Our cousins the apes have been getting a bad rap for decades. Victorian scientists derided the notion that such primitive animals might be related to the lofty Homo sapiens. Savants regularly dismissed as hoaxes reports of a man-like creature living in the tropics until confronted with proof of the orangutan's existence. Making a case for the apes today is noted author and scientist Robert Sapolsky, who discovered through years of psychological study that the creatures lead remarkably ordered and intelligent lives. Sapolsky shares his findings in A Primate's Memoir, a lively account of the time he spent on the Kenyan plains studying these complex, highly evolved animals. Sapolsky first met his baboon troop as a young student fulfilling a lifelong ambition to study primates. He quickly discovered that his Brooklyn upbringing ill prepared him for life on the Serengeti plains and in the cities of Kenya. He writes about this clash of cultures with great wit and sensitivity. As a stranger in a strange land (he lived in the middle of the plains with no radio, electricity or running water) Sapolsky had many hair-raising encounters. He was, by turns, kidnapped and held at gunpoint discouraging initiations into African culture, but, thanks to the author's skill, incidents that make for great reading.
Spending more time in the company of baboons than with humans, Sapolsky began to recognize individual personalities and complex social interaction among members of the troop. In clear, entertaining prose, he relates fascinating findings like the discovery that lower-ranking members of a troop have higher stress levels, which seem to adversely affect their health. The fact that stress affects the health of humans as well is taken for granted today, but Sapolsky was among the first researchers to document the connection between these two elements. One of our foremost science writers, Robert Sapolsky is the author of The Trouble with Testosterone and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. With A Primate's Memoir he has given us another accessible, work full of humor and profound insight.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.