Now 86, Jane Goodall, the legendary primatologist has a deep understanding and respect for chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. Since their genes were sequenced in 2012, scientists learned humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees.
However, Goodall understands them on a level that perhaps nobody else ever has after 60 years of intimate study. More than that, her deep spiritual connection and respect for the natural world has made her one of the most valuable and respected voices for conservation and climate action today.
A Childhood Dream to Study Animals in Africa Comes True
Since she was just one year old in 1935, Jane Goodall received a toy chimp from her dad, which she named Jubilee. From her earliest memories, she was deeply fascinated with animals of all kinds. That led to her childhood dream of visiting Africa to learn and write about animals.
Then in her 20s, Goodall was invited to visit Kenya to see a friend. The trip proved life-altering when she met a famous paleontologist, Dr. Louis S B Leakey, who later hired her. Soon, she was traveling to Tanzania with Leakey and his archaeologist wife to hunt fossils.
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On a recent BBD HARDtalk interview, Jane Goodall recalled that important time in her life.
“He offered me a job as an assistant, really. Then, he became more impressed because he saw that I really had this thing about being with animals and watching them and could cope with the bush. And so he gave me this extraordinary opportunity. I mean, I would have studied any animal, and it was chimpanzees,” she recalled.
A Pioneer of Studying Animals in the Wild
Finally, in 1960, she and Leakey began studying wild chimpanzees near Lake Tanganyika and western Tanzania. At the time, she was one of the first to ever study the animals in the wild. At the time, the area was war-torn and had erupted into violence. However, in the forests, she found her calling in nature with a local guide.
Finding a ripe fruit tree and standing quietly, she would wait until the animals realized she was a benevolent presence in the forest. Fortunately, they didn’t show her aggression but instead developed trust and tolerance.
“I didn’t have any expectations except that I was jolly well going to get the chimpanzees to accept me, and I was going to learn about them. The big problem was every time they saw me; they’d run away. They’d never seen anything like this white ape before; I was peculiar to them.”
After months of patient observation, she slowly gained the primate’s trust. Then, by the following year, she had already changed scientific knowledge about chimpanzees without formal scientific training.
The Discovery That Chimpanzees Use and Shape Tools
By her close observations, she learned for the first time that chimpanzees ate meat and used tools to catch termites. The first chimp to trust her, one she named David Greybeard, was using a stem of grass or a twig, inserting them into a termite mound to extract the insects. Greybeard would sometimes carefully strip the twig of leaves, shaping the tool carefully.
“…Quite honestly, it didn’t surprise me that the chimps could do that. On the other hand, Western science thought that only humans used and made tools. We were defined as ‘Man the Toolmaker.’ And so I knew that this was a very exciting observation.”
David Greybeard’s trust allowed her to gain an introduction to the other chimpanzees. Thus, Time Magazine named David one of the 15 most influential animals that ever lived.
Since those early days, Goodall has become legendary, traveling worldwide to speak about her experiences.
Today, Jane Goodall is one of the strongest voices in the movement to protect the environment and the lives of all things on Earth. In a time of extreme environmental crisis, her wisdom on our connectedness to the natural world couldn’t be more timely or essential.
On Her Dream of Connecting with Animals
While traveling with Dr. Leakey and his wife, Mary, Goodall may well have gone on to study fossils. However, she stuck to her childhood calling.
“I could have learned a whole lot more about fossils and become a paleontologist. But my childhood dream was as strong as ever–somehow I must find a way to watch free, wild animals living their own, undisturbed lives–I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets through patient observation.”
“I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could.”
On How Her Childhood Dog Changed Her Life
Jane Goodall’s observations in Tanzania led her to pursue a Ph.D. at Cambridge. However, professors weren’t keen on her habit of giving Chimps names and seeing them as individuals with unique personalities and emotions. However, she knew that this was selling animals short.
“I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names. They should have had numbers; that was scientific. And I couldn’t talk about personality. I couldn’t talk about minds capable of problem-solving. We couldn’t talk about emotions. But you see, when I was a child, I had this wonderful teacher, and that was my dog, Rusty. And he taught me that in this respect, the professors were absolutely wrong. We are not the only beings on the planet with personality, mind, and emotion.”
On the Need for Empathy When Studying Animals
Goodall knew in her heart that what the professors were saying didn’t align with what she knew through empathy for animals.
“You can’t spend meaningful time with any animal, a dog, a rat, a pig, a chimpanzee, and not know that we are not the only beings on the planet with personalities, minds, and emotions,” Goodall said in her BBC interview.
“I was also told you mustn’t have empathy with your subjects. Scientific observation should be sort of remote and cold and objective. But this is absolute rubbish,” said Goodall.
Goodall continued, explaining that empathy is essential in understanding animals.
“…because only when you have empathy; you see something you don’t understand, and you just have this feeling to why it’s happening. So then, you can stand back as a scientist, which is what Cambridge taught me, and check whether your intuition is right or wrong,” she said.
On The Power of Individuals to Affect Change
Professors at Cambridge weren’t used to the idea of giving animals credit for things like emotions or personalities. However, Jane Goodall knew they deserved more credit. Similarly, she understands that there’s much more to the individual than meets the eye. Each of us can make choices that collectively change the planet.
“What I tell the young people is every single day you live, you make some kind of impact on the planet, and you have a choice. Unless you’re very, very poor, which is when you have no choice, but, you know, most of the people listening probably can have a choice.”
“Think about what you buy. How did it harm the environment in its production? Did it lead to cruelty to animals, like the terrible factory farms? Is it cheap because of child slave labor or wages that don’t even enable people to live properly? Make those ethical choices. And when billions of people make those ethical choices, then we start moving towards a different world.”
On Her Spiritual Connection With Nature
In a recent NPR interview, Goodall revealed what gave her joy. For her, she finds a spiritual connection in nature.
“It’s out in nature, and it doesn’t have to be the forest with chimpanzees, although that’s my very most favorite. But somewhere out in nature, preferably alone with a very close friend and just feeling a part of it…”
Trees as Cathedrals
“… there are some places in the forest when the trees kind of arch overhead and it reminds me of some of those great cathedrals where there’s such a, you know, whether you’re religious or not, the atmosphere — because so many hundreds and thousands of people have been in there and they’ve been praying, and they’ve been in contact with what I call a great spiritual power. And that’s the same for me in the forest.”
On Disrespecting Nature
In her July 2020 BBC interview, Stephen Sackur asked Goodall if she thought humans had failed chimpanzees and other species. Since she studied them, the population has dropped dramatically from around more than a million to lower than 170,000.
“We’re certainly failing them, but in the same way, we’re failing our own future generations of human beings,” said Goodall. “We’ve been for a long time, stealing the future of our children, grandchildren. We’re still stealing it today. We have terribly harmed this planet. This has led to the climate crisis, which, if we don’t get together around the world and do something about it soon, will lead to the end of life on this planet as we know it. And that concludes us.”
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Goodall’s important message is that if we learn to respect and live in harmony with nature, we could prevent the disasters we’re seeing today.
“It’s our disrespect of nature, of animals, and the natural world that’s led to this COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s led to climate change,” she concluded.
On Facing the Future
When asked how she confronts an uncertain future for chimpanzees and humans alike, Goodall challenged a familiar quote.
“You know this expression, ‘Think globally, act locally.’ Don’t because if you think globally, you’re so depressed. You can’t help it today. But if you think, ‘Now what can I do right here in my own community?’ …What you do each day can make a difference…That’s my hope for the future.”
Like all of us, Goodall’s ambitious plans to help preserve the forests have been put on hold due to COVID-19, but she says she remains hopeful.
“Nevertheless, I do have hope because of the young people, because of this brain that’s coming up now finally with ways of living in greater harmony with nature; because of the resilience of nature –give it a chance it comes back, and because of what I call the indomitable human spirit: people who tackle what seems impossible and won’t give up and very often succeed.”
You can listen to Jane Goodall’s recent NPR On Point interview below or at this link.