At the tender age of twenty, doctoral candidate Sapolsky, an ardent primatologist from a very early age, set out to Africa to study a community of baboons that he ended up following for four decades. Certain, from elementary school, that he was really a mountain gorilla, his research interests led to questions that could not be answered by gorillas, and he ended up in the savannah, with a baboon troop in the final year of the reign of Solomon.
Throughout the book Sapolsky weaves his field work biography, his evolution as a scientist and as an adult man, together with the story of the troop. A matriarchal society, female baboons are born to their position in the hierarchy, passed down from mother to daughters, while males fight it out amongst themselves. In addition to information about individual baboons, and baboon culture, hierarchy and physiology as a whole, the reader learns about African politics, warrior Masai and agricultural Kikuyu conflict, scams and bribery, and the potential for the beginnings of a human-life-threatening plague being covered up due to corruption and political sensibility. Not to mention the food – charred zebra thigh, bowls of cow’s blood (plus or minus milk), spaghetti in rancid goat’s milk sauce, and the twin horrors that are dried tamarind and canned Taiwanese mackerel in tomato sauce.
There are some disclosures of Sapolski’s findings (his principal area of interest is the relationship between hormones, stress, and disease) but this is really a homage (or an homage) to his troop, and the way his time with them, and with the people he worked with, shaped the man he is today.
Although the baboons are described adequately, and it is clear that they are individuals, with differing personalities, strategies and skills, they never really came alive for me. Sapolsky clearly cared deeply for them, and his eulogy for one, toward the end of the book, did have me in unexpected tears. But the detail of their genealogy was a little too Old Testament for me (and not just because many of the baboons were named for figures therein) – Sapolsky stops short of begetting, but the lineages take up a little room. I found the pacing a little uneven, choppy in places, and although some of his trademark wit and lightness shines through, I didn’t feel fully engaged in the writing. This may be because auto/biography is not my preferred genre, or perhaps because my non-bibliophilic life is a little turbulent at the moment. Whatever the reason, it was disappointing, as I have thoroughly loved Sapolsky’s other books, and turned to this eagerly awaited tome after a string of frankly disappointing books only intermittently leavened by the odd familiar and well-loved reread. Take home lesson (for me)? In cold weather times of angst, return to the familiar comforts of youth – cosy food, warm baths (bearing in mind the imminence of tighter water restrictions), and cherished, proven books. - Alex