Throughout her five-decade-long career, Jane Goodall has established herself as the confidante of presidents and pop stars. Having shaken the hands of several million people, raised significant funds for conservation projects, and inspired the birth of a new branch of science, she has radically transformed our understanding of what separates humans from other animals. Out of all the incredible experiences she has had, there is one that stands out.
“It was one day that I was tracking through the jungle, following David Greybeard, who was always my favourite, at a distance. At one point I thought I’d lost him, and then, suddenly, I entered a clearing, and he was sitting there, looking at me, as if he had been waiting for me. And who knows, perhaps he was?”
She reminisces about this moment with a smile, “I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but after a little while, I approached him, very gingerly, and I noticed there was a pinenut on the ground – they love those. So I picked it up and very slowly, very gently, held it out to him. He pushed my hand away, but he didn’t run away. So I tried again, and he took the pinenut from me and threw it on the ground. But then he did the most remarkable thing. He reached out his hand” – she slowly extends her own – “and covered mine with it, and just held it for a moment."
Her touch on my wrist is cool, and feather light. “It’s what chimpanzees do to reassure each other. And it was just remarkable, this wild animal communicating with me just as he would with a member of his species. I don’t know if there was some ancient brotherhood between us that he was tapping into. But I found it absolutely incredible.”
It was during her early twenties that Goodall discovered her passion for animals. Despite lacking academic training, she saved up waitressing tips to fund a long boat journey to Africa, where she established a job as secretary to the celebrated anthropologist, Louis Leakey. Within months, Goodall had convinced Leakey to allow her to study a group of chimpanzees living in an area of virgin forest called Gombe on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
Leakey believed that researching the social lives of chimpanzees would enlighten him on the early hominids he had discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, as well as their modern human descendants. However, as Goodall dedicated herself to the study of these primates, she unveiled numerous discoveries that would fundamentally shift our broader comprehension of the animal kingdom.
Her most well-known revelation came by accident and within months of her arrival at Gombe. One rainy morning, Goodall observed the chimp she called David Greybeard fishing for his food. He pushed a long leafy stem into a hole in a termite mound, withdrew it, and sucked off the soldier termites that had defensively clung to the prod. As she observed this repeatedly, Goodall realized that the chimps picked up twigs from trees and pulled off the outer leaves to fashion the rods themselves. The ability to make tools, once thought to be a trait unique to humans, was not exclusive to homo sapiens. In a telegram, Leakey enthused, "We must now redefine man, redefine tools, or accept chimpanzees as humans."
I first had the pleasure of meeting Jane Goodall in London through her assistant, Mary Lewis, one of the formidable and highly capable middle-aged women who assist her in managing her busy schedule. Lewis had mentioned that Goodall might have a little bit of free time while in London, so I managed to squeeze in a conversation that lasted only 15 minutes, amidst her tight schedule that involved a book launch and spending time with her sister and niece. Lewis advised me that I was unaware of the extent of Goodall’s busy schedule. However, a few weeks later, Lewis contacted me and mentioned that Dr. Goodall would have some time in mid-March in Denver, Colorado, while visiting.
Goodall arrived in Denver to open “The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall,” a travelling exhibit that includes a mock-up jungle, graciously housed for three months by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as “Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees,” an IMAX movie about Gombe, which the museum screened until the end of that year. Interestingly, Denver was thrilled to welcome Goodall, who has become an American rock star, according to Lewis. To be precise, the excitement that this shy, grey-haired British woman generates was surprising. We had to be smuggled into buildings through back doors and underground service lifts, as Goodall’s enthusiastic fans crowded around her for an autograph or a photograph. Every Starbucks shop we entered (of which there were numerous, as Goodall seems to subsist mainly on black coffee and crumbleberry slices) had the young female servers asking, “Is that who I think it is?" At a book signing in the neighboring city of Boulder, some of the several hundred people waiting in line for an autograph were in tears by the time they reached Goodall’s table. When the line finally passed, an exhausted Goodall noted with quiet triumph, “I had four people tell me today that they had done science to the PhD level because of me”.
Jane Goodall is undeniably an internationally renowned celebrity. She has appeared on prime-time chat shows in the United States and has even been name-checked on “The Simpsons.” She counts Kofi Annan among her friends and can boast of celebrity supporters such as Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg, and Alicia Silverstone. After requesting that Goodall visit his Neverland Ranch to advise him on the care of his own pet chimp Bubbles, Michael Jackson wrote a song for her. Goodall explained in an interview that “Michael asked me for some tapes that we had about the suffering of chimps in captivity, so that he would get very upset to help him write the song. Heal the World” went on to become an enormous worldwide hit. She is perhaps the only famous scientist who has had to put on a wig and dark glasses on occasion to disguise herself from overenthusiastic fans.
The National Geographic Society largely deserves credit for Jane Goodall’s remarkable level of stardom. Inspired by her observation of tool making, the organization agreed to provide funding for an additional year of research. Later, an ambitious young photographer, Hugo van Lawick, was dispatched to work with her. Goodall’s work with the chimpanzees was still in its early stages, and she was still "habituated" to their presence when Lawick arrived. His photographs of wild chimpanzees looking under her shirt for hidden bananas, and early films of baby apes touching her nose, were broadcast around the world. The beautiful, white Englishwoman with an unusual spiritual connection to nature soon became a star. Lawick and Goodall married in 1964, and their son, known as Grub, followed three years later.
Jane Goodall’s research demonstrated that chimpanzees display a variety of behaviours that were once thought to be exclusive to humans, such as abstract reasoning, symbolic representation, and self-awareness. While some of her findings were positive, not all were benign. Goodall discovered that chimpanzees could be brutal, just like their hominid cousins. Goodall observed male chimpanzees organizing themselves in ferocious hunts for smaller mammals, revealing the darker side of their nature. She also documented two female chimpanzees going on a murderous and cannibalistic campaign against other females’ young. Additionally, she saw one group of chimpanzees completely annihilate a smaller, separated group in a four-year war in what was the first-ever observation of such advanced levels of violent behaviour in non-human primates.
Goodall’s observations suggested that aggressive behaviour was innate in chimpanzees, leading her to believe it was probably innate in humans too. Despite facing criticism for publishing these findings, she believed that human aggression could be controlled. One fundamental element of this was controlling our inherited aggressive tendencies.
Goodall is vocally opposed to the violence in Iraq and has no reservations about thinking beyond accepted scientific parameters. A recent comment she made about accepting the possible existence of Bigfoot and other unknown great apes prompted a flood of correspondence, which delighted her.
National Geographic films helped make Goodall a global star. They also led to a group of scientists and enthusiasts wishing to emulate her work. Two women in particular, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, contacted Leakey and obtained assignments on projects observing gorillas in Rwanda and orangutans in Borneo, respectively. Primatology is now a well-established field of study with a higher percentage of women than any other scientific discipline. Goodall hypothesizes that women may be inherently better at this kind of research because of their need to understand non-verbal beings.
In 1986, at a conference marking the publication of her significant behavioural study The Chimpanzees of Gombe, Goodall recognized that primates around the world were critically threatened by habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. She realized then that she could no longer be an observer but needed to take action, with no alternative but to get involved. This led to her leaving behind her role as a field scientist and beginning a new chapter of her life.
Jane Goodall strongly emphasizes the importance of positivity and hopefulness, but acknowledges the grim reality that the future for chimpanzees at Gombe is in peril. The park, spanning 77.6 sq km (30 sq miles), is secured; however, rampant deforestation in the areas surrounding it poses a significant threat to the survival of the chimp population.
Considering that the chimpanzee community at Gombe now consists of merely 150 individuals, their long-term genetic sustainability is uncertain. Throughout Africa, the population of chimpanzees has plummeted from 2 million to 150,000 over a century. In this month’s National Geographic magazine, Jane warns, "Unless we can expand the current habitat corridors that connect the park to the communities in the north, the Gombe chimpanzees could become susceptible to disease or inbreeding within decades."
Fatigue evident, Jane Goodall assures, "That’s why I will continue with this absurd schedule as long as I can." Her itinerary involves Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minnesota. She notes, "We must stop relying solely on decision-makers and instead, recognize that each of us can make a difference. If everyone who cares about the environment acts ethically and considers buying ethically, then the world will transform rapidly."
If you wish to learn more about Jane Goodall, you can read the following books: In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behaviour by Jane Goodall, and Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape, and Evolution by Carol Jahme. Visit the Jane Goodall Institute for further information.