March 11, 02

Vol. 17 , No. 09   

View Entire Issue (Vol. 17 , No. 09)

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease, and Coping

As a boy in New York City, Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky wanted to live in one of the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. He wrote fan letters to primatologists, started reading their textbooks at the age of fourteen, and even learned Swahili, all in the hopes that one day he could go to Africa and see his primate brethren. One week after graduating from Harvard in the mid-1970s, he finally achieved his dream: he made a trip to Kenya to study the social behavior of baboons. Ever since, he spends three months out of each year in the Serengeti of East Africa studying wild baboons and what their dominance rank, social behavior, and personality have to do with patterns of stress-related diseases.

According to author Pete Dexter, "Mr. Sapolsky has been to the end of the road and come back with some of the best stories you will ever hear and, in the process, has put his finger on some vast common denominator." Salpolsky will share some of these stories with the Claremont audience in his Athenaeum lecture. Specifically, in a fascinating look at the science of stress, he will present an intriguing reason for stress disorders in humans: people develop such diseases partly because our bodies aren't designed for the constant stresses of a modern-day life-like sitting in daily traffic jams or growing up in poverty. Rather, they seem more well suited for the kind of short-term stress faced by a zebra-like outrunning a lion.

A research associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya and a winner of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, Sapolsky is the author of three books, including Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease, and Coping (1993) and A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2001). In addition to his books, his articles have appeared in many publications, including Discover and The New Yorker. His lecture and article topics cover a wide range: stress and from where stress related diseases originate; the biology of individuality; the biology of belief, the biology of memory; diseases such as schizophrenia, depression, aggression, and Alzheimer's; and, of course, baboons.

Robert Sapolsky is the David E. French Lecturer for the 2002 academic year.