An interview with Robert M. Sapolsky
Robert M. Sapolsky leads a double life. As a Stanford primatologist, he studies Kenyan baboons, looking to our genetic cousins for insights into human genes, brains and societies. As a popular science writer, he explores the implications of these findings in lively, incisive essays for Discover, The New Yorker, Natural History, Scientific American and Men's Health.
Sapolsky's latest book, Monkeyluv and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (Scribner, 2005), collects his popular writings on topics ranging from sexual politics and the ecology of theology to a geneticist's assessment of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World." ("As will be seen," he writes, "there is a tragic paucity of good research in this area.")
American Scientist assistant book review editor Amos Esty and online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Sapolsky by e-mail in September 2005.
You mention that you successfully avoided taking English classes in college. How did you develop the urge and ability to write for a audience?
I think the key thing was my starting to do fieldwork in Africa. For about a dozen years, I'd spend three, four months a year fairly isolated in a tent, out in a national park. Do that regularly and you get desperately dependent on mail from anyone, and thus you send out letters to every person you've ever met in your life, in the hopes of someone writing back. I think that's where writing started to get in my blood.
Did you have to sacrifice technical detail in order to make these essays accessible?
Definitely. In my science books for nonscientists, I always have these lengthy annotated references in the back, or at the end of individual essays. They're to help people delve in further and to convince my colleagues that I'm still a serious scientist, can actually still reference something, but it also solves the nagging sense I often feel at having to sacrifice too much detail to make something accessible.
Have you found it difficult to balance popular science writing with research?
Yes. Both are hard, very time-intensive, all the usual, and in extremely different ways. The writing is often more tempting—write a good paragraph, you know fairly soon. Get a good idea in science, maybe you find out if you were right two years later.
Is it hard to make the transition from living with baboon populations in Africa to working in a lab in Palo Alto? Are you able to spend much time doing fieldwork now?
Less and less—I have young kids, who aren't old enough yet to go out into the field (soon!), so I've drastically cut back on fieldwork time. The transitions are actually simple by now—I've been doing it for 28 years. There was a period during grad school in New York where I'd spend a Friday morning with the baboons, break camp in the afternoon, drive to Nairobi, get a Saturday morning plane flight and, thanks to time differences, be on a subway in Manhattan by Sunday morning, doing the first hormone assays on baboon samples that afternoon. No problem. Then, naturally, about a week later I'd disintegrate into sleeplessness and culture shock.
With all the attention given to breakthroughs that purport to show how a certain gene determines a certain behavior, is it a tough time to be a critic of genetic reductionism, or, as you call it, this "orgy of reductive optimism"?
Sure. It's a very seductive world of explanation. But amid that complaining, it is clear that molecular genetic approaches can help enormously in some realms of science—my own lab does gene therapy, so presumably I believe in the importance of genes to at least some extent. ...
When you've spent 28 years in the field, do baboons begin to seem human? Or do humans seem more baboonlike?
Yes to both. That is, until I had kids, and then realized that no amount of baboon watching had prepared me in the slightest for this type of primate.
In your mind, who are we? How do you perceive your own species now?
Jeez. Lots of genetic propensities, little genetic determinism; lots of hard-wiring for an unprecedented capacity for plasticity; biologically, a terribly confused primate—for example, by anatomical, physiological and genetic criteria, we're not a classic monogamous species, not a classic polygamous one, but somewhere in between, generating huge amounts of literature and Hollywood scandals as a result.
What are our biggest misconceptions about ourselves?
Well, the self-serving answer I'd have to come up with is that our cultures and civilizations have gotten us to the point where we are free of our biology.
Have your insights into primate behavior made you reflect on your own daily life? How has your research changed you?
I've long wrestled with two horrendous contradictions between how I live and what my science teaches me. The first is appreciating how important stable support networks of sociality are for health—much of this being gleaned from studying baboons for years while I lived like a hermit in the middle of the Serengeti. The other is the obvious "stress is bad for your health"—where, like most of us in this science business, I'm an overextended wreck.