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Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine

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Baboons are nasty, brutish, and short. They have a long muzzle and sharp fangs designed to inflict deadly injury. Their bodies are covered in thick, olive-colored fur, except on their buttocks, which are hairless. The species is defined by its social habits: The primates live in troops, or groupings of several dozen individuals. These troops have a strict hierarchy, and each animal is assigned a specific rank. While female rank is hereditary — a daughter inherits her mother’s status — males compete for dominance. These fights can be bloody, but the stakes are immense: A higher rank means more sex. The losers, in contrast, face a bleak array of options — submission, exile, or death.

In 1978, Robert Sapolsky was a recent college graduate with a degree in biological anthropology and a job in Kenya. He had set off for a year of fieldwork by himself among baboons before he returned to the US for grad school and the drudgery of the lab. At the time, Sapolsky’s wilderness experience consisted of short backpacking trips in the Catskill Mountains; he had lit a campfire exactly once. Most of what he knew about African wildlife he’d learned from stuffed specimens at the Museum of Natural History. And yet here he was in Nairobi, speaking the wrong kind of Swahili and getting ripped off by everyone he met. Eventually he made his way to the bush, a sprawling savanna filled with zebras and wildebeests and elephants. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Sapolsky remembers. “There was an animal behind every tree. I was inside the diorama.”
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