Robert Sapolsky

The author of "A Primate's Memoir," and the world's funniest neuroscientist, talks about hanging out with baboons, madness in Africa and the difference between apes and his kids.


Robert Sapolsky

Who knows why people go crazy in Africa, but crazy they do go, and often Robert Sapolsky is in the vicinity. Losing it in the wilds of Kenya is one of the recurring themes — though not necessarily the primary one — in Sapolsky’s recent book, “A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.” The book is as much about people as it is about baboons, but the baboons tend to be slightly saner. Here’s why: “There’s pretty major selective pressure against being really, really crazed out in the savanna,” Sapolsky said when we spoke the other day. “Thought-disordered animals don’t last the night.”

Humans, however, wig out with regularity, and not only last the night but often stay wiggy for days and months. Sapolsky’s certainly done his part — he pushed a number of his helpers past the breaking point, he claims in “A Primate’s Memoir,” by making the same culinary mistake year after year: “Taiwanese mackerel in tomato sauce,” purchased in multiple cases for provisioning his remote Serengeti outpost, which he has visited for prolonged periods over more than two decades to study the same baboon troop.

I’m at my beloved campsite with nothing to eat for three months but rice and beans and goddamn Taiwanese mackerel in tomato sauce with the bones that keep jabbing your gums with each bite. After three days of this, you’re hallucinating about strawberry Pop-Tarts and Velveeta cheese food and Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink. But at least it was my decision, I keep telling myself. For the poor bastard hired to live out here, it slowly dawns on him that this is the grub for the duration. With the exception of people from the coast, or the lakes region, most Africans I’ve met seem a bit alarmed by fish to begin with … So, each meal goes by, the man sitting and watching with Bantu stoicism as yet another can of mackerel is opened, the distressing shploooog of tomato sauce spraying out, the sickening sucking noise of the fish plopping out of the can, the glint of cartilage. Slowly, the guy begins to go to pieces.

And who could blame him? Yet Sapolsky himself — surprisingly, given some of what he’s gone through over the years — managed to keep his wits about him. It helped that he was already kind of a nut — the sane kind — when he set out for Africa fresh from the university and more or less clueless.

“Does Africa have some special quality that makes people go around the bend?” I asked him. “It’s a combination of the place pushing one over the edge more readily, coupled with [the fact that] it’s not random who is chosen to go there,” he told me, referring to the type of white scientist who might gravitate toward months of self-imposed seclusion on the African savanna. “There are definitely a bunch of social or antisocial dimensions — no doubt me included. In terms of Africans themselves, it’s hard to say. Part of it is that in a very novel place, eccentric ways of behaving look even more eccentric.”

“The camp guys probably also went mad because it was a crummy job,” Sapolsky writes in the book.

You’re a Kenyan farm kid, trying to get some cash, and suddenly you have to live in the middle of nowhere with some white guy. It’s basically pretty scary. I eat weird stuff, have strange habits, talk marginal Swahili. My skin changes color in the sun, and then big chunks of it come peeling off. Richard [one of Sapolsky's more stable assistants] admitted after endless questioning from me that we white guys smell kinda peculiar. To add to the problems, I have a large beard and a lot of bushy hair, which definitely gives the heebie-jeebies to Africans. And the goings-on in camp do not help, with half-awake baboons lurching around and crates of dry ice and liquid nitrogen belching smoke and everything covered with baboon piss and baboon blood and baboon shit.

At least one reviewer sniffed disapprovingly at Sapolsky’s insistent jocularity in “A Primate’s Memoir” (some passages are not just funny, they’re very, very funny, hysterical even; he’s the secret love child of Hunter S. Thompson and Jane Goodall, P.J. O’Rourke on scriptwriting duty for Animal Planet), yet his over-the-topness is what makes his writing such an invigorating hoot, while reminding us that much of what’s happening on this chaotic rock is tinged, if not suffused, with disordered-to-the-core madness, a realization that somehow makes even the grimmest reports (and life in general) bearable.

Sapolsky isn’t just a writer; he’s also a scientist, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museum of Kenya, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant. His baboon research focuses on the dominance ranking among troop members, and what effect their social behavior and individual personalities may have on stress-related diseases. According to his page on the Stanford Web site, his laboratory “was among the first to document that sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, a region of the brain central to learning and memory,” and he’s been associated with numerous other discoveries and the use of innovative techniques in the field of neuroendocrinology. In other words, his offhand observations about baboons and humans are not as offhand as they may seem. What’s more, perhaps because pathos is humor unplugged, Sapolsky conveys the appalling (a devastating T.B. plague among his troop; a visit to the side-by-side graves of Dian Fossey and her beloved gorilla Digit, both of whom were murdered) and the transcendent (his love for his wife) with as much emotional resonance as the funny stuff.

I asked Sapolsky whether he got flak from colleagues who believe that a scientist should not also be a comedian. “There are two levels of hassle,” he said. “Do I get grief for the fact that in communicating, say, about the baboons I’m doing so much anthropomorphizing? One hopes that the parts that are blatantly ridiculous will be perceived as such. I’ve nonetheless been stunned by some of my more humorless colleagues — to see that they were not capable of recognizing that. The broader answer, though, is I’m not anthropomorphizing. Part of the challenge in understanding the behavior of a species is that they look like us for a reason. That’s not projecting human values. That’s primatizing the generalities that we share with them.

“The second level of my colleagues’ getting on me — apart from whether I’m communicating to nonscientists in a serious or nonserious way — is the issue of choosing to communicate to nonscientists, period. The snotty term in the field for what is done to you is that you are then ‘Saganized.’ If somebody can be spending his time [writing humorous accounts of his field experiences], he can’t possibly be serious about his own science anymore. Nobody has sat me down and given me a lecture about how I better watch it, but I’ve gotten covert signals. I don’t believe it’s necessarily petty or mean. In some cases I think they’re authentically concerned; in other cases it’s simply not conceivable to them how I could be interested in communicating with nonscientists and still be totally crazed with interest in my own science. But I don’t think their reaction is necessarily malevolent.”

There were other human issues, apart from madness (albeit tangential to it), that Sapolsky regularly coped with during his years in Africa, such as the very different view of reality — and evolution — possessed by Africans, especially the Masai, who live in the area where he did his field studies. In one passage of “A Primate’s Memoir” Sapolsky has just tranquilized a “squirrelly little adolescent” baboon named Daniel as Daniel watches two other baboons mating. “Daniel was more interested in voyeurism than keeping his eye on me,” he writes, “let his guard down, and I had zipped a dart into his keister.” He then picks up snoozing young Daniel and starts walking the kilometer back to his camp: “Marching over hill and dale with my sleepy boy, I encounter two Masai warriors, wrapped in their red cloaks and nothing else … They are quite interested in the baboon. I put him down for a rest, want to show him off. Lookihere, look at my baboon.”

The two Masai want to know if Daniel’s dead. Sapolsky explains that, no, he’s given the youngster medicine to make him sleep. The same medicine would make a man sleep, he assures the Masai, “because the body of a baboon is very much like the body of a man.” That turns out to be the wrong thing to say to Masai warriors when you’re standing in a far corner of the Serengeti beside a sedated ape. After some tense back and forth, the Masai getting increasingly irritated at Sapolsky, he really steps in it.

Suddenly, I get this giddy desire to shock these guys a little. I continue, “These baboons really are our relatives. In fact, this baboon is my cousin.” And with that I lean over and give Daniel a loud messy kiss on his big ol’ nose.

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.

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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