I get more of a response than I bargained for. The Masai freak and suddenly are waving their spears real close to my face, like they mean it. One is yelling, “He is not your cousin, he is not your cousin! A baboon cannot even cook ugali!” (Ugali is the ubiquitous and repulsive maize meal that everyone eats here. I almost respond that I don’t really know how to cook the stuff either, but decide to show some prudence at last.) “He is not your cousin!”
At that point Sapolsky comes to his senses, backs down fast, and the Masai are appeased. “We go our separate ways swearing eternal brotherhood,” he writes. “How unlikely it would have been to be speared by a fundamentalist wearing no pants.”
“Often in the book, in the funny passages,” I say, “you cast yourself as the fool, the bumbler — it’s a classic storytelling technique among some tribes, including our own. Even when you introduce us to Lisa (a neuropsychologist whom he’s now married to) you chide yourself for acting like a know-it-all when she accompanies you to Africa for the first time. Does that type of humor, that kind of self-deprecating storytelling, appeal to the Masai?”
“No,” he answers immediately. “It’s hard to translate [into Swahili or Maa, the Masai language] for one thing. Only a couple of the most Westernized guys — like Richard and Hudson, my two research assistants — would sort of get it. Hudson was one of the few Kenyans I’d met who wasn’t university trained, who could do sarcasm, who would understand you could say the opposite of what you mean” and it could be funny or teasing. “That’s a very rare thing out there.
“What continues to strike me about the place, though I spent more than 20 years there and know a bunch of people reasonably well — watched them grow up and all that — is that still every now and then something happens where I realize it’s totally different, and I still haven’t a clue in the fundamental ways. They have different notions of what life means, of privacy, of time pressure, of what you want out of life and so on. ”
During his years in Africa, Sapolsky managed to get into a variety of dicey situations. Once he found himself in a bush cave with a half-dead impala and a sedated baboon, while a group of agitated baboons, who wanted to dine on the impala and perhaps Sapolsky, menaced the hapless trio from outside the cave. Another time he was mugged by gun-toting soldiers who beat him and robbed him. And on yet another occasion, he was, it seems, unintentionally kidnapped by a band of amiable, indefatigable, bar-hopping Somali truckers. After days of dragging him along with them, feeding him little more than Coca-Cola, they released him, refused his offer of money and cheerily bid him goodbye. Many times he stumbled into circumstances that most of us would have responded to by catching the next plane out, yet Sapolksy stayed.
“How did you get so brave?” I asked.
“I’m not at all,” he answered. “I was this eggheady kid, the one who was consistently beaten up and picked last for the baseball teams. The first roller coaster I ever went on in my life wasn’t until college. I was very sheltered, very bookish and, basically, skittish about life. My parents were both older when I came along and they didn’t do things like take vacations. I had a very hermetic upbringing. I forced myself to do those things [embark on his African adventures]. I had a very high threshold to actually doing something, but once I did, I felt sufficiently freed that it kind of took over on its own. I kept engineering things so that I would perceive some responsibility, something that would keep me from leaving: ‘How will I explain it to the funding agency if I bail out at this point?’”
In the first 50 pages of “A Primate’s Memoir,” Sapolsky twice kisses baboons, though neither of the apes is conscious at the time. Clearly, after working with the same individuals over two decades, he became attached to them, but was it ever possible to express affection to ones that were conscious?
“You can’t get close to them physically. Some researchers have done so, but it usually backfires on them. You do need to keep a distance. Sure, at various points you just want to run out and hug somebody, but that would not go over well. If you got them to the point where that was an OK thing to do, you would have disturbed their behavior so much in the process.”
While reading the book, I got to wondering: Here’s a guy in the middle of nowhere, a talker, a funny fellow, a gentleman who, though he may have been a timid kid, seems to like the limelight well enough now, but he didn’t have much of an audience in the Serengeti, or did he? Was an evening in camp with Sapolsky and the baboons in remote Kenya reminiscent of that old John Belushi “Saturday Night Live” skit, “Wild Life Comedian”?
“Do baboons have a sense of humor?” I asked him.
“No,” Sapolsky said. “Nothing resembling one. Every now and then I would think that somebody would look embarrassed. If they did something really foolish, they’d look around to see who was looking. Whether that was in a concrete way (‘Whoa, when I was in the process of slipping out of that tree, if there had been a buffalo there I would have been up a creek’) or whether it was more in an existential way (‘Oh, my God, did they see me? Did I just look like a schmuck?’) was impossible to tell, but they certainly don’t have much of a sense of humor.”
Most of Sapolsky’s research in Africa was done before his two young children — ages 2 and 4 — came along. The changes in his personal life in recent years have caused him to “cut down enormously” the time he spends in the field and become “a hell of a lot more cautious” when he is there.
“What I’ve been struggling with most as a father,” he says, “is how utterly useless my primatology expertise has been in understanding the slightest thing about child behavior. Before the children, I thought, ‘Oh, this is just going to be one big primatology blowout here. Boy, am I going to be good at this!’ As it turns out, boy, do I suck at this. The human-specific features are so incredibly defining that once you get past the first weeks it floods any primatology themes. That was something I did not expect in the slightest.”
It seems that most anyone who goes to Africa falls in love with the place in that big, complicated, double-edged way that real love uses to announce itself. Sapolsky is no exception. You can hear it as the timbre of his voice changes in response to certain questions.
“All life in Africa,” I say, “is under terrible pressure from every side. Over the next century, is there any hope for the place and these great animals?”
He takes a deep breath, makes a deep sigh. “Emotionally, the most logical answer to me is no way in hell, which feels sad beyond words. In part, because if that’s the case, everything else there is going to go down the drain as well and a lot of folks who happen to be not as cute as China’s panda bears are going to have pretty miserable lives.”
“And the pandas,” I interrupt, “aren’t doing so great themselves.”
“No, come to think of it,” Sapolsky replies.
“If there is any hope,” he continues, “it’s going to take the West giving a shit about Africa. We’ve managed to construct Western cultures where there’s enough of a belief in the stability of governments and pensions and ecosystems and such that there can be things like zero population growth. [If Africa is to survive we can't] be dumping our pesticides and outdated drugs there anymore and things of that sort. But that seems astonishingly unlikely to happen.”
The fact that acclaimed conservationist Richard Leakey was, apparently, pushed out of his position in the Kenyan cabinet of President Daniel Arap Moi in March was seen by many as a huge setback. I asked Sapolsky what he made of Leakey’s firing and if corruption was a serious problem there.
“It’s pretty bad,” he answered. “The obligatory but sincere p.c. line is that the country was so screwed over by the remnants of colonialism, with the horrible bad luck of being a place that much of the wealthy West was interested in, it injected it with an inequity that made it impossible for anyone to stay clean. On top of that is a lot of homegrown, intrinsic tribal brutality that gets played out in corruption. And Leakey, insofar as he’s pretty well poised to be an outsider to all that, is in a good position to try to clean it up, which is why he got fired.”
Sapolsky’s outsize brain and heart are the engine of “A Primate’s Diary.” His is a wacky, brilliant presence. He’s thoughtful in the sort of free-ranging fashion that spawns invention, which may be why his laboratory at Stanford has made a number of internationally recognized breakthroughs in researching the relation of stress to neurological disease, while he maintains a thriving second career as a science writer-cum-humorist — the Mark Twain of primatology. As our conversation wound down, I asked the bookish egghead what had been the single most important thing he’d learned through his fieldwork.
“Ironically,” he said, “for a guy who’s spent about a quarter of his life living alone in a tent, it would have to be the health benefits of sociality — both physical and mental.”
What a nut. Pass the mackerel. Shploooog.