Posted by: Matt | June 11, 2007

Review of A Primate’s Memoir

A Primate’s MemoirA Primate’s Memoir
Robert M. Sapolsky

Reason for reading: I first read about this book over at Pages Turned and almost immediately put it on my TBR list. A month or so later my younger sister, who just graduated from Veterinary School, and I were trying to think of a book we could both read. I recommended this book to her because of her love of animals and time she spent studying primates for an internship.

Quote: “I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”


The primate referred to in the title is the author, Robert M. Sapolsky. This book is an assortment of stories about his time spent in Africa over many years and the experiences he had with the baboons he studied as well as the African people he met. The stories are organized into four periods of Sapolsky’s life, but within those periods the tales appear to be organized randomly. This is a bit confusing until you realize there isn’t any method to his madness, he is merely throwing experiences at you. It is somewhat like sitting down with a friend listening to him tell you stories as they pop into his head.

It is important to realize that this is not a book entirely about the author’s study of baboons, much of the book is spent relating experiences with the people of Africa. I found this fascinating as I have been intrigued with that enormous continent since college. Two themes come through over and over within these tales of the African people. One, you get the idea that there is as much corruption and hustling occurring there as we are lead to believe by the media, and, two, for every African willing to hustle you there are ten ready to give you the clothes of their backs and the food off their plates.

The author is definitely not afraid to pull any punches in his memoir. He tells of frightening experiences when African soldiers beat him and threatened his life; a time when he was, for all intents and purposes, held hostage and forced to drink coke unendingly for days; and describes Dian Fossey (of the gorillas) as a crazed, manipulative obsessive who might have been the cause of the deaths of her beloved gorillas. Some of this smacks of pretentiousness and grandstanding but he certainly tells an engaging story.

One thing is clear, however, the experiences Sopolsky has had in Africa have touched him. You can tell he cares for the people, and more particularly for his troop of baboons. He spent several years studying the same troop and came to love them like family.

Rating: 4.0



  1. My husband has read this book and loved it and it has since been on my TBR list but I had forgotten about it until now. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Stefanie – You’re welcome! It’s hard to remember everything on the TBR list when it gets so large. Hope you enjoy it!

  3. This is one of my husband’s favorite books. He’s a big-time Sapolsky fan! But I’d never really thought about reading this book until your review. Now I think I’m sold. Thanks!

  4. Debi – I had never heard of Sapolsky until I discovered this book. Still don’t know anything about him apart from this book. Hope you enjoy the book!

  5. I plucked this book off a sale table outside a used bookshop in San Francisco and absolutely loved it! Most of the time when I read books about field biologists in Africa I find their descriptions of dealing with people, politics and the country tedious and want to get back to the text about the animals. But Sapolsky made it funny and relevant.

  6. Cere – This is the first book I’ve read by a field biologist or neurologist in Africa, and it sounds to me from what you say that I chose the right one.

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