Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional life among the Baboons by Robert Sapolsky - A Book Review

Exploits of a ‘hippie scientist’ in Africa

This book is supposed to be a study of the baboons in Africa by a neuroscientist. The author ‘joins’ a troop of baboons  in Kenya, gives them various names from the old testament and monitors them closely. Joining is obviously an exaggeration as the author is armed with his jeep and other accessories but more or less camps closely to the troop and tracks the activities of the troop members. The main objective of the study seems to be tracking the stress level of the male members as they pass through the various hierarchical positions in the troop. This is achieved by anesthetizing them occasionally using a blow dart gun and then taking their blood samples. He also observes the social behavior of the members including tracking ‘who is making out with who’.

Only less than 20% of the book cover the baboons while the rest is spent on various adventures of the author in different African countries, in the national parks as well as interactions with the ‘black’ natives. A typical western person’s view of African life is depicted in those descriptions if one can suffer to read through all of it. How much of these are ‘hallucinations’ and what are real is difficult to make out.

I don’t think this book merits as a science book by any standards – since very little of science (forget neuroscience) is covered. Couple of chapters (one in the beginning and one towards the end) are interesting from a view of understanding baboon group behavior. However the author hardly seems to take into account the trauma he must have been imparting on the group by walking around and darting them! He acknowledges that they would run away from him and it was an uphill task for him to get close to them, as time went along. It is a basic rule in science that the process of measuring does affect the metric that you are trying to measure – but in this case the stress level induced by the scientist would dramatically influence whatever he was trying to measure.

Maybe my criticism is unduly harsh considering that the study was done many years back and the book itself was published in 2001. Reading it in 2015, I would be looking at it from a much later perspective. But  still, it will be hard to deny the basic facts that I have highlighted and I would not recommend anyone wasting time with this book.

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