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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 125-129 ( 5 April )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/brody.html

Essay Review

Sapolsky and Joe Conrad Do Africa

by James Brody

A review of A Primate’s Memoir
by Robert Sapolsky
(2001) NY: Scribners. 304 pp.

“It is well known that curious men go prying into all sorts of places (where they have no business).” Conrad, p. 10.

It may be that Africa and evolution attract minds that wander in parallel. For example, A. R. Wallace’s Malay Archipelago was one of Joseph Conrad’s favorite bed time readers (Hampson, 1995). Both Robert Sapolsky and Conrad had early, strong interests in Africa: Sapolsky took evolution texts to Hebrew School, 9 year old Jozef pointed to an empty space on Africa’s map and announced his intention to go there. Both boys eventually used as men the trails once followed by Stanley in his searches for slaves. Both followed an adaptive walk in Conrad’s words, “between the butcher and the policeman.”

A Primate’s Memoir is in four chronological sections and each of them starts with neighborhood gossip about the baboons to whom Sapolsky gave Old Testament names. The troop accepted him but also engaged him in an arms race: he had to invent ever more elaborate schemes in order to sedate them with a dart, frequently with a shot up their “ass.” The baboons got ever better at covering his target. In later chapters, Sapolsky evolves into a social worker to the Masai and Kenyans and entertainment for roving thugs but he ends each quarter with jarring kaleidoscopes that juxtapose primate---African, American, or baboon---scripts as played on a Darwinian stage.

We all face survival demands, even in a condominium, but in Africa those common requirements have extreme solutions that merit their own story. Sapolsky needed food to keep him alive and that he could afford and store... in this case, suppers of beans, rice, and canned mackerel for endless numbers of days. Wanderers need transportation. Sapolsky’s jeep was repaired by native mechanics, Marlow’s1 steamboat was similarly repaired. Wanderers need suitable human allies. Sapolsky found some good ones but others beat him up and destroyed most of his conviction that he could talk his way out of anything. He learned first hand the value of negotiation, even to his ignoring poaching by game wardens in order to get their cooperation. Rigidity is not a survival trait when you are alone and need other people to maintain not only your vehicle but also you.

Successful wanderers need to stay alive. There were enduring threats from insects, disease, ambush, murder, and accidental death. Sapolsky gives us giant cockroaches, army ants, Idi Amin, and a failed coup. Some of his adventures should have killed him and I surmise that he is not only a fast talker but that he also has a robust immune system. Marlow found the bones of his speared predecessor face-down, undisturbed in tall grass. He later threw the body of a crewman into the river, feeding fish rather than the cannibals who killed him. Sapolsky overdosed an already ill baboon and dug a grave to protect his friend’s body from hyenas. He several times rested his head on the dead animal’s chest and felt an anguish shared by many atheistic Jews. A Kaddish is customary for dead loved ones but Sapolsky cannot say one for his hairy friend. The issue is not the friend’s identity as a baboon but the Kaddish itself...it glorifies a god that does not exist for Sapolsky.

There are compelling segments when Sapolsky grieves or angers. The scattered clown leaves and his story unfolds itself along its own seams. Chapter 21 tells about Sapolsky’s personal dilemmas in causing pain to research animals in a university laboratory at home, the peace he finds on returning to Africa, and his visit to gorilla troops in Dian Fossey’s former haunts. (Sapolsky also tells us that Fossey provoked the slaughter of many gorillas through her pissing contest with native African hunters.) Chapter 29 tells of the spread of bovine TB by scam food inspections at a tourist lodge. Both tourists and baboons were infected and Richard Leakey appears to have been one of many who might have been instrumental in not pressing an investigation. Visitors with cameras bring money.

Sapolsky’s sometimes scrambled grammar and relative immaturity (he remarks that he looked like an old man but had a kid’s job description) come into adulthood when he mourned or angered as in chapters 21 and 29. Both his roaming and his writing were also more coherent after he finds Lisa, his future wife, in the last quarter of his book. Sapolsky is, of course, a repetition of what he saw in baboons and what Stephen Suomi noticed in rhesus: the ladies are the memory and hub of a troop and the quality control for us guys. Males, human or not, are expendable: soldiers who scatter to other troops, live shorter lives, and live in the next generation only if they catch the eye of a lady. Senior aunts and mothers restrain impulsive rhesus males but after a year, evict to the jungle’s cleaver those adolescents who do not conform. Lisa possibly settled Bob before he could accidentally kill himself.

Cogs that keep us from madness

Wanderers need to stay sane. Sapolsky tells us third hand about the self-proclaimed “Emperor of Nubian Judea,” a civil servant who inspected papers at a checkpoint but who dressed and spoke as if a banker in central London. He lectured pairs of tourists, gestured and orated grandly, tried to recruit them to his cause, and promptly forgot that he ever saw them. (His counterpart also breathed in Marlow’s tale.) Sapolsky visited the origin of the White Nile: there was a soldier’s corpse anchored by its head to the top of a dam, bobbing until the rushing water disconnected it. Whose army? What did it matter?

Sapolsky’s camp aide, Samwelly, built small dams and a grass house but worked himself into exhaustion with ever more expansive projects. Elephants, however, visited each night and ate part of the house. Sapolsky prevented Samwelly’s igniting the elephants’ tails, insisting that Samwelly rebuild the house each morning. Samwelly’s exhaustion abated. Thus, a cameo of life in Africa and, for that matter, of evolution: make order and fix it the next day. Natural selection and chaos restrain sexual selection when you must choose maintenance instead of empires. Sapolsky, like Samwelly, might have been safer if he stayed in camp more and even Sisyphus might have been slain by adventure were he not policed by a rock.

The nurture of “The horror...”: cutting loose from what mother did for us

Marlow commented that most sailors are not wanderers perhaps because wandering is a mental thing. We are most apt to feel it when the barrier fails between us and the chaos that lies just outside. We first defend our stories about Beginning and End, Good and Bad. After all, we have to do something with our minds while we try to eat without being eaten but asking questions is a dangerous pastime. We are most sensible when insensitive, we want to influence but not conform and we each want a one-way, cognitive Trojan, protection from rational-emotive HIV.

Blue-collar teens who go to college, the rational or the devout who become infected by evolution... all may be wanderers like Marlow and Sapolsky who experienced a personal meiosis. Chunks of their identity fragmented and recombined into a new mosaic, structurally like the former one but with different words on the tiles. The transition can be rough but instinct and gene, friends and routines, pull most of us through to practice old behaviors if for different explanations. For example, evolutionists are often kind although most of us do not fear the consequences that might be delivered in an afterlife.

Meanwhile, the rabbis who told Sapolsky that he courted hell by reading about evolution were correct: wander outside of your existing belief, the imprinted tales, customs, and flavors of your childhood, and you will find chaos under your feet and anguish in your soul. The process in Africa was not a one-way exchange: the Masai, the Kenyans, or any of the African tribes were equally tumbled and re-stacked. Likewise for baboon and gorilla cultures: male baboons now raid dumps behind tourist lodges, dumps littered with TB-infected cattle entrails. (Sapolsky found some pleasure that the tourists also were exposed to infection. I confess to the same reaction.)

The nature of “The horror...” in a fly’s eye

Early emotional attachments may conflict with later learning but even here, biology may amplify our personal torment in ways that we do not see. For example, Sapolsky remarks early (p. 9) that he is not a composite. Of course, he is. William Hamilton (1996) put it well:

“Seemingly inescapable conflict within diploid organisms came to me both as a new agonizing challenge... In life, what was it I really wanted? My own conscious and seemingly indivisible self was turning out far from what I had imagined... I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire...As I write these words, even so as to be able to write them, I am pretending to a unity that, deep inside myself, I now know does not exist.”

Thus, some our deepest confusions may be epiphenomena, dreams spun from conflicting genetic biases (Haig, 1999). Our personal stories unfold as much as they are written. Sapolsky’s recognizing that he is a composite might also let him understand baboons as composites, composites that make their own worlds. And our sharing Pax-6, a widely shared gene that develops eyes, with drosophila, makes it possible that other creatures experience conflicts very similar to Sapolsky’s, whether of genetic or of epigenetic origin. (Of all the literature about our shared foundations with other creatures, none attributes empathy to a cat, ambivalence to a dog, or personal determination to a mole rat. A peculiar omission if we believe ourselves to be the supreme reasoners and that rationality mutes emotionality. Less reasoned creatures might experience empathy, ambivalence, and conflict more completely than any human. Further, when I am ill, my Siamese seems to be even more under my arm or on my chest. And I had another cat who spooked groundhogs before I could shoot them.)

Understanding composites and mosaics would help Sapolsky through another transition, that he is, like Hamilton, a mosaic whose behaviors and explanations are context specific. Our strategies vary in ways similar to those of our parents but there is still order in our routines. We, however, stubbornly blame environment just as did a little girl who, despite her receiving a mechanical explanation of earthquakes, later told her father that a nasty man made the ground shake (Gaulin and McBurney, 2000). We willingly put our self in a box, “I am a primatologist,” but resist saying “I am an IGF4. The problem for us is not in self-categorization but in thinking that we or environment, our favorite “nasty man,” chose those categories.

Conrad gave us Marlow but what about Bob?

A Primate’s Memoir courts two audiences, trade and academic. Sapolsky and Conrad tell the same story on the same stage but Conrad, working in his third language, in one-third the space, and without a word-processor, did better. Heart of Darkness2. became a classic, A Primate’s Memoir will remain a compilation of anecdotes that entertain a specialty audience. Nonetheless, both of these men give us their memories “...not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs forever but in the august light of abiding memories.” (Conrad, p. 16.)

Both Marlow and Sapolsky wandered but Marlow had one quest and took one trip; Sapolsky, nominally present to investigate stress and earn his Ph. D., had no idée fixe, and he took many trips. Conrad wrote, Sapolsky tells stories and jokes. Marlow was coherent, Sapolsky sidetracks in his tales and in the earlier conduct of his life. (There were, however, good outcomes from his scampering. Sapolsky’s troop not only mothered him but their teachings about stress and cardiac disease eventually fit well with what Dominica children taught Mark Flinn and with other data from British civil servants.)

Conrad had us walking a fine line between jail and grave; Sapolsky found, but doesn’t tell us, that lines don’t apply to chaotic situations, whether a population invasion, a plague, or the plasma around a burning log. Similarly, we more often live and die in patterns and nets. Kurtz, however, disintegrated before he saw the possibilities in recombination. He expired “The horror! The horror!” on his last breath but Marlow anticipated where Kurtz might have found coherence when he told Kurtz’s fiancée a lie, “The last word he pronounced was---your name.” Sapolsky glimpsed the fragmentation, love, meanness in all of us and their arbitrary explanations, but perhaps found stability with Lisa. He took notes and did not lie to us but he did not take a final stand.

I envy his adventures and wit. I wish him well. I also wish him an editor.


After reading both the book and the blurbs on its jacket, I am convinced that the authors of the latter never thought about the former.

1. Conrad’s character Marlow is an English sailor who does not, and cannot, understand anything that is not English, from the nameless city across the Channel (Brussels, most probably), to the ghost-like figures that people his employer's offices, to the multi-coloured map that shows how Africa has been carved, to the multi-coloured Russian whose language Marlow cannot recognize and believes is cypher, to the river itself, to the native inhabitants of the land he is invading. Heart of Darkness has a dual meaning, referring both to the Congo itself, and also the depths to which humans are capable of descending. The story is fairly simple: Marlow, recounts his experiences in the employ of a company engaged in exploiting the Belgian Congo at the end of the nineteenth century. Marlow is contracted as the captain of a riverboat and is charged with making contact with the enigmatic Kurtz, a man revered in the company for the way he has run his upriver station. But Kurtz no longer runs his station. He has descended into two hearts of darkness.

2. The full text of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is available at http://literatureproject.com/heart-darkness/


Conrad, Joseph (1995) Heart of Darkness with Congo Diary. Edited by R. Hampson. NY: Penguin. Amazon US | UK

Gaulin, S. & McBurney, D. (2001) Psychology: An Evolutionary Approach. NY: Prentice Hall Amazon US | UK

Haig, D. (1997) The Social Gene. In J. R. Krebs & N. Davies (Eds) Behavioral Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, pp. 284-306. London: Blackwell Science. Amazon US | UK

Haig, D. (1999) Genetic conflicts and the divided self. A talk given at the Hunter School of Social Work, New York, New York, May 6, 1999.

Hamilton, W. D. (1996) Narrow Roads of Geneland: The Collected Papers of WD Hamilton, Vol 1, Evolution of Social Behavior. NY: Freeman, pp. 134-135. Amazon US | UK

Buy A Primate's Memoir from Amazon United States of America Amazon.com  Amazon United Kingdom Amazon.co.uk  Amazon France Amazon.fr  Amazon Deutschland Amazon.de  Amazon Japan Amazon.co.jp Amazon Canada Amazon.ca

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© James Brody.


Brody, J. (2002). Sapolsky and Joe Conrad Do Africa. A review of A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. Human Nature Review. 2: 125-129.

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