubbed up against him? It was impossible to tell, so intent as he seemed to be in maintaining his pose of the smart-aleck American, of Bill Murray playing John Winger in Stripes.

Every once in a great while, the feeling human being that Sapolsky must have been comes peeking through, like in this paragraph at the end of a particularly harrowing experience when he is more or less kidnapped and starved by a group of Somali truckers, and then rescued by a Ugandan with fresh fruit tucked under his seat.

I may live to be a very old man someday, a lifetime filled with thoughts and emotions and sensations. But no matter how many of those experiences pile up, I will always look back with incredible pleasure and gratitude for the next instant. I bit into the mango, tasted the juice, and my eyes filled with tears, as I felt safe for the first time in many days.

But these tastes of humanity are “not earned,” as my college Creative Writing professor would have explained. Sprinkled like fresh ground pepper on the salad of condescension and forced witticism he is otherwise serving, they don’t make a lasting impression on one’s literary palate.

Finally, after a while, it seemed like Sapolsky was deliberately tormenting me.

I was in a real crappy mood. It had started off as a fabulous morning with the baboons. Young Daniel [Sapolsky has given most of the baboons he studied biblical names], prematurely in the alpha position because of the ongoing instability in the troop’s hierarchy, was being pushed around badly by huge Nathanial, and I thought this was the morning that their ranks were going to switch, that Nathanial would finally make his decisive move. This is a big deal to a primatologist, actually seeing the transition from one alpha male to another--witness to history. Daniel had spent the morning ostentatiously repositioning himself each time Nathanial came near, so as not to have to see him, presumably trying to will him out of existence. Nat, meanwhile, was inching in closer and closer, threat-yawning all over the place. Showdown was in the air, and I was avidly waiting to see if Daniel was going to fold and simply give a subordinate gesture, signaling the transition, or if it was going to take a decisive fight in which he’d be trashed.

Right when things were getting pretty exciting I had to leave. It was time to drive to the tourist lodge, to meet the supply lorry from Nairobi, as it was carrying an essential shipment of the dry ice that I needed to keep my blood samples frozen. So I had to miss all the fun.

Sapolsky’s disappointment here had truly become mine. I was much more interested in the baboons than in his endlessly sardonic stories about all the nutjobs that he was meeting in Africa.

Driving out of the lodge through thorn bushes, I get my third puncture of the week. This is always a misery. First you go to the guy who repairs punctures. Instead of being on the job at the lodge’s gas station, he is back in the staff quarters somewhere, sleeping. Head back there, go through the same interchange with the twenty different people you run into, namely first exchanging news with each about the health of their parents and my then reiterating that, no, actually I can’t give you my hiking shoes, as I need them. Tire repair guy is located, and after ninety minutes of easily distracted labor, he has fixed the puncture. He gives me a stub, which I take to the cashier at the other end of the lodge, who fills out a note saying “1 puncture, 40 shillings,” which the other man signs, which allows me to pay the cashier--all a procedure to keep the mechanic from repairing things under the table and pocketing the money. The cashier goes on a search for scrap paper to calculate that I get 10 shillings back from my 50 shilling note, and I’m ready for the next step: taking the tire to the other end of camp, to find the man who operates the air hose. He, naturally, is drunk in the bar at 11:00 A.M. and, with some effort, explains that he would be happy to fill the tire, but his brother has the key to the shed in which the hose is kept, and he is on leave this week. Bad luck. I express profound regret at the apparent need for me to now live in the lodge’s gas station for the next week, and the man, seeing his cue, says maybe, just maybe, he could find another key, but why don’t I sell him my watch at the good American price? We settle for his receiving a button that says “Hollywood Bowl,” and, satisfied, he turns his prodigious energies toward filling my tire, completing the task in a mere half hour. The man with the pressure gauge to determine whether the tire is filled properly is found easily, and quickly does the job, making me feel as if there might be some hope. The tire is underfilled, however. Fed up, I decide to go with that, rather than track down Bwana Airhose again, he no doubt back at the bar trying to flog his Hollywood Bowl button for a drink.

But no, they’re not really nutjobs, are they? They are, I realize at about this point in Sapolsky’s narrative, products of a culture foreign to our author, judged and marginalized by his overtly American and privileged lens, and twisted into stereotypes perpetuated by colonialists since the beginning of time. They are shiftless and lazy, aren’t they, Sapolsky?

Our author comes across as a jerk, and might very well be racist. Frankly, I liked the baboons better.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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