A Primate's Memoir

(This column was first published in the June 28, 2000 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

"I 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. As a child in New York, I endlessly begged and cajoled my mother into taking me to the Museum of Natural History, where I would spend hours looking at the African dioramas, wishing to live in one. Racing effortlessly across the grasslands as a zebra certainly had its appeal, and on some occasions, I could conceive of overcoming my childhood endomorphism and would aspire to giraffehood. During one period, I became enthused with the collectivist utopian rants of my elderly communist relatives and decided that I would someday grow up to be a social insect. A worker ant, of course. I made the miscalculation of putting this scheme into an elementary-school writing assignment about my plan for life, resulting in a worried note from the teacher to my mother."

Just so we enter the delightful, sometimes wacky but always extraordinarily insightful world of Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir (Scribner, 2001). In these columns I only write about books I enjoyed reading and so recommend to others, but this book rises well beyond a simple recommendation: it belongs with the very best of all nature writing.

Is it possible to describe a scientist's book wonderfully anthropomorphic? (Anthropomorphism is the assignment of human characteristics to non-humans unacceptable in "good" science.) In this case, however, absolutely yes! The evidence is support of this takes two forms: First, it is certainly clear that Sapolsky is a well-qualified scientist. He holds dual professorships -- biological sciences at Stanford University and neurology at the Stanford School of Medicine. And second, his assignment of Biblical names -- Naomi, Samuel, Leah, Devorah, Daniel, Uriah -- to individual baboons and his descriptions of their too-human-like traits in no way compromises the serious side of his work. Rather it allows us to enter his strange and often hilarious world. Here we're not reading technical reports but rather Sapolsky's interpretation of the African world in which he has spent so much of his life. The baboons are, of course, central to that life.

Here is an example of Sapolsky talking about one of them: "Benjamin, ah, my Benjamin had not improved his lot much by 1980. His hair was, if anything, more disheveled, and his jaw didn't fit any better. We had one moment of rather unsuccessful cross-species communication. A male baboon, when faced with a formidable adversary, will occasionally be able to coax another male into forming a cooperative coalition, and when such pairings prove stable, they constitute a force to be reckoned with. There's a whole series of gestures and facial expressions that a male gives to get a potential coalitional partner to join him in the glory of the fray. One day, Benjamin was about to be trounced by some bruiser, who was bearing down on him with a look that meant business. Benjamin, in a growing panic, glanced around every which way for a coalitional partner and saw nothing but infants, zebras, and bushes. In a moment of desperate inspiration, he turned to me and solicited my partnership. In the name of all my professional training and objectivity, but to my perpetual shame, I had to pretend that I didn't speak the language and had no idea what he was talking about. Another drubbing for Benjamin when, no doubt, he was hoping I'd run the guy down with my jeep."

But baboons? Not a favorite animal until you read this book. And this author can even defend hyenas. Here is Sapolsky in an argument worthy of Clarence Darrow: "Hyenas are neither canines nor felines, have doleful beautiful eyes, wet noses, and jaws that can snap off your arm in a second. They also have gotten an utterly bum rap in the media. We know all about hyenas: it's dawn on the savanna, there's something big and dead with a lion feeding on it, and Marlin Perkins is up to his elbows in the gore, filming the scene. You know the score. Ol' Marlin is waxing poetic about the noble lion and his predatory skills, said king of the jungle, covered with his usual array of flies, is munching away at somebody's innards, and the camera will occasionally tear itself away from this tableau of carnivory to pan the edges. And there they are, skulky, cowardly, dirty, snively, skeevy, no-account hyenas lurking at the periphery, trying to grab a piece of the vittles. Marlin practically invites us to heap our contempt on the hyenas: scavengers. Now, it's not entirely clear to me why we laud the predators so much and so disdain the scavengers, since most of us are hardening our arteries wolfing down carcasses that someone else killed, but that is our bias. Lions get lionized while hyenas never get to vocalize at the beginning of MGM movies.

"Oh, but a revolution occurred in carnivorology awhile back. As part of our national defense, it is vital to be able to shoot people at any time of day or night, so the military developed all these nifty night-viewing goggles, with photon enhancers and infrared viewing scopes. The army was up to their umpteenth-generation model and decided to unload some of their old ones on zoologists and suddenly, a revolution! -- people could watch animals at night.

"Redemption of the hyenas. It turns out that they are fabulous hunters, working cooperatively, taking down beasties ten times their size. They have one of the highest percentages of successful hunts of any big carnivore. And you know who has one of the worst? Lions. They're big, conspicuous, relatively slow. It's much easier for them to just key in on cheetahs and hyenas and rip them off. That's why all those hyenas are lurking around at dawn, looking mealy and unphotogenic -- they just spent the whole night hunting the damn thing and who's eating breakfast now?"

But it is not just animals with whom (not which in this book) Sapolsky interacts. His descriptions of the Masai are triumphantly humane. Here is the experience one of these desert nomads had with his first elevator:

"The manager of the Nairobi hotel was awaiting Richard, greeted him, and tactfully explained that the entire room was his to use for the night, including the bathroom, explained the best news, that dinner and breakfast would come free to Richard as part of his staying there.

"'Then, he took me into a small room with no windows. At first, I thought this would be the room I would be staying in, but it was something else. The door was closed, and suddenly it was roaring and my stomach was hurting so much I thought I was dying from Nairobi already. But the other man did not notice. Then, the door opened, and everything had changed! completely -- somehow, they had rushed and changed everything, the people and chairs were gone, the desk of the manager was not there anymore, instead there was this long path and these many doors....'

"He was deposited in his room. The curtain was already closed and Richard never considered touching it, so he never had a clue that he was no longer on the ground floor. He washed in the sink (assuming that the bathtub was far too huge to possibly hold water to be wasted on washing a person. A cow dip, perhaps?), luxuriated in the bed, had an excited, panicked start when answering the manager's solicitous phone call (Richard had seen pictures of phones and how they were held).

"All was bliss until Richard became hungry. He searched up and down the hallway for the dining room. No luck. He figured that the tiny room he had been taken into when his stomach flew had something to do with their changing the whole floor to the dining room, but he didn't know where the little door was, or how to make it open, or how to have the area outside that door changed into a dining room. He wandered up and down the halls, felt too ashamed to ask anyone a question, and eventually retired to his room, hungry and disappointed. By midnight, there was now the added fear of not being sure how he would get out in the morning, let alone get breakfast.

"By dawn, he was up, with a plan. He had his things prepared, lounged in the hall, and spotted the first person leaving their room in a similar packed state. He followed them nonchalantly, soon found himself in the elevator. His stomach lurched, he attempted to keep his discomfort to himself, and soon the floor had been rearranged to the lobby. Relieved and with his hunger of secondary importance to his desire to escape, he bid farewell to the manager and fled."

But often the natives are smarter than Sapolsky:

"I had been noting that these people in the second village, desert folk for centuries until a decade ago, had still not adapted to their new settings. They made a fire inside their house, which was certainly necessary with the mountain cold, but they had not modified the architecture from the way it was back down in the desert -- still completely shut. Thus, the smoke accumulated to a horrendous extent. The village was filled with red eyes and tubercular coughs from the smoke. As soon as Cassiano had left for the night, I blew out the all-night fire he had left -- my sleeping bag was warm enough, and the smoke was sickening. I went to sleep.

"Around midnight, I discovered the other reasons why they kept fires going all night. I awoke to a sound that will give me the chills for the rest of my life. I woke up thinking, Oh, it's raining. Then I thought, oh, it's raining on me -- I can feel the drops hitting my sleeping bag, my face. Then I remembered I was sleeping inside a hut. Suddenly, I was monstrously awake. Things were moving all over me. My hair was moving. I shined my flashlight around. The smoke was also meant to percolate through the grass-thatched roof. This would drive away the giant cockroaches. In the absence of smoke, the cockroaches had poured in, all over the bags of maize meal. But this was not the real problem. Because following the cockroaches were the army ants.

"I would contend that army ants are the single most disgusting disquieting panic-provoking creature in all of Africa, their mere proximity leads me to twitch and moan and shudder and leap about with a Saint Vitus' dance of agitation. They come in swarms that cover square acres. They are huge with pincers that take pieces of meat out of you. They crawl all over you silently, before a single one bites, and then through some pheromonal alarm signal, they all attack at once. They eat your eyelids and nostrils and soft parts. They attack anything, kill invalids who cannot run away from bush hospitals. Once they dig in your skin with their pincers, they hold on so tightly that when you pull at them to get them off, the head detaches from the body, leaving the pincers still in you. The Masai use them to suture people -- bad cut, and someone grabs an army ant, holds the two sides of the cut together, lets the pissed-off ant sink its pincers in and, quickiy, twist off the body, leaving rows of ant head sutures in place.

"But the worst thing about them is that when they attack, they hiss. A nightmare sound, the hiss of army ants, in the dark, sweeping over the field around you.

"The place was swarming with them, the raindrops falling down on me from the thatching. They weren't bothering with me. Yet. They were dismembering the zillions of cockroaches. There were roaches all over the maize sacks and, horrifyingly, a three-dimensional bridge of ants, holding on to each other, had formed from the floor to the sacks, pulling off the cockroaches, ten times their size. I was covered, I was just furniture for the moment.

"I had to get out. A movement, a stepping on ants on the floor, would trigger all those on me to attack, but there was no other choice. The only question was whether the ant column encompassed the front of the hut. If so, I would just have to run off into the jungle night until I cleared them.

"I counted, procrastinated, made my move. By the second step, your body suddenly catches on fire. Flames, little flames, everywhere. You slap, scream, pull at them, keep moving. One on my eyelid, lips, many on my CROTCH, god-damn it. I burst outside, yelling, ripping my clothes off, rolling on the ground. Thank god the swarm was coming from the opposite end. I flailed, yelped, pulled ants off, spastically leapt about hammering a body part against the ground to step on ant. Cassiano and the rest of the village emerged and, predictably, found my plight hilarious. Once I had gotten the last of the ants off, got my clothes back on, I sheepishly explained what I had done. Disdainful of the ants, Cassiano leapt into his house, got a fire going, and soon the ants and remnants of the cockroach ocean was swept back into the forest."

A spectacular must-read!