Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

This book is a lot of things all at once. It is the story of the time Robert Sapolsky spent in Africa studying a troupe of baboons (several months a year, over many many years), the story of how he grows up as a person and as a scientist, and it is the story of how a scientist can get so absorbed in a particular problem that they really can't see it from the outside anymore.

Yet another recommendation from Jo Walton's blog. In fact, I don't think I could possibly write a better summary of it than she has. Especially what she has to say about the way he writes about animals and people.

I especially enjoyed learning what it is like to do this sort of research, where you spend months in the field, in very different conditions than your normal life, and then head back home to the lab again. Towards the end of the book many of the local baboons are getting sick, and there's a real mystery that Sapolsky has to solve - how are they getting sick and what needs to be done to stop it. He solves the mystery - figures out exactly where the illness is coming from. It isn't curable, but it is definitely preventable - except that in order to prevent it from spreading involves some local politics. There are some folks involved in totally illegal dealings who are making a lot of money, and incidentally making the baboons very sick. He is quite ready to point a finger at everything that's going on, to him the baboons are every bit as important as any individual human being, and yet when he goes to folks higher up, they are very reluctant to do anything about the situation. I was so involved in the story that I was every bit as incensed as he was that these scams were allowed to continue and endanger innocent lives...and then eventually things are explained fully. The ramifications of getting certain people into trouble on the whole park system and all the efforts at conservation that were going on. Simply heading to the authorities and solving this particular problem might help these specific baboons right now, but in the long run would probably hurt them, and would definitely hurt the overall conservation efforts, the park system, access to these areas for scientists. As a scientist you get really stuck in your little corner, working on your particular problem, and it is really easy to stop looking at the rest of the world. If you let yourself become too distracted you won't make any progress on your own work, but every so often you do have to take that step back and realize that there's a much bigger picture, that everyone has to deal with politics at some level, and that no matter how important what you're working on is, other things are important too. Some of them so important that you've just been taking them for granted.

This is a brilliant story. Sapolsky writes beautifully and the prose just flows. But at the same time as entertaining, he also manages to teach you a lot - about baboons, about being a scientist, about life in Africa, and about respect for people in general. This is a book I'd love to own, just to pass it around to everyone I know.

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