By Bill Chameides
A Dame of the British Empire speaks at Duke.
Jane Goodall is an intellectual giant of our time. Through her 50-year study of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, the world-famous primatologist has illuminated the inner workings of the chimp mind and social networks, and in the process greatly expanded our understanding of another species a little closer to home -- Homo sapiens. The accolades and awards recognizing her research and environmental and humanitarian work are long and distinguished. Two times a United Nations Messenger of Peace (in 2002 and 2007), in 2004 she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Goodall visited Duke this week to announce the transfer of five decades' worth of research notes and data to the Evolutionary Anthropology Department and to speak on "Gombe and Beyond: The Next 50 Years." Her visit was the capstone of a week-long series of events called Primate Palooza highlighting primate conservation.
Prior to the press conference announcing her generous donation, a small luncheon was organized in her honor to which I had the great privilege to be invited. It meant I would get to meet Dame Goodall. And meet her I did.
Have to say she was not what I expected; I was surprised by the Jane Goodall I met and it was a pleasant surprise. For someone of her fame and accomplishments I hadn't expected such a gentle presence, with warm and kind eyes, self-deprecating wit and an unassuming, open persona. Shaking the hands of those she met with her left (because of a cast on her right), she explained she'd recently fallen down some steps and landed on a concrete floor. "I am privileged," she said, "to be here without a broken neck." The privilege was ours.
On Chimps and a Lifelong Love and Career
Goodall's unlikely path to scientific superstardom is an inspiration for any wide-eyed youth. A young woman with no scientific training, let alone a college education, sent by archeologist Louis Leakey to study chimps in their native habitat, she observed behavior that blasted apart a tightly held dogma: that our species was unique in the animal kingdom by virtue of our ability to use tools.
As Goodall recounted in her lecture, her path began in war-torn London where her love of animals as a girl included bringing earthworms into her bed. She confessed another early love that foreshadowed her eventual career: Tarzan, who greatly disappointed when he chose to marry "that other stupid, wimpy Jane."
Soon her great ambition was to live in Africa. But how? Her mother advised: first attend secretarial school, then apply for a clerical job there. Goodall followed her mother's advice and it worked! She got a clerical job in Kenya and that led to a most improbable and fortuitous gig with Leakey, who, recognizing a unique and special talent, arranged for a six-month fellowship for Goodall to study chimpanzees in Gombe.
It was there, after months of frustration at not being able to get close to her subjects, that she made her paradigm-shattering observation: a chimp using a long stem of grass to extract ants from a hill for a snack. She had the insight to realize that what she was seeing had profound implications: here was a non-human doing something that only humans were supposedly able to do -- use tools.
The observation prompted a return to England to get a Ph.D. in ethology (without an undergraduate degree by the way) and then decades of groundbreaking research in Gombe.
Realizing she needed a greater reach to conserve chimps, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to not only support research at Gombe, but to expand protections for chimpanzees and their habitats throughout Africa.
Early on, she recognized that endangered species like the chimpanzee wouldn't be successfully conserved unless the needs of local people were addressed as well. With that in mind, the Jane Goodall Institute focused efforts on sustainable, community-centered conservation programs that partner with local people. In 1991, the Roots & Shoots program was established to further such outreach efforts by addressing the larger issue of sustainability worldwide -- a program now nearly 150,000-members strong in more than 120 countries.
The Criticisms and Her Response
In Goodall's own assessment, the fundamental insight of her life's work is "how like us chimps are ... that there is no sharp line between humans and chimps." An insight that has been reinforced by modern genomics which have documented the remarkable similarities between the human and chimpanzee genomes.
Goodall's observations have led her to conclude that those similarities include behaviors that had been thought to be unique among humans such as thinking, planning, and altruism. Some have challenged this conclusion, calling it anthropomorphism.
While the accepted MO for ethology is to maintain objectivity with study subjects, for example by assigning them numbers, Goodall established emotional ties with her chimp subjects, for example by giving them names.
Goodall's critics ask: Do chimps really think? Are they really altruistic as Goodall has concluded? Or has Goodall simply projected human characteristics on subjects with which she's invested emotional attachments?
Goodall answers these criticisms by simply pointing to her observations and common sense. She recalls observing a sleeping chimp awaken, stretch and look around a while, walk down a path to a patch of grass, browse among the blades to pick several choice stems, then turn and take another route to an ant hill to begin getting to the ant meal. Goodall's take on this is that we are seeing the behavior of a sentient being capable of planning and carrying out those plans. I'm no ethologist but find that a pretty compelling explanation.
In the case of altruism, she recounted the story of two male chimps: the young and orphaned Mel would surely have died if Spindle hadn't taken him in -- carrying him on his back, feeding him, and protecting him from aggressor males at Spindle's own risk. What other explanation is there for such behavior besides altruism, she asks.
For all that, Goodall underlined the one obvious, important distinction between chimps and humans -- our superior intellect. And it's that intellect that gives Goodall hope for the future. The problems of the world greatly worry Goodall, but she is hopeful that a new generation of sentient, thinking, altruistic Homo sapiens will be able to get us on the right track using that superior intellect.