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Memórias de um Primata

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In the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Robert Sapolsky, a foremost science writer and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, tells the mesmerizing story of his twenty-one years in remote Kenya with a troop of Savannah baboons.

“I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla,” writes Robert Sapolsky in this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist’s coming-of-age in remote Africa.

An exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya, A Primate’s Memoir interweaves serious scientific observations with wry commentary about the challenges and pleasures of living in the wilds of the Serengeti — for man and beast alike. Over two decades, Sapolsky survives culinary atrocities, gunpoint encounters, and a surreal kidnapping, while witnessing the encroachment of the tourist mentality on the farthest vestiges of unspoiled Africa. As he conducts unprecedented physiological research on wild primates, he becomes evermore enamored of his subjects — unique and compelling characters in their own right — and he returns to them summer after summer, until tragedy finally prevents him.

By turns hilarious and poignant, A Primate’s Memoir is a magnum opus from one of our foremost science writers.


First published January 1, 2001

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About the author

Robert M. Sapolsky

31 books3,646 followers
Robert Morris Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinology researcher and author. He is currently a professor of biology, and professor of neurology and neurological sciences and, by courtesy, neurosurgery, at Stanford University. In addition, he is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 878 reviews
Profile Image for Megan.
40 reviews2 followers
August 20, 2010
Read this This is coming from a right-brained person who never would have given this book a second glance had it not been forced on her by a friend. It's an irreverent and thoughtful tale of a neuroscientist's years observing a tribe of baboons in Kenya to learn about their social hierarchy and resulting stress levels. I loved it for its ability to make you relate to a tribe of alternately loving, back-stabbing, calculating, snobby, inclusive baboons like you would family; the fact that Sapolsky gets across the gist of his research without too obviously dumbing it down even though he obviously had to dumb it down; and the fact that I cried like a baby for an ancient, farting baboon named Isaac at the end. It's one of the most human books I've read in a long time, which is funny since humans are rarely mentioned and the ones that are are blood-drinking warriors. It's a beautiful book.
Profile Image for Bharath.
643 reviews475 followers
May 2, 2019
I read Robert Sapolsky’s ‘Behave’ recently and really liked it for its tremendous insights on human behaviour. And so, as a recently turned fan of his writing, I looked up his other books and chose "A Primate’s Memoir”. This book however is more about his experiences in Africa to study baboons, and not a deep science read like ‘Behave’. This book is interesting in its own way – Sapolsky combines humour while narrating his experiences very well.

Robert Sapolsky has this strong urge to study baboons in their natural surroundings and welcomes a break from lab work. He goes to Kenya (to the bush near Serengeti) and studies a baboon troop closely over several years. He personalises the experience very well – each baboon has a name, and their behaviours are described in ways we can easily relate to. There is a social hierarchy among the baboons and power is attained by the Alpha male after being tested & accepted by the rest of the troop. There is a lot of interesting information on male – female pairing, aggression, emotions and other behaviours. To study the impact of hierarchy and events on baboons parameters, he goes around shooting anaesthetic darts at the baboons and taking blood samples. This becomes more and more difficult as the baboons start looking out for him and recognise the dart gun.

There are large portions of the book on Sapolsky’s experiences with the local Masai tribes, local culture, corruption and conflicts. His interaction with the local tribes makes for great reading. He also makes trips to Uganda when Idi Amin’s regime falls, survives the aftermath of a coup attempt and makes a difficult trip to Sudan. He critically examines the legacy of Dian Fossey (I did not know about her story earlier), though in a mature way. There is a situation he covers towards the end of the book where a few baboons contract tuberculosis, and he finds it frustrating in battling a corrupt system to save the baboons.

Sapolsky explains his fascination with studying the brain to the fact that his father suffered from brain disease. This is the portion I was uncomfortable with in ‘Behave’ as well, but the issue comes more directly in this book. Sapolsky briefly relates how lab animals live miserable lives – confined and put through great cruelty causing them acute pain & suffering (sometimes for nothing). He goes on to mention that he did not see an alternate to this with the larger good in mind. I do not think this is adequate examination of a very serious issue. There are some tragic incidents as part of his darting experiences as well, however careful he tries to be.

I recommend this for the absorbing writing of his experiences, description of baboon behaviour and new cultures. I found ''Behave’ to be more impressive, but then, just maybe my expectations were too high after reading it first.

Also, this is my first audiobook! I do admit to struggling with it a bit though – I found it more difficult to focus – I was more prone to distraction, and had to invest more time in completing the book (in comparison to reading). However, there are surely other obvious advantages and hope to get better at listening to my next audiobook.

My rating: 4.25 / 5.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,277 followers
May 16, 2016
This book has been one of the many unread books sitting on my shelves and mocking me over the years. I had heard such good things about it, and the subject seemed so congenial to my interests, that I was excited to some day crack it open; but other books, seemingly more vital and pressing, kept popping up. Finally, I’ve burned through it; but I’m afraid the book didn’t quite justify the long anticipation.

In his autobiography, George Santayana writes: “Ghastly are those autobiographies that contain nothing but old jokes and old anecdotes,” and this book comes dangerously close to matching that description. Make no mistake: this is not a work of science; it is not even popular science. It is hardly even fitting to call this book a memoir, as it consists of little more than a series of anecdotes, loosely strung together. Sapolsky’s main goal is neither to educate nor to reveal, but to entertain.

At this, he is quite successful. Sapolsky has both a large store of outlandish experiences, and a winsome way of putting them into words. Every time the reader thinks that Sapolsky can’t possibly have any more good stories, he effortlessly comes up with three more, each more absurd than the last. These stories are mostly of ineptitude: the white American finding his way in the bush, the sheltered scientist getting wise to the ways of the world, the rash young man making foolish decisions, the misunderstandings between different ethnic groups, the collision of old and new ways of living, the country bumpkin in the city, the city slicker in the country, and so on and so forth. It is a parade of farce: when Sapolsky isn’t making some kind of foolhardy mistake, somebody else is.

At first, this is all very fine; but it gets grating by about the halfway point. It feels too much like hearing your college buddy, who went on an exotic study abroad trip, tell you about all the cool things he did: fun for five minutes, dull for fifteen. Part of the reason so many of these stories got tiresome was because Sapolsky relied on too many clichéd tropes: the brainy scientist who can’t tie his own shoes; the pure, untamed African savanna; the stubborn but noble Maasai people; the comical African yokels who don’t understand technology; the clueless, tasteless tourists; corrupt third-world bureaucracies. I’m not saying that Sapolsky wasn’t telling the truth; but he is overly attracted to the types of stories which fill up trite travel books.

The only thing which serves to offset these entertaining, but uninteresting, stories, was Sapolsky’s scientific work among the baboons. This starts off strong, as Sapolsky describes setting up camp, getting into the routine, learning to anesthetize baboons with a blowgun, naming his baboons after figures in the Bible. He does a fine job of making the reader interested in the lives of his subjects; but then, after only a few dozen pages, the baboons drop out of the picture, only making a major reappearance in the closing chapter.

When they do reappear in the end, however, the book redeems itself. In the beginning of the final chapter, Sapolsky writes: “I have tried throughout this book to give some attention to the style of writing, to try to shape some of these stories. Here I will not try.” If only he had done that the whole time! I will not spoil the final chapter; but I will say that it was orders of magnitude better than every other in the book. Here, Sapolsky drops the fun-loving, bumbling, naïve persona he adopts during his anecdotes, and emerges as a real, round person. The writing ceases to be cute, and becomes sincere and affecting. And we even get a decent dose of science!

The problem with this book is that it should really have been two books: one about the baboons, and one about himself. Trying to weld them together makes for a disjointed and disappointing work: we learn little about either the science or the man. For as soon as Sapolsky threatens to delve into his research—which promised to be fascinating, as he studied both baboon behavior and the neurology of stress—he backs off, as if afraid to scare the reader. But as soon as Sapolsky comes close to revealing what he is like himself, he backs away, too, into the land of jokes and anecdotes, the domain of harmless fun. Sapolsky takes everything potentially serious or challenging and removes it, leaving only the bubble gum of his life. This is a shame, because, as we find out when he finally drops the act, he is a fascinating man.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
621 reviews2,033 followers
December 9, 2014
OMG. Sapolsky is an absolute treasure. His books and lectures are quirky, irreverent, funny as hell, brilliant, informative and utterly original.

His Stanford course on behavioral neurobiology (see it for free on YouTube) is a masterpiece. I have watched the entire thing (it's like 36 hours long total) at least 3 times. And I'm fixing to watch it again in preparation for the affective psychology course I'm about to teach.

As a psychology lecturer, I'd be green with envy if I was in the same species as him. But Sapolsky's in a class of his own. I do my best to ape his lecture style, but how ever good at it I get (which is not very) I'm afraid my lectures will always be a pale simulacrum.

Simply put. He's a fuckin genius. My only gripe with him is that he doesn't write enough. I would kill for a new Sapolsky text.

As should be obvious by now, I really love Robert Sapolsky's work. So why did I wait so long to read this book? Because it's a memoir and I typically can't tolerate them. No good reason. I just don't like them. With the exception of this one.

By the end of the book you feel real sense of kinship for Sapolsky and his baboons. He does a marvelous job of closing the empathy gap by rendering the baboons and the people (including himself) in endearing but strangely unsentimental terms. I don't want to spoil the book, but I will say that you really care about the lil guys by the end of it.

If you're a Sapolsky fan (or even if you're not and you just want a terrifically funny and interesting book to read) this thing should be your next read. I feel like I understand the guy and his work so much better now. For the life of me I can't figure out why I waited so long to read it, but I'm really glad I did.

Five stars!!!!
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,537 followers
July 30, 2016
A fascinating and entertaining read about an idealistic young naïve man raised in New York City takes to the savannahs of Kenya to study baboons and how he matured through his decades there in the 70s and 80s through experiences with both the animals and the people. As a child he was enamored by the dioramas at the museum and later by the romanticism and dedication of scientists like Jane Goodall. However, instead of chimps or gorilla his interest in the contribution of position in a social hierarchy to stress and disease led him to study of the more accessible and less lovable baboons. Monkeys with a lot more aggression and rigidity in their dominance hierarchy, with less cooperativity and altruism, and more of the element of enslavement to the hormone estrous cycles controlling sexual behavior.

His stories constantly impose a human frame of reference to primate society he comes to know so well. This is a separate issue from his science, which is not the major focus here. He can’t resist giving them personal names and admiring or reviling the personalities of individuals. The nobility of Saul and his stable, benign dictatorship as alpha, and the vicious or incompetent regime of others who followed. The charming friendship of Ruth with a lower ranking male, Benjamin, who seems uninterested in becoming top dog. Conversely, his reflections on the Masai and Kipsagi tribesmen near the national park that he interacts with and befriends and on the truckers, beggars, government officials, and scam artists he encounters on trips to Nairobi or hitchhiking trips to neighboring Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda are subject to comparisons with his baboon society.

The mix of tales about baboons and human society makes for a lively and often poignant or funny tour of primate nature with Sapolsky’s own development as an overriding theme. The many vignettes and essays on particular topics are organized into the following sections: Adolescent Years, Subadult Years, Tenuous Adulthood, and Adulthood. Usually he is self-deprecating and humble, but other times he is sweeping in his critical outlook on the character of tribal groups, classes of workers, or individual personalities. That is somewhat the same contradictory perspective I get out of the travel writings of Theroux. But here there is more self-analysis and reaching for insight about the human condition.

For example, he recounts many cases where he is subject to shakedowns and scams. But he becomes more forgiving after he himself has to resort to subterfuge and theft to survive when his graduate advisors fail at one point to send him funds from his fellowship. At another point he learns that the park rangers are killing game like zebras and selling the meat, but his judgement is modified after learning how the government has been failing to meet their payroll. His biggest showdown over corruption comes when he gets involved with addressing a plague of tuberculosis among the baboons and learns its origin is from the baboons eating infected cattle refuse at the dump site of a tourist lodge. He is helpless to intervene with the guilty Masai individuals selling the cows, the lodge butcher making a profit from the cheap meat, and the bribed inspector because the government couldn’t countenance the bad press and impact that an expose would have on the ecotourism economy.

Sapolski’s writing style is sometimes transcendent and leaps off the page. For example, at one point he is suffering from diarrhea in the middle of the night:
During one wave, I suddenly found myself cramped over in front of my tent stark naked, painful, liquid acidic craps, and the humiliation of it all, surrounded by six elephants, quiet, quizzical, polite, murmuring, almost soliticitous, their trunks waving in the air investigating my actions and moans. They watched my agonized shitting as it were an engrossing, silent Shakespearean tragedy performed in the round.

In another section about his early inspiration and later disillusionment with the work of Dian Fossey, he ends with his responses upon visiting her grave among those of gorillas at the research station in mountainous reserve in Rwanda:
Fossey, FOSSEY, you cranky difficult strong-arming self-destructive misanthrope mediocre scientist, deceiver of earnest college students, probably cause of more deaths of the gorillas than if you never set foot in Rwanda. Fossey, you pain-in-the-ass saint, I do not believe in prayers or souls, but I will pray for your soul, I will remember you for all my days, in gratitude for that moment by the graves when all I felt was the pure cleansing sadness of returning home and finding nothing but ghosts.

In another story, he talks about a trip to Uganda he took in 1979 “to go see the overthrow of Idi Amin.” At first he thinks this impulse has to do with challenging his Quaker ideals of pacifism from college days with the witnessing an undeniably just war, but in retrospect he realizes:
Ah, this is nonsense. I was twenty-one and wanted an adventure. I wanted to scare the shit out of myself and see amazing things and talk about it afterwards. And for the previous month, I had been missing someone badly, and I thought going to a war would make me feel better about it. I was behaving like a late adolescent male primate.

Upon hearing a truck blown up in Kampala he gets quickly cured of his romantic foolishness. When the Tanzanian soldiers in the process of liberating the county assume he is a spy and threaten him with rifles, he is barely saved by a lorry driver’s entreaties. On way back to Kenya he visits the site of the Nile’s origin in an outflow from Lake Victoria and discovers a body suspended in the flow with a rope:
I must remember every detail, so I can tell people about this. I thought, I want to forget this, I want to get the hell out of here, to be home, to be safe. And I stood there, transfixed, unable to move from that spot.
Decades later, in the neurobiology classes I teach, I always spend some lectures on the physiology of aggression. The hormonal regulation of it, the areas of the brain having some influence over it, the genetic components of it. …But somehow, almost embarrassingly, I spend more and more time talking about aggression. I think each year I lecture longer because of that man with his head tied to the dam and because of how long I stood there looking at him, unable to leave. I think it is because of the ambiguity of aggression. It is the most confusing emotion to me, and with the defenses of an academician, I clearly believe that if I lecture about it enough it will give up and go quietly away, its simultaneous attraction and repulsion will stop being so frightening to me.

All in all, a worthwhile excursion to Africa and experience with its peoples and creatures by a scientist learning to become a better human.
Profile Image for Weinz.
167 reviews152 followers
March 29, 2011

Coming from a family complete with calculating betrayal, ruthless treachery, judgmental snobbery, snarled canines and drool I easily was able to identify with Sapolsky’s primate family and his love/hate relationships with them. He’s a storyteller and created engaging anecdotes from his 20 years in Africa completing his thesis.

The memoir is a serious scientific study of baboon troops in Kenya that the writer dumbed down to appeal to the masses. The analytical side of me wanted more of his results and sociological conclusions with less ramblings. More science less cute. I was left craving the science and information that would have allowed more anthropomorphic speculation and social hierarchy theory. How can I compare the primates willing to rip a family member to pieces just to feel superior and copulate with every woman in the troop with my brother if he doesn’t give me all the information?

His ability to humanize these primates and give us a short glimpse into what it was like for him to live on the edge of this family of baboons while dealing with the conflicting culture of blood drinking warriors and Coke diety made it an enjoyable read. Eh.

And p.s. I have a wonderful family that I love… well, most of them.
Profile Image for WhatIReallyRead.
725 reviews507 followers
September 23, 2018
A solid read.

What I expected
A book about baboons and neuroscience. A blend of naturalistic descriptions, biology and scientific findings about the way baboon brain works and how this is relevant to humans.

What it actually was
This was more of a memoir than science book: there was historical and cultural perspective on African tribes and their dynamics as seen by an outsider, and naturalism: descriptions of lives of baboons. And not much in the way of neuroscience or dry facts.

What I liked

About half (or maybe even more) of this book is not about baboons at all. Sapolsky walks us through his journey across several African countries, first as a newbie who falls for every scam and is ripped off by everyone, and later as an insider whom people trust.

He gives a great historical perspective: the impact of colonialism, people's attitude towards former colonialists and tourists, revolutions, corruption, native tribes and their wars with each other, relationships between traditionalists and more globalized urban population, etc. The book spans 1970-1990, so there is a big cultural and historical transition going on there.

I knew very little about Africa, so this was fascinating to me. There was some violence since Sapolsky has witnessed several military coups.

Most interesting were the people. He tells about all kind of people - other animal researchers, tourists, government officials, missionaries, members of warrior tribes, scammers, soldiers, workers... They are very different both culturally and in their perceptions, attitudes, ambitions and beliefs. So many contrasts.

This book also gave great insight into a life of a field biology researcher working in the wild. What it's actually like, day to day. Some of the details were gory, for he had to make autopsies, etc.. Sapolsky is a man in love with his work and it's great to read.

What I didn't like

Some of the things he said were creepy. Like the time he said he imagined darting people, calculating how much drugs it would take, because he was so used to doing such calculations for baboons.

He gave different names to baboons and told their stories, but some of them blended together and I couldn't remember nor care which was which. The same could be said for some human background characters.

I expected there to be more science, more facts and conclusions, but Sapolsky tells stories rather then educates about baboon brain anatomy. Which is fine, but I expected differently.
Profile Image for Sonja Arlow.
1,094 reviews7 followers
May 31, 2019
3.5 stars

I actually wanted to read Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst however as this is a new author to me and that book was quite a hefty one, I decided to rather dip my toes into a shorter book of his…. Enter the baboons.

If anyone told me I would like a book about an American scientist studying baboons in Kenya I would have told them they were bananas.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Yes, he anthropomorphized the troop’s behaviour but that just made it so much easier care about each individual baboon. In fact, it all played out like a daytime soap. Who bit who in the back (literally and figuratively), who is trying to usurp the leader and who is the father of that ugly baby?

This is a mix bag of a story, not necessarily a science writeup, nor just a memoir or travelogue, I think the author’s main aim was to entertain. And he did that in spades.

But I didn’t just walk away with a few chuckles, I learned a lot about baboon behaviour, the history of the Masai as well as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda along the way.

Having witnessed the fall if Idi Amin I can now understand why the author dedicated a big portion of his research on aggression and violence.

Some of his anecdotes were stretched a little thin and he also sometimes went completely off topic but I really enjoyed my time with this book.

It reminded me of Whatever You Do, Don't Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide and Don't Tell Mom I Work on the Rigs: She Thinks I'm a Piano Player in a Whorehouse. So if you like African tales with a healthy dose of humour then this is for you.
Profile Image for Anna.
260 reviews102 followers
February 7, 2018
Entertaining, informative and humorous. It deals equally with the baboons’ antics, anecdotes about the people he encounters, and the history of the region. I liked the description of the baboons’ behaviour and relationships the best.

The writing reminded me of Gerald Durrel’s books about trips to foreign lands to capture strange animals for various zoos, it has the same humorous and self-depracating style.

I enjoyed it, especially because I lived in that part of the world a few years before he started field work in Kenya, and his stories ring true.

Some favourite quotes:

"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."

“Absolom was atypically friendly, spending an inordinate amount of time eyebrow-flashing and face-pulling at all and sundry. With the exception of Benjamin and of Rachel’s family, his greetings were generally ignored. Once, in a particularly adventurous moment, he face-pulled at me; I returned the gesture, clearly a surprise to him that I was conversant in baboon. He face-pulled again, I reciprocated, and we established an almost daily interspecies ritual.”

“Kenya’s first escalator, in a spanking new downtown building. It had become a local attraction, the thing for the young Nairobi swells to do, to hang out and ride the escalator, maybe take your date to it. It came with a large poster board of instructions, caveats, and disclaimers—face forward, one direction only, no goats, not responsible for pregnant women.”
Profile Image for David Sven.
288 reviews448 followers
March 31, 2013
I enjoyed this a lot more than I was expecting. I read it as part of a buddy read to expand my literary palate.

The story is the memoir of American Zoologist Robert Sapolsky, and his life studying baboons in Africa to determine the relationship between stress and disease in humans. The book was very easy reading and Sapolsky's humour was catching as he relates his first experiences as a young, naive, anything is possible, biologist encountering Africa for the first time, to working with the actual baboons, to having to deal with the various surrounding cultures between warring tribes and warring countries and corrupt bureaucracies.

Of course, the baboons were the stars of the book and it was hilarious hearing Sapolsky name them after Biblical figures as a kind of revenge on his Jewish upbringing. We learn the hierarchy of baboons, the endless struggle to be the alpha male, the individual relationships between various couples, coalitions and factions and more. Also hilarious was Sapolski trying to learn how to successfully dart the baboons, his success and failures at stalking etc.

But the baboons are not the only story. We also learn of the people of Africa, the good and the bad. We learn of ancient and not so ancient hostilities and how they affected his work. We learn about the corruption of officials and atrocities of bandits. But we also see a lot of the good, everyday Africans as well. And some of the experiences Sapolski went through were frightening, even though he told them in a humourous way. Like the time he was kidnapped and "doped up" on Coca Cola. maybe the thugs thought the "Coke" in Coca cola would keep him subdued.

Through the book I felt a variety of emotions, from delight at the baboon antics as well as the heart warming generosity of some of the Africans, to outrage at the corruption, indifference and callousness of others, and then the ending was just gut wrenching.

As much as I enjoyed this book whilst I was reading it, Non fiction is still not something I read for pleasure and that is what is reflected in my rating, which is...

3 stars
Profile Image for Diane in Australia.
668 reviews791 followers
May 15, 2018
In 1978, one week after graduating from Harvard, Robert went to Kenya to study social behavior in baboons. He was one of the first to chart the effects of chronic stress on the brain.

Very much a research 'greenhorn', he learns as he goes ... and so does the reader. He grows to love the baboons he studies and his tales of their lives is very engaging. He also tells us about getting to know his neighbours, the Masai. He is humorous, emotional, intelligent, and enthusiastic ... everything you could want in a memoir writer.

3 Stars = I liked the book. I enjoyed it. I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Brenna.
43 reviews2 followers
March 3, 2012
Robert Sapolsky was already on my list of scientists I admire due to his groundbreaking research on chronic stress and its role in disease. But this memoir propelled him to the upper ranks of my personal heroes. I was so moved by Sapolsky’s subject matter and his sensitive and emotional handling of it that I literally wept when I finished the book. I think my reaction freaked out James a bit when he came home from work to find me bawling on the sofa, but when I was enough under control again to summarize the book for him, he also got a bit misty.

“A Primate’s Memoir” covers Sapolsky’s scientific career, from his days as a grad student to his emergence as an eminent principal investigator running his own lab at Stanford. His central research question is the role of chronic stress on health – is it a contributing factor in disease and does it ultimately decrease longevity? To investigate this, he studied a troop of wild baboons in Kenya to figure out their social hierarchy, supposing that those at the lowest end of the social totem pole are subject to chronic stress – a fair assumption, as baboons vent their frustrations on each other in a hierarchical manner. The ones at the lowest end of the hierarchy live in constant fear of attack by the alphas whenever something doesn’t go their way. So Sapolsky made behavioral observations of the baboons, then captured individuals so he could take blood samples to measure their levels of stress hormones. The process of capturing dangerous wild baboons involved using a blowgun to shoot darts of anesthetic at them, grabbing the downed baboon to protect him from others in the tribe who might take advantage, and collecting samples as hygienically as possible in a mobile lab run out of a Jeep in the African bush. And he did this for years all by himself. I’m seriously in awe – Sapolsky is a badass!

Part if the charm of the story is that Sapolsky from the get-go breaks an important rule of scientific objectivity: instead of giving the baboons “boring” numerical designations, he gives them all Biblical names, Nebuchadnezzar, Saul, Benjamin, Rachel, Bathsheba, etc. He comes to know them as individuals. Considering that they are such social animals, and intelligent primates, his anthropomorphism of his subjects doesn’t seem to be a stretch at all. They become the central characters in Sapolsky’s story, their lives a strange and entertaining soap opera.

I really can’t rave enough – this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It has everything: a great cast of characters, including Sapolsky himself, his wife, his friends and neighbors in Africa, and of course, the baboons. There are funny cross-cultural anecdotes of Sapolsky’s life in Africa, the trial and error of becoming a scientist, hilarious and heartwarming stories about his baboons, and through it all, philosophical ruminations on what it means to be human.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews345 followers
October 27, 2022
2005, first read: A-, maybe B+. I liked it, but it's faded fast.

Inadvertent reread, late 2022. OK book, I didn't remember much of it and his "jokey" style gets old. Still, pretty good memoir by the baboon biology guy.
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,945 followers
January 8, 2009
If you ever doubt that we humans share an ancestor with other primates, just read a bit about the behavior of male baboons! You may recognize your husband, president, son, or even yourself.

Over a period of twenty years, Robert Sapolsky spent about three months of every year in Kenya observing the same baboon troop. He darted the male baboons with sedatives at different times and took blood samples to see what experiences caused the greatest production of stress hormones. (Couldn't do the females because of pregnancy and nursing.) He became very attached to this troop of baboons as his "friends" over the years, and gave them Old Testament names to tell them apart.

So anyway, that's why he was there. But some of the most interesting and hilarious reading is really about the people he met from many different tribes and different nearby countries he visited. Absolutely fascinating variations in customs and beliefs and attitudes toward outsiders.

The author took a lot more risks than I'd ever take as a female alone, and found himself in some pretty scary situations, often with the real possibility of death! He also found many reasons to laugh and scratch his head in wonderment. The Coca-Cola Devil thing was the weirdest thing I've ever heard! There seemed to be no purpose for what they were doing to him. Must've been smoking crack.

I found the last chapter difficult to get through simply because of the subject matter, but it was an important part of his work. The autopsy of the diseased baboon was a gagfest! His powers of description were just a little too good.

The organization of the book is a little wonky due to the long time period he covers, but otherwise very enjoyable reading.
Profile Image for KatieSuzanne.
548 reviews8 followers
November 3, 2008
I loved this book! I loved it and then I loved it even more. It is written so well and has a little bit of everything in it. There's really cool science, history, humor, and more, all written in a way that anyone can understand and follow. I found myself reading out load to friends the chapter about the man who was a machine. That part still makes me laugh and the end made me cry like a baby. Then I reread the end and cried some more. I think if I was having a kid or buying a dog anytime soon I'd find myself wanting to name him Benjamin.
For me it was like an African version of Desert Solitaire and it made me feel the same way when I was reading it. It was written in such a similar style and organized the same. Sometimes it felt like I was reading his diary and other times it was like a letter written directly to me. I wouldn't say everyone is going to love this book, but most will. It easily made it onto my all time favorites list and I might even read it again someday, a rare thing for me. In fact I already want to read it again right now.
Profile Image for Rebecka.
1,114 reviews83 followers
November 11, 2015
This is a highly amusing, perhaps even too amusing, book. I wouldn't have minded more hard facts and less jokes, because this does end up in the "easy entertainment" camp. (Except for the ending, which is mostly just sad.) The insights into Kenyan corruption, Masai life and hazardous traveling in Africa are all great. The book deals as much with that as it does with baboons.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,452 reviews474 followers
April 23, 2023
One of the best memoirs ever written. Funny as hell, and smart, too.
Profile Image for Berengaria.
408 reviews75 followers
June 6, 2021
"A Primate's Memoir" is a funny, highly entertaining and enlightening account of a hoard of baboons in a national park in Kenya and the young, socially-awkward scientist who studied them for over 20 years while struggling to get along with the local Massai culture.

The scientist (Sapolsky) is constantly confronted with the moral/philosophical dilemma: adapt or stick to principals? He almost always chooses adapting. He's vegetarian living in a heavily meat-eating culture which rejects that idea. So, adapt and eat meat. He's for animal protection, but what do you do when gamekeepers - who are supposed to protect the wild animals from poachers- are the ones poaching because they haven't been paid in two months? Adapt and turn a blind eye. When you know the wife of a high-ranking politician is organising highly illegal but highly profitable elephant-shooting safaris in the park for the idle rich? Adapt and don't send an angry article to the New York Times. Keep your mouth shut. It's the 3rd world after all. It won't help one wink.

Sometimes his adapting seems like cowardice or the desire to hide/avoid conflict at all costs. And maybe he thought he had to (grants, government permission to study the baboons, etc), but it doesn't quite wash in today's climate. (Granted he's describing his experiences in the 70s-80s)

The story turns dark and morbidly medical (read: too much detail if you aren't a doctor/scientist) in the second half when rank incompetence and profit-before-life mentality on the part of local tribespeople leads to a mass outbreak of tuberculosis among the baboons, killing a number of Spolsky's own baboons.

(Hollywood) Actor Christoph Waltz does a fine job as the reader for the German audio book!
Profile Image for Lee.
351 reviews192 followers
April 7, 2013
I cannot remember the last time I read a non-fiction book; it has been a while. So it was with interest when a friend choose this book for a group of us to read. We have a bit of a buddy read group and once a month one of us gets to choose something completely different. The purpose is to get us out of our reading comfort zone.

A Primates memoir is way out of my normal genre, but I have to say I enjoyed the change. I also have to say that I was expecting something completely different to what i got. Born Free or Gorillas in the Mist kind of story seemed obvious, but instead this book is more of a light hearted approach of a scientist cum writer who has set about revisiting his time in Kenya in the seventies. As I began reading the story I was expecting to hear a lot about baboons and how they interacted and what new scientific finds Sapolsky discovered with his intense study. But I guess I did not read the title properly, this isn't just about baboons, its a memoir of Sapolsky.

There is a lot of anecdotal stories in this book, surrounded the basis of the theme; a troop of Baboons that he studies over many years. Some of the side stories are just out there, 'I was wondering around Nairobi when I found an amazing rice shop, but the guy wanted my shoes' and other stories are really quite interesting from an historical point of view. I learnt something about how the Masai fought during World War 2 in africa, I read an interesting tiem spent hitch hiking through Uganda during the fall of Idi Amin, as you do.

But, I kept wanting to go back to the baboons, I was fascinated with the group and the Alpha Male battle, I wanted more of that. So all said and done, I enjoyed it, a great choice to break the Fantasy/SciFi habit. It is a nice easy read. Put it down, pick it up a few days later, no problems. I spent a Sunday morning with a cup of tea in bed finishing it off and that was a luxurious morning.
Profile Image for Erisa.
43 reviews39 followers
January 21, 2018
I love this book! All the stories are immensely interesting, but what I liked most of all is how deeply Sapolsky cares about his baboons, the way he writes about them, with so much affection. He treats them like family. I love it! I will miss reading about them.
Profile Image for Hanne.
223 reviews318 followers
April 14, 2013
There is a way to read this book. It’s difficult in the winter when it’s snowy outside and you really need those five blankets closeby, even though the heating is on maximum. This is an outdoors book. This weekend we had beautiful spring weather, so I put on my walking boots, packed the book, food and water in my backpack and off I went. Then somewhere in the middle of nowhere, with only fields and trees surrounding me, I finished this book. Now, that’s the way to read it!

The baboon parts in the book are amazing! In some ways I like this even better than watching National Geographic, because you’re imagining everything that happens instead of seeing it.
The below scene is my favourite of the entire book. Every time I think about it, there is a gigantic toothpaste-commercial-smile on my face.
It’s about a baboon called Benjamin and I adored him, strange awkward baboon that he is! At one point in the story Benjamin happens to become the alpha-male (yes, it seemed more an accident than anything else).
Then this happens:
"Benjamin was leading a procession as they were coming back at the end of the day along a path and through some bushes. He’s leading the way, proud as hell of himself. But the fact is alpha male baboons do not lead processions because they just joined the troop a couple of years ago and they have no idea where anybody’s processing – the 20-year old matriarchs do.

But Benjamin just happened to be in front of the troop, heading toward the forest, marching along, never looking back. Unbeknownst to him, the matriarch, who’s two steps behind him, veers off into the bushes to the right, and 80 baboons follow her while he continues walking going straight forward. Eventually Benjamin stops, looks back and freaks out. His hair stands up, and he starts his wahoo calling, which is how he spent a large part of his adult life: "Where is everybody?!" And he then has a moment where you know exactly what he’s thinking. He walks over to my Jeep and looks underneath, like — are 60 baboons hiding under there waiting to surprise him?"

This book has been good fun to read, even though I liked the people-stories of this book an awful lot less, especially the parts about these random strangers he sometimes put in. The stories about the people he lived with or closeby were good, but there were too many completely random anecdotes, which in my opinion were hurting the flow of the book. That's also why i kept it on three stars, i kind of wished they put a really good editor on it!
But yes, i'll admit it, I just wanted to read about the baboons!

An additional bonus is the strange looks you get when you head to the library to get this book. Although my story isn’t nearly as much fun as the trouble some others had when lending this book...
Profile Image for Christine.
154 reviews2 followers
February 22, 2008
I thought Sapolsky's writing rode a fine line between hilarity and being just a little too contrived to reach hilarity. However, Contrived or not, he brings home the reality and intrigue of an apparently fearless young man conducting research in a very foreign land. A Primate's Memoir leaves me also riding a line between wanting to move to Africa and become a primatologist who studies savanna baboons, and wanting to cower in my refrigerator next to my insulin, where I probably won't be eaten by army ants. Unfortunately he latches onto words like 'euphoric' and expressions like 'more than a little' and uses them over and over and over again, and this is very annoying, but overall the book was very readable and I'd read more of him in the future.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,388 reviews581 followers
August 8, 2016
Entertaining read. I was expecting a more scientific progression. Although non-fiction animal and bird observation based studies are some of my favorite non-fiction reading, this one was partially just that, but in far greater sense a travelogue/memoir. Robert being the star of the show.

The tone of self enjoyed hilarity upon his own jokes and comparisons, especially his own humongous naivete is about 30% of the total copy. Which has nothing to do with the baboons or the study but about the African experiences. It reminded me of some of the most popular current travelogue best seller fare. Nothing wrong with that, but what I crave in this field of work is nearly the opposite.

Saul, Isaac, Devorah, Bathsheba- all the baboons- I wanted to hear twice as much about them and half as much about Robert. Most readers probably like this balance better.

But even within the proportions I got, the baboon sections were 5 star- even to those who only got numbers and not names.

Reading about African tribes within his contact fields, and his assistants of years after he delegated was also high quality. The state of the countries and their boundaries, the tribal customs clash and especially the disease aspects! Somehow the telling of those within the tra-la-la "ha-ha" mood, like the relating of the impala being eaten alive while he was out darting within a small thorn bush enclave. There's just something in that mood connection that distracted me from the beauty and the core contact with Robert's work. Rather like the black humor used in medicine at times? Not really.

Glad he is still kicking after some of the decisions he has made.
Profile Image for Barb.
287 reviews2 followers
January 25, 2016
A few years ago I received, as a gift, a Great Course lectures series DVD, comprised of 24 lectures titled Biology and Human Behavior: The neurological Origins of Individuality by Stanford professor and MacArthur Foundation "genius" award recipient, Robert Sapolsky. The fact that he is also a reciprient of the Stanford University's Bing Award for Teaching Excellence is not surprising considering that the lectures were very, very good. I liked them so much, especially Sapolsky's droll delivery, that when I came across his book, A Primate's Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa at a used book sale, I snatched it up.

I was surprised to find a different Sapolsky in these pages, from the buttoned up lecturer with a dry humor, this "different animal" was a naive, idealistic, rash youth, in Africa to study stress hormones and social status in a troop of baboons. The book covers 21 years. There is action and boredom and daring, dangerous and hysterically funny adventures. The chapters loosely alternate between individual baboon stories and Sapolsky's hazardous activities in the wilds of West Africa. Although baboons are not endangered and not especially attractive creatures and have some nasty aggressive behaviors, by the end of the book they had my full sympathies. The YOUNG Sapolsky grew on me too.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,370 reviews139 followers
June 26, 2015
The author, a field biologist, recounts many anecdotes and events he participated in from twenty years of study and travel in Africa. A brilliant collection of essays, it uses his study of baboons in Kenya (measuring stress levels among members of various rank in the troop) as a starting point for some broader observations and comments on the African, and human, experience. It gives insight into the proud Masai warrior, the corrupt soldier and Nairobi bureaucrat, the dying breed of the old colonial white game warden, and more.

Because Sapolsky is telling stories from two decades ago, he’s able to capture the tenuous balance between tradition and modernity among many African villagers that probably no longer exists (a bushman’s first elevator ride, the fear that a man with an artificial trach is a robot, the tribal warfare with spears over stolen cows). Beautifully written, confident, hilarious, poignant, witty and wise, this book is like the best work of Oliver Sacks and Eddy L. Harris combined.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,384 followers
November 23, 2012
Nunca havia lido nada do Sapolsky, e adorei seus relatos sobre os babuínos. A maneira como ele passou a estudar o bando, os nomes que deu, como capturava e extraia o sangue dos animais, a vida na África e tudo mais que ele relata. É um conjunto muito gostoso de ler, com um pouco de ciência, bastante sobre comportamento animal, relatos de situações e uma pitada sentimental forte, especialmente ao final.
Profile Image for Arunothia Marappan.
133 reviews105 followers
April 13, 2022
The author narrates stories from his time in Kenya, Africa where he was researching behavioral aspects of Wild Baboons. I absolutely loved his style of writing, his detailed description of the African cities and tribes (presented from his perspective) and his adorable naming/observations of his Baboons! Almost made me feel like I was away in Africa while reading it. Highly recommend the book to all!

PS: Would be interested to hear a native African's opinion on this book.
Profile Image for Ana Reif.
36 reviews
June 9, 2021
No, I do not like it. This book is not about monkeys very much, which is sad because that is absolutely the best part. The rest of it is mostly just this guy complaining about the locals at his research site in Kenya, and i guess it’s supposed to be funny. He has all the smugness of David Sedaris with none of the jokes.
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