A BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert Sapolsky (p3)


So, how did I get from Brooklyn to hanging out with this Bozo of a baboon in a national park in East Africa?

I've noticed that about three-quarters of the people who wind up doing zoological fieldwork grew up in the field; their parents were researchers or missionaries, and they inherited the family business. The other quarter grew up in some total hell-hole of an urban neighborhood and at some point managed to stumble into the Natural History Museum. They became captivated by the first glass case they saw, and decided that they would study geckoes or horseshoe crabs forever. My experience happened to focus on non-human primates. I grew up in a horrendous neighborhood in Brooklyn that's mostly famous for the worst tribal violence west of Kosovo. The notion that there are places where you can learn about natural history and that you can actually get the hell out of Brooklyn was very appealing to me.

I became interested in natural history when I was eight years old. My parents saw it as a passing phase—and still do. It's an annual question from my mother: "Does that mean you're not going back to Africa, now that you have a Ph.D.?" or "... now that you have a faculty job?" or "... now that you're married and have kids?"

My father was an architectural historian, so I was pulled into archaeology and an obsession with Egyptology very early. I could easily have gone the dinosaur route, but instead absolutely turned to primatology. George Schaller's book, The Year of the Gorilla, documenting the first fieldwork with gorillas he did over six months in the 50s, convinced me. Today people do 30-year-long studies, but at the time this was a landmark. The idea that you can live in hiking shoes in a tent with a population of primates was galvanizing to me. By the time I was ten, I was sending fan letters to primatologists. I still run into some of them at meetings, and although they're all retired now, they remember the crayon-scrawled letters that they'd get from me now and then.

By the time I got to Harvard, I was all set to do nothing but primatology. I was studying bioanthropology in the fall of my freshman year when E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology and it was the required text in four out of five of my classes. This was the period of Gould, Trivers, Lewontin, Skinner, and Chomsky all battling with each other, and there were amazing intellectual fireworks.

It was a totally fascinating period, because it was just incredibly contentious stuff. Richard Herrnstein was there at the time doing his IQ heritability stuff in the middle of the Cyril Burt scandal. Burt had done all of the classic studies on IQ heritability for 50 years in the UK, almost single-handedly created a stratified educational system in Britain, and had died a few years before. He had been knighted, and was as honored as you could possibly be, but right around that time it became fairly convincing that he had fabricated a large percentage of his life's work.

This wasn't just fudging a number or cleaning up the data—he invented nonexistent collaborators and co-authors. All his research hammered on the point that IQ is highly heritable. It was a very contentious period. Every evening all of us would be screaming at each other at the dinner table over subjects like this, and there were dormitory lecture series by various gray beards and various fights running. One week Chomsky would come and we would spend the next week being Chomskyites, and the next week B. F. Skinner would come and we'd be Skinnerians the week after. We eventually got a sense of the sheer personalities of these people.

Richard Lewontin was fascinating. He was one of the most ideologically consistent people I've ever seen, in terms of his leftist views, ones that I agree fairly heavily with. It takes a lot of work to do abstract basic science in such a way that every step clearly reflects your notion of what the world is like and what aspects need to be remedied.

At some point my house at Harvard was looking for a new housemaster. The usual deal was to get someone appointed who promised new carpets or some such improvement. A bunch of us decided that we needed to seize control and select our next housemaster and decided that it was going to be Lewontin. I was actually sent to interview him, and he came up with all these crazy, wonderfully communalist schemes.He was going to set up a repository of term papers in the house so that anybody could consult any paper and copy it, for example. Word eventually trickled down from on high that he was most certainly not going to be the next housemaster, and that we should just forget about it. It was not clear he had any desire to be our housemaster, or if this was more nose-thumbing, but he was a formidable political presence, and one of the radiating bodies on the scene there.

A lot of those fires have cooled down. Herrnstein had a last salvo with The Bell Curve just before he died, but the most contentious neo-'60s intellectual scientific debates in the '70s died down. There are still spurts, but in a lot of ways it became fairly clear at the far left end that it's a pretty optimistic endeavor to think that science is going to do a whole lot of social good. Most of the steam has come out of that idea.

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