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Atlantic Unbound | April 25, 2001
Of Monkeys and Men

Robert Sapolsky talks about his years spent with a troop of baboons—and what they've taught him about people


A Primate's Memoir

A Primate's Memoir
by Robert M. Sapolsky
304 pages, $25

 joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla." So begins Robert Sapolsky's new book, A Primate's Memoir, about the time he spent in Kenya's Serengeti over the past twenty years, researching a troop of baboons. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Sapolsky decided to study the relationship between stress and social hierarchy in primates—Who gets sick from stress-related disease and why?—to see what that could tell us about stress in human beings. The Serengeti baboons, unlike mountain gorillas, were perfect for his research:
Baboons live in big, complex social groups, and the population I went to study lived like kings.... The baboons work maybe four hours a day to feed themselves; hardly anyone is likely to eat them. Basically, baboons have about a half dozen solid hours of sunlight a day to devote to being rotten to each other. Just like our society.... We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress.
But this is no dry academic treatise on observing animals in the wild. Sapolsky gave each baboon a name out of the Old Testament according to its personality, and in his telling, the story of the baboons he's followed so carefully over the years reads almost like a soap opera—albeit a kooky one. Will Solomon ward off the depredations of Uriah and remain king of the troop? Will Bathsheba survive her clash with the vengeful Nebuchanezzar? Will Joshua's love for Ruth be reciprocated? (In this last case, yes. Joshua and Ruth produce Obadiah, whom Sapolsky describes as "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.")

Sapolsky's daily interactions with the baboons center on his quest to dart a baboon a day with anesthetic, so he can take its blood pressure, test its level of cholesterol and stress hormones, and so on. But the baboons have a wily intelligence, and Sapolsky is forced to spend much of his time and ingenuity devising ways to hide his intentions. He takes to wearing what he calls Southern sheriff glasses to hide his eyes. He dons ski masks and Halloween disguises. He camouflages his blow gun as a walking stick. As he writes with his customary verve,
You find yourself, a reasonably well-educated human with a variety of interests, spending hours each day and night obsessing on how to outmaneuver these beasts, how to think like them, how to think better than them. Usually unsuccessfully. Your mind runs wild with unlikely schemes, using hang gliders, hot air balloons, mannequins, being wheeled through the forest hidden in a perambulator.
But the book is about much more than Sapolsky's encounters with the baboons. He writes about his run-ins with local Masai warriors; about life in the African bush, chasing off elephants who tromp through his camp and nibble on his lean-to; and about the changes wrought on the Serengeti by tourism—changes that indirectly result in the deaths of several of his baboons.

Along with his work as a primatologist, Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, where he runs a lab that researches the effects of stress on brain cells. He is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, and is the author of two previous books aimed for a lay audience, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, a look at the science of stress, and The Trouble With Testosterone, essays on various aspects of behavioral biology, including the political and social implications of new discoveries in the field. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.

—Katie Bacon

Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky   

One of the things that sticks in my mind from reading A Primate's Memoir is the antic sense of fun—your descriptions of debating with Masai warriors, the scams you fell prey to, and especially the constantly entertaining interactions among the baboons. Could you talk about what it was like to spend years of your life following the baboons so closely?

I've now spent more than half my life connected with them. It's a funny mixture. It's one of the emotional foundations of who I am. The baboons remain endlessly interesting. Nonetheless, insofar as they're very familiar to me by now, they have somewhat of a family feeling—here I am back with them again, I know how everybody here behaves. The continuity is incredible—the notion that I look at one of these baboons, and I saw her grandmother do something by that same tree twenty-two years ago. Their life history is truncated enough that within twenty years of my life I've seen generations of them, so I can have this epic schlocky novel sort of thing covering four generations of some particular heroic family.

What do you think the baboons think of you?

To the extent that they have any opinion about me, I'm clearly just a pathetically low-ranking baboon. The way I can tell is that there's this gesture that males will give if somebody is about to beat up on them. They make a solicitive gesture with their face to some other male, trying to get him to join in a coalition, as if to say, Can somebody help me out here? And what's clear over the years is that they will try to get me to join, but I am absolutely their last resort. I mean, if nobody else is around, they'll decide I'm worth a try. I think in that regard I count pretty low on their priority list of primates whom they want to have backing them up in a fight.

Excerpts from A Primate's Memoir:

From Chapter One
"It was 1978; John Travolta was the most important human alive, white suits were sweeping our proud nation, and Solomon was in the final year of his rule."

From Chapter Three
"He's looking straight at you now, act nonchalant, how the hell do you act nonchalant in front of a baboon anyway?"
Do they just go about their daily business when you're around? Do they think you're another baboon, or do they not really think about it?

They do know what humans are by now, and they do some amazing stuff cognitively in terms of dealing with humans. They know Masai versus other humans, by the bright-red clothing that Masai have, and they're terrified of the Masai, because the Masai have dogs that chase the baboons, and because some of the Masai kids practice on the baboons with their spears. So I never wear anything red and neither do my field assistants. The baboons definitely understand us as something separate from the trees, and something separate on a fundamental level from baboons. At the beginning of each season they keep me within their range of peripheral vision, but within a few days they habituate again, and they basically ignore me.

Twenty or so years ago you set out to study how stress affects baboons' health—and what that could tell us about humans. Now it's accepted that stress can play a role in hardening our arteries or raising our blood pressure, but what was the thinking when you started your research?

Much the same. People already recognized the effects of stress on disease. People had much less of a sense of individual differences—why some individuals are more vulnerable to stress-related disease than others. I think the baboon work has had some impact in that area, showing what stress has to do with social status and the society in which it occurs, with personality, with patterns of social affiliation.

And why study stress in baboons rather than humans?

Okay, here's an example that shows the advantages: one of the classic stress-related disease links in humans is that if you have this certain personality profile that we call Type A personality, you're more at risk for cardiovascular disease. Maybe the higher risk has something to do with personality and stress, but maybe it has something to do with personality and how likely you are to drink or eat a lot of saturated fats or smoke too much. The trouble is, in the whole health-psychology field, all the links between a personality state or experiential state in humans and a disease outcome have all of these lifestyle confounds gumming things up. Baboons don't smoke, they don't drink, they all have the exact same diet, they're all lean, they're all healthy. So if you go and see the same relationships between stress and disease in baboons, without the lifestyle stuff intervening, that's the clearest demonstration you can get that there are direct links between the personality and the physiology.

What would happen if you were studying a troop of baboons that wasn't in the Serengeti, where presumably it's easier for them to get food, and they have a less stressful existence because they're in a protected place?

That's the advantage of studying these guys—they're privileged enough that they don't have a whole lot of physical stressors except for occasional droughts and things like that. Their stress is entirely socially generated, so they really are good models for us. Study some marginal baboon population in some dying ecosystem and it would not be anywhere near relevant to making sense of which middle-aged executive gets heart disease. Our stress is created by our privileged cocooning from ecological stressors; likewise these baboons.

How does your work with the baboons relate to what you're working on in the lab?

We have no primates in the lab, we almost never have a whole rat in there. Most of what we do is single neurons growing in dishes, so it's very far afield from the baboon world, although there is a connection. My lab looks at the ability of stress hormones to kill brain cells, and basically we are trying to understand on a molecular level how a neuron dies after a stroke, a seizure, Alzheimer's, brain aging, and what these stress hormones do to make it worse. Our goal is to design gene-therapy strategies to save a neuron after one of these disasters. So it's very molecular stuff which will hopefully turn into something clinically useful at some point.

Are there ways that human behavior could be changed to avoid some of the social stresses that you've seen?

Yes, there's enormous potential. That's what stress management is about, that's what psychotherapy is about, finding religion, or finding your loved one or your hobby—any of those, they give you more outlets, more of a sense of control, more of a sense of predictability, of social support. They give you the means to psychologically finesse ambiguous outside reality. There are exceptions to this, of course: terminal cancer or being a refugee are things that cannot be psychologically finessed, and it winds up bordering on scientific offensiveness to preach stress-management techniques for them. But for people with middle-class neurotic problems, these are problems that increase your risk of disease because you interpret ambiguous external events in a way that makes you feel hopeless and helpless and unconnected. Psychological manipulations that push you in the opposite direction do wonders.

So the work that you're doing in the lab, on neurons dying because of stress, can be applied to the types of social stresses we're talking about?

Absolutely. What we and others are beginning to learn is that stress probably has some relevance to why some of us lose more neurons during brain aging than others, as well as to the effects on brain aging of a lifelong problem with major depression, and to what things like post-traumatic stress disorder do to the brain—those all wind up fitting very much into this framework we've been working on.

How would you respond to someone who's critical of anthropomorphizing? Does it help us understand baboon behavior if it's described in human terms?

No doubt the question is prompted by how I present the baboons at points in the book, and my answer would be, I'm completely opposed to anthropomorphism—it's lousy science. That's why I'm not doing anything anthropomorphic in my writing about the baboons. If it seems like there's something relating to human attributes in there, it's because they're close relatives. I am not ascribing anthropomorphic, or hominid-like traits to them, but I sure am ascribing complex social primate traits to them, and they seem familiar because they are familiar—they're our close relatives in lots of ways. All this is said with the recognition that, nonetheless, I am moving the narrative in my book along at various points by doing a parody of anthropomorphizing (for example, discussing how the alpha male baboon was originally thought to lead the hunts, protect against predators, change the light bulbs, etc.). But hopefully it's obvious that this sort of thing is meant to be tongue in cheek.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that these behaviors can be shared, that you could use a word like "friend" to describe a relationship between two baboons. Maybe people like to think that there's less of a continuum between humans, baboons, and other primates.

That's absolutely valid, and it comes in all sorts of political stripes. A right-wing version of that discomfort is that we're letting evolution in the back door, letting our biological roots instead of our fundamentalist God-given roots come to the forefront. A more leftist discomfort with that is, What if some unpalatable biological proclivities come out of that connectedness—proclivities that very much run counter to an optimistic, infinitely malleable picture of humans. Control enough of the societally engineered buttons, this thinking goes, and this can be a world without aggression or domination or stratification. There's a lot of hidden-agenda discomfort from both ends of the political spectrum.

In your previous book, The Trouble With Testosterone, you talk about issues of behavioral biology, the interplay of nature and nurture, and the question of how much volition we actually have in our behaviors. How has your study of the baboons played into your thoughts on these issues?

One of the most frustrating things about the research I've done in the Serengeti is that it's given me no insight at all into the nature-nurture question, simply because having mostly studied males over the years, all of the males that have become near and dear to me were born in some other troop and grew up somewhere else, so I don't know who their mothers were, what their childhoods were like, who the likely father was, anything like that. The confound with the females is that they were born with a rank in a very static hereditary system. Those born into a high-ranking lineage have the best food from before they were born, so there may be all sorts of biological factors, but from their first week of life they're already being treated differently from the daughter of a low-ranking female. One of the only ways to get at these issues is by doing "cross-fostering" studies—basically the animal equivalent of adoption studies. Then you can see where there's more commonality with the adoptive parent or the biological parent, but that doesn't rule out environmental effects from sharing the mother's bloodstream as a fetus, and things like that. It's a terribly messy field to sort out.

To answer your question about how much volition we have, I don't believe in free will. I think it is mostly a cognitively calming myth that we've had to invent—or that most people have—which is protective against certain types of depression and a pathological overabundance of facing reality. I clearly think religion falls under the auspices of that. At the largest levels, at the levels that get at the basic questions of existence, the room for biological constraints is just so enormous—and this is not equating biology with genetics, but rather recognizing that biology is the outcome of at least as many environmental influences as genetic ones. The array of incredibly subtle biological constraints and biological proclivities makes the notion of volition as this separately floating, soul-like entity seem like a creation myth to me.

So everything we do has to be connected with what the neurons are doing in our brain?

Yes. It's not necessarily deterministic in a point-for-point sort of way, as in, here is the neuron or the gene that got activated and caused that behavior. The determinism is very often a more statistical sort of property, something encompassed in fields like chaos and complexity theory, which basically say that you get predictability coming out of whole systems of complexity rather than being blueprinted down at the level of the single cell or gene. Even if you cannot predict with any sort of scientific accuracy what the weather is going to be nine days from now, there is a deterministic science that tells you why on the average it's warmer during the summer than during the winter, and why on the average ice ages only come once every twenty or thirty thousand years.

So we probably aren't ever really going to know how a single neuron or gene affects behavior.

Exactly, and that's one of the great false hopes of the Human Genome Project—Aha, that's it, we've got the blueprint for everything now. That is certainly not the case. The metaphor that's always used is, No amount of reductive scientific knowledge can ever tell you what this one ant is going to do in the next five seconds. But it sure can tell you with a lot of predictive power how ant colonies act—what they'll start doing more of or less of if you change the temperature this much and the humidity that much. And if you think of a single ant as metaphorically being like the activity of a single neuron, science will never get us to the point where you can say what one neuron is going to do next, or which neuron is responsible for your suddenly remembering you left the lights on in the car. Nonetheless, there are emergent properties of the whole that give us a hell of a lot of predictive power.

A Primate's Memoir is not only a portrait of the baboon troop you studied, but also a glimpse into the African society that you were tangentially connected to. How dramatically have things in the Serengeti changed since you first started going there?

Enormously, at least in all sorts of superficial ways. The population density of humans has gone way up and so has the habitat degradation. Translated into more concrete terms, when I got there in 1978, the nearest school was forty miles away, at the local Masai villages there was one person who spoke English. Now the nearest school is across the river from my camp; all the kids speak English; most of the kids are no longer wearing traditional clothes; most of them are no longer living a traditional Masai lifestyle of spending their days tending cows. It's a complete transformation.

What is the change being driven by?

Tourism; the other, more Westernized tribes bordering Masai areas; the number of Masai kids who have gotten some degree of Western education by now. When I got there, what someone Masai who was oriented a bit toward the outside world would most want was the means to get more of what Masai traditionally valued. This was someone who was thinking, If I can get money from tourists, if I can find a job cleaning camps, I'll be able to afford more cows, I'll be able to be a more powerful or privileged version of a traditional Masai. The transition now is desiring things that have nothing to do with traditional Masaidom—a digital watch, a pair of blue jeans.

Having spent a lot of time in Africa, what do you think of the way it's typically presented in the Western media?

I think it's appalling and built around the five-second attention span that the media assumes most people have. The chaos there far too often gets framed as, explicitly or otherwise, what your average reader sees as the most salient feature of Africa—that these are people of a very different race than your basic white-bread American. What's lost in the baggage is that the tribal differences are as ferocious as Palestinians versus Israelis or Serbs versus Croats. You look at Europe's history and they spent a thousand years just savaging each other over tribal issues, and World War II was the last, most bloody European tribal conflict. And what Europe and the United States finally figured out is that there's a much better way to do it: just have Third World countries be your surrogate states, and thus instead of the U.S. and the Soviet Union having to have a war, we could play it out between Ethiopia and Somalia or Namibia and South Africa. And if you do it right, on top of it you can even sell your weapons for a profit.

There's also this attitude of, Hurray, colonialism is over with, they've had forty or fifty years of freedom to get themselves up on their feet, come on already get it together. But economic colonialism remains devastating there—we sell and dump all of our pesticides there that we can't use. We do the same thing with all of our medicines that are expired. Anybody who is wealthy in a place like Kenya has every possible incentive to invest their money in the West, which means that nothing gets fertilized back into their own economy. And in terms of corruption, an affordable purchase of a rhino horn for a wealthy Westerner is years' worth of salary for somebody there—nobody can remain uncorrupted by that power of money. Africa is a mess for lots of reasons, but we certainly have a lot to do with it, and that's often underemphasized.

What inspired you to start writing for a lay audience?

I was not especially a writer back in college. I think my becoming a writer had much to do with spending a chunk of each year sitting by myself out in a tent without radio, without newspapers, without a whole lot of people to interact with, without anybody having any sort of similar background to me. I got my mail only once every two weeks, and I got pretty berserk about trying to get letters. I would find during three- or four-month seasons out there that I'd be corresponding with a hundred different people, dashing off these one-page aerograms in the hope that anybody would write back. I'd have a couple of hours between blood samples on a baboon, and I'd be sitting around camp and would whip off eight aerograms of the same story over and over. I think that got writing in my blood and taught me a lot about editing and how to craft a story.

The writing's a blast, because it has such a different tempo from the lab work. In the lab you get an idea, and you get twenty really good, hardworking people researching it, and maybe a year later you get a hint as to whether your idea actually works. Whereas with the writing, you write a paragraph, and you know five minutes later whether it works. It's skimming the surface for the fun stuff, and that's a nice parallel intellectual venture to have while doing these multi-year holding-your-breath-type studies.

Were there any models you followed in writing your memoir?

Presumably I'm supposed to start citing either Jane Goodall or Lewis Thomas. But I suspect the writer who's had the most influence on me stylistically is Tom Wolfe. I'm not crazy about his novels, but in his journalist days he had amazing rhythm and voice. Something else I had in mind was a movie I saw about fifteen years ago called Never Cry Wolf—it's about Farley Mowat coming of age, doing his wolf research, and eventually something awful and corrupt comes in there and wipes out a bunch of his animals, and he can't really blame the people at the end, because they had their own economic pressures for poaching wolves. The overall shape of that was very appealing.

Pauline Kael wrote a review of the movie, which said something like, The problem with the movie is that you're watching this guy learn how to make a fire out there or how to pee in the bushes without freezing, and it's all so mundane—he was far less heroic than his surroundings. I remember thinking, Bullshit, Pauline Kael! You clearly have never gone camping or done fieldwork. That's the challenge. Forget the big, exciting challenges like wrestling a bison stampeding through camp. No, the real challenge is how to keep the matches from getting wet when the camp floods or how to keep the bugs out of your food.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Katie Bacon is executive editor of The Atlantic Online. Her most recent interview was with Louise Erdrich.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.