Friday, July 9, 2010

The Stressful Serengeti


Nature is supposed to be calming. We are urged to take vacations in 
"nature."  But people who spend a lot of time in "nature" know better.  Nature is not good or bad; it just is.  And sometimes it's violent and dangerous, and that's not just hurricanes: sometimes your fellow organisms can be a pain in the butt.

Nobody knows this better than Robert Sapolsky, the author of A Primate's Memoir.  Sapolsky has studied olive baboons in the Serengeti for decades, as a way of understanding stress in animals in general, including humans, the most numerous primates.  Sapolsky went to Kenya shortly after his graduation from Harvard and began chasing olive baboons with a blow-gun, in order to dart them with an anesthetic, draw blood from them, and measure their cortisol levels to determine their stress levels.  He found that being an alpha baboon was good.  Duh.  Being lower down on the pecking order caused a lot of stress for baboons.  The lower-ranking baboons, male and female, were subjected to bullying from higher ranking baboons, and some of them failed to mate as a result.  Both these things--physical abuse and isolation--make stress hormones sky-rocket, leading to stress-related diseases.

But this book is not just a parable about all the reasons not to let other people (or baboons) bully you.  It's a very entertaining account of life in Africa during the eighties and nineties.  Many of Sapolsky's stories revolve around his travels outside Kenya--to Sudan and Rwanda, memorably--and close scrapes and narrow escapes from bad guys and con artists in that part of the continent. The picture emerges of a beautiful but troubled continent, where desperately poor people are inured to corruption.  The last, tragic chapter is a lesson in the damage that corruption can do.

During his sojourns in the Serengeti, Sapolsky's neighbors were the Masai, with whom he seems to have had a love-hate relationship. At first he wanted to BE a Masai, and he practised diligently with the spear they gave him, trying to throw it through a rolling tire.  He became close friends with several Masai.  But as the decades went by, Masai culture changed.  The Masai turned out to be instrumental in the destruction of the baboons that Sapolsky loved.  In the end, he had some sympathy for the Kenyan government, which made being a Masai warrior illegal eventually.  Nevertheless, Sapolsky feels some sadness for the loss of this warrior, cow-herding culture.  (He mentions parenthetically that they practiced clitoridectomy,  which detracts somewhat from the romance of the culture.)

Sapolsky is a very good story-teller.  He is good at pacing a story, finding the telling detail to make it vivid and usually funny, and delivering the punch line. Some of his stories are poignant as well as funny, like the story of his trip to visit the dwindling reserve where Dian Fossey's mountain gorillas lives.  Fossey was apparently not as good at getting along with the locals as Sapolsky has learned to be, and he is critical, although also admiring, of her, especially since mountain gorillas were Sapolsky's first love.  He switched to baboons when he realized that baboon society is more analogous to human societies, and thus better for studying social stress.

I laughed out loud several times reading this book. It's rare to read a book by an academic scientist that is so well-written and entertaining that it makes you laugh out loud.  But also it made me think differently about people. I started noticing that people are really very sophisticated baboons. A lot of what goes on between people is exactly the kind of power-mongering and jockeying for position that olive baboons are obsessed with.  Somehow that realization--that it's just part of primate nature to bully and resist bullying--makes it, well, less stressful.  Groom your friends, avoid your enemies, make a loud noise if you need to, to scare enemies off, avoid the hyenas, and life is pretty good.

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