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          Copyright 1996  Chicago Tribune  Company                     
                                Chicago Tribune                                 
              February 11, 1996 Sunday, CHICAGOLAND FINAL EDITION               
SECTION: TRIBUNE BOOKS; Pg. 6; ZONE: C; Nonfiction.                             
LENGTH: 1263 words                                                              
HEADLINE: INSIGHTS FROM A 'MONKEY DOCTOR';                                      

BYLINE: Reviewed by Julia Glass, author of an award-winning entry in the 1993   
Nelson Algren Short Story Competition.                                          
   In Quest of the Sacred Baboon: A Scientist's Journey                         
   By  Hans Kummer                                                              
   Translated by M. Ann Biederman-Thorson                                       
   Princeton University Press, 376 pages, $29.95                                
   A melange of textbook, travelogue and philosophical memoir, "In Quest of the 
Sacred Baboon" is an ethologist's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink account of two
decades' research on the hamadryas baboon, both in captivity and in the wild.   
What it lacks in economy and organization it makes up for in charm, intelligence
and self-effacing wit (conveyed through M. Ann Biederman-Thorson's gracious     
translation). With neither the dark fanaticism of a Dian Fossey nor the         
pragmatic crusading of a Jane Goodall,  Hans Kummer  renders in exhaustive,     
affectionate detail the social customs of his chosen species and how those      
customs reflect on the evolution of primates in general (ourselves among them), 
on genetic versus cultural evolution and on the overarching nature of evolution 
as we perceive it.                                                              
   His journey began in the Zurich Zoo in 1955, when, as a zoology student,     
Kummer chose to write his thesis on a colony of baboons. He might as easily have
chosen geckos or pythons, he admits, but what attracted him to the monkeys was  
his enthusiasm for studying a society. In the book's first chapter, we are drawn
into the daily life of a captive "family" of 15 hamadryas baboons--from Pasha,  
"the sole adult male, object of fascination and fear for all the others," leader
of the typical baboon harem, to Vecchia, a submissive, even persecuted female   
who nevertheless rises to become "executive officer" of the family when         
Pasha's virility and power wane. In this setting, Kummer serves an              
apprenticeship of observation, cataloging and translating every gesture from    
brow-raising to lip-smacking; scrutinizing the curious ritual of grooming       
(focused on the dominant male's shaggy mantle), which is so essential to group  
cohesion; and making sense of behaviors such as "protected threatening" (in     
which a female averts conflict between two males by expressing submission in    
back and aggression in front).                                                  
   Kummer had yet to see the hamadryas in its native savanna/desert habitat of  
the Red Sea region, so many of the generalizations he made in Zurich would later
be revised. But he raises fascinating questions on what scientists may discover 
about evolutionary possibilities when studying their subjects behind bars, thus 
challenging the ethologist's bias that zoo behavior is irrelevant to nature.    
   Describing what he calls the "blossoming of natural dispositions in unnatural
surroundings," he writes that zoo animals "can develop the potential of their   
species to a degree unknown in the wild for certain areas of behavior, though   
other abilities may atrophy. For primates, the zoo can easily serve as a        
hothouse for social behavior, but it also creates animals that know as little   
about foraging and predators in their native habitat as a human city dweller    
knows about deer hunting or raising sheep. So if a critical reader is still     
convinced that Pasha's group was behaving abnormally, I would ask: How normal   
is it for us to play and explore beyond our basic needs?" And in analyzing his  
surprise that an underdog like Vecchia could rise to the top of her family's    
pecking order, he exposes our human assumptions about the influence of ego and  
identity on social destiny.                                                     
   In 1960, Kummer found the opportunity--albeit with scant funds, only one     
assistant and a quirky "gray toad" of a Jeep named Emma--to travel to Ethiopia, 
where the hamadryas baboons lived along the rocky cliffs in an arid region near 
Dire Dawa, in troops of about 200 and in such proximity to human settlements    
that they would allow people to venture within 30 yards of them--an ethologist's
dream come true. (Ethology, Kummer explains, is a science that concentrates on  
species-specific instincts, not learned behavior; until that time, it had been  
applied mainly to insects, fishes and birds, not to mammals and least of all to 
   Once in the homeland of his beloved quarry, "the monkey doctor" (as he is    
locally christened) revels not only in bringing science to the bush but also in 
wrestling with the culture: struggling to speak the native Amharic, to make     
peace with the hovering (and armed) Issa-Somali nomads, to fend off a           
chronically meddlesome hippo--all such attempts yielding one cheerfully         
sustained misadventure after the next. Still, the baboons hold center           
stage--though earning the privilege to watch them up close takes diligence and  
   "The zoologist's dream of being accepted by wild animals, nourished by       
Kipling's Mowgli and Lofting's Dr. Dolittle, is actually a prerequisite for a   
primate ethologist in the field," writes Kummer. "An entomologist, by contrast, 
can crouch at the nest of a mason bee or by the transport route of an ant colony
without disturbing the objects of his attention; if he just holds still he soon 
becomes part of the landscape. This makes his work easier, but he will never    
have the pleasure of being regarded as a (member of the same species) by his    
   With the aid of intricate diagrams and diverse illustrations, Kummer portrays
the very particular social infrastructure that hamadryas baboons--as opposed to 
gelada, anubis, savanna and other baboon species--have developed to suit their  
environment. From a human point of view (a bias of which Kummer is constantly   
aware), the life of the male hamadryas baboon is oddly poignant.  Though one    
would assume the closed harem system puts him in tyrannical control of his      
females, in fact he is highly vulnerable to losing his partners, and his        
precarious prime of life lasts only half a dozen years, after which he falls    
dramatically in stature. While dominant, he exerts a great deal of effort to    
"herd" his mates (Kummer quaintly calls them "wives") and maintains absolute    
sexual fidelity to them once he becomes a "husband"; by contrast, the females   
often lead sexually promiscuous lives and may even acquiesce to being           
"kidnapped" by a male from another band. The respectful confraternity that      
Kummer observes among the males of a close-knit group is something akin only to 
human behavior at its best, and his analysis of the evolutionary logic behind   
such apparent altruism yields some provocative surprises.                       
   What this book might have included are points of general ethological theory: 
for instance, how the strategies of any animal may be evaluated by two criteria,
survival value for the genes and gratification value for the individual; or how 
the so-called higher animals have been forced to form groups with their         
competitors, creating societies full of conflict (lacking the "often-admired    
social perfection" of, say, termite society).                                   
   Unfortunately, conflict invaded Kummer's scientific paradise when, in 1977,  
war broke out in the wake of Haile Selassie's assassination; the baboon field   
projects came to an end and were never to resume in that region. Kummer returned
to Switzerland to reflect, write and mourn the abrupt loss of contact with an   
entire society in which he had invested an alter ego of sorts.  Consciously or  
not, I suspect, his title reference to the hamadryas baboons as "sacred" refers 
not so much to their hallowed status in ancient Egyptian lore (mentioned only in
the book's introduction) as to the place they hold in the author's own          
intellect, imagination and affections. For though this book may be read as a    
scientist's account of his life work, it also reads as the anthem to a long and 
happy love affair.