Jane Goodall spent the first half of her life studying the chimpanzees in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of The Science Museum of Minnesota
Jane Goodall takes several deep breaths, then follows with a soprano trill. She’s just demonstrated a chimpanzee’s “pant-hoot.” Chimps make the sound “when they’re going off to have fun,” she notes. She also concedes that her mimicry demonstrates something about her own sense of humor. But Goodall recognizes her limitations as well. She cannot imitate “all these excited sounds chimps make when they find good food.”
Goodall arrived in Gombe, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), to study chimpanzees in 1960, a time when the terms “ecology” and “environment” were heard only in biology classrooms. She’s credited with discovering previously unknown aspects of chimp behavior: They eat meat, and they display a capacity to use objects such as leaves and sticks “to a greater extent than any other living animal with the exception of man himself.”
Goodall earned a doctorate in ethology, the study of animal behavior, from Cambridge University. “When I’d done that, I could stand up and talk to a scientist in a white coat,” she says. She became known for her appearances in National Geographic and for several books she wrote, including some for children. In the Shadow of Man is her best-selling study of her early chimpanzee studies. She’s made a second career as an advocate for animals and the environment. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation. Later, the institute launched Roots & Shoots, a program that engages young people from preschool through college in animal welfare and conservation activities.
Jane Goodall travels constantly to promote her causes. On 24 June, she will deliver a keynote address at the RI Convention in Birmingham, England. While in Canada to accept an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, she met with journalist Warren Kalbacker.
The Rotarian: You characterize humans as one of the five great apes. How do we fit in?
Jane Goodall: The great apes are determined by the Linnaean system. The human, the chimpanzee, and the bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee) are equidistant from each other. Gorillas and the orangutan are further away. At one point, chimps merged back again, so that’s how close we once were. There was interbreeding. The main difference between chimp and human genomes is the expression of the genes, which apparently can be affected by environment. Genetically, we share 98.6 percent of DNA.
TR: You attribute an “explosive development of intellect” to humankind. But you’ve also noted that chimps can challenge us in some ways.
Goodall: Yup. We share similar – perhaps the same – emotions, like happiness, sadness, fear, despair, rage, anger, resentment, frustration, depression. Intellectually, chimpanzees are capable of doing things we used to think only we could do. They have amazing family relations that can last through a lifetime, between mothers and offspring, between brothers and sisters. We don’t usually know who the father is, except through DNA testing.
TR: What can we learn from chimpanzees?
Goodall: The modern Western woman can learn from chimpanzees because they illustrate so well how a good early experience shapes the behavior of an adult. From the earliest days of my chimp studies, human child psychologists and psychiatrists picked up on this more than zoologists. They were interested when Flint [Goodall named the chimps in her studies] lost his mother and apparently died of grief. The wisdom among child psychiatrists is that a human infant’s experience in the first two years is crucially important. We can follow chimps more easily because they don’t attempt to hide their behavior or the way they feel.
TR: Can a human male take a lesson from a chimp?
Goodall: Yes. Chimpanzee males can be excellent caregivers to infants. Sometimes it’s a brother, which makes sense, but sometimes it’s an adult male who cares for an orphaned infant. It shows that within the human male there is this parental instinct, if we accept that we’ve inherited a lot of these similar characteristics from a common ancestor.
TR: Does our minuscule DNA difference confer on humans alone the ability to appreciate art, experience awe, or even display a sense of humor?
Goodall: Chimps have a sense of humor: So you’re trailing a vine around a tree and your little brother is following, and every time he’s going to grab it, you jerk it forward. After a bit, he starts to cry, and you start to laugh. That’s very funny for them. At that level, we’re the same. And I’ve seen chimps around one waterfall, which drops 80 feet, and over millions of years it’s worn a groove in solid rock. There’s always wind and ferns are waving, and the water lands on rock so it makes this roaring sound. And as they approach, the chimpanzees – the males mostly – their hair is bristling, they’re swaying foot to foot, climbing up the vines, pushing into the spray, hurling big rocks as they stamp along the waterbed. Then they sit and watch. What is it? What is this strange stuff always coming and going? If they could talk about this feeling, which must be equivalent to awe and wonder, I think it would turn into an animistic worship of the elements.
TR: You experienced a certain amount of fear in your early days in Africa.
Goodall: I wasn’t afraid of snakes or brushing against poisonous plants. I’d become afraid of leopards. Hearing a hunting leopard was scary. I just put a blanket over my head, and I thought, I’ll be all right. And I was. The real problem in those early days in Africa – why I didn’t relax in the forest – was that I was so desperate to find out things about the chimps before the money ran out. We only had money for six months, and the chimps ran away and ran away.
TR: In your first book, In the Shadow of Man, you wrote movingly of chimps suffering from polio. Eradication of the disease is Rotary’s major initiative.
Goodall: I know it well. Polio was endemic in Tanzania. And in parts of Central Africa, it’s very difficult because you can’t get to the people there. The countries are in turmoil, and there’s no good infrastructure.
TR: Some years ago, you made a decision to forgo scientific work for animal and environmental advocacy. Was it a tough call?
Goodall: It was a decision I had to make. Looking back, what an egoist I must have been to think I could make a difference. I went to this big conference in 1986. All the chimp researchers were there, along with people who had information about the treatment of chimps in labs. It was so shocking. It was a lovely life out there in the field at Gombe – collecting information, analyzing it, and writing books. Then, suddenly, I knew I couldn’t be a scientist anymore.
TR: The Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel has described prophets as “troublesome people.” Do you accept that as part of your job description?
Goodall: Yes. You have to make people a bit uncomfortable first. But it’s my job to give them hope. A lot of people don’t know what to do [for the environment]. Do simple things. The grocery store is three blocks away. Make a choice to walk there with your own bag instead of taking their plastic. Try to get familiar with products that are made in an environmentally ethical way. Don’t buy water in a bottle that comes from 2,000 miles away. I drink tap water everywhere, and if the tap water is bad, filter it. Switch off your computer. Turn off all these appliances we leave burning away. There’s so much you can do.
TR: Does the great wealth gap between the developed countries and emerging nations make it tougher to instill environmental awareness among less well-off populations?
Goodall: One of the factors contributing to environmental destruction is poverty. You have to cut trees down to try to grow food to feed yourself and your family, but soon the soil becomes overused. You know it’s going to create desert, but what can you do if you’re very poor? Politicians want to sell the forest and minerals for big money. That’s where the rot comes in. Even a responsible company will open up the forest with roads, and that lets the hunters go in. Then you get the bush meat trade. The urban elite will pay for elephants down to birds and bats.
TR: What happens to the people who live there?
Goodall: Around Gombe, where the environment is destroyed, that means the chimps aren’t there. But the people in that situation are also struggling to survive, which is why we started TACARE (Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education), a community-based conservation project. Our Tanzanian team – not white people – went into the villages, sat down in the traditional Tanzanian way, exchanged news about friends and family, then asked how they could help. Did the people care about conservation? No. They cared about health and education for their children. So that’s how we began. After a bit, we could help with farming methods to restore the overused soil without chemical fertilizer. Within two years it was productive again. Then came water systems, sanitation, microcredit for groups of women, family planning, HIV/AIDS education, information about women’s and children’s rights. And the last piece of this puzzle: conservation. They’re now agreeing to put 10 to 20 percent of village land into forest protection and restoration. These forest patches are in a contiguous line so that the Gombe chimps finally have a way out of their closed-in patch of forest.
TR: You’ve marveled at the resilience of nature despite humans’ abuse of the environment.
Goodall: We’ve bashed nature for years. But I’m amazed at the resilience of the planet. My favorite story is about a quarry that had been used by a cement company near the coast of Kenya. In the early ’70s, the guy who owned the company was suddenly horrified to fly over and see this huge scar. He hired a Swiss horticulturist, who found a tiny little plant growing. He got more of those, and they began to grow and their needles fell. Then he found a millipede, which was eating the needles and turning them into soil. So he got more of those. Water began coming back. There are hippos there. They’ve used half the quarry for sustainable farming, and they’ve even got a fish farm there.
TR: Many developed countries have instituted environmental protection laws and publicize the importance of environmental awareness. Could you say these countries “get it?”
Goodall: A recent poll in the United Kingdom showed that awareness of climate change is very high, but there hasn’t been a change in behavior. There’s a widespread understanding of the poisoning of air and water. Many people know about pesticides, but they’re not changing their behavior. Why? Because they don’t think they can make a difference. It’s up to the consumer – the middle-class and upper-middle-class consumer. If you’re just not earning enough, then you have to buy the cheapest, but as soon as you can, even if it means hurting a bit, make a choice to buy environmentally sustainable food and clothing that doesn’t involve child slave labor and sweatshops.
TR: You’ve used the adjective “thorny” in speaking about issues involving people and environmental action.
Goodall: Life is not black and white. You have to help children understand that. The easy thing, if you’ve got children involved, is to have them save money and buy a piece of rainforest somewhere. But if you want to protect a piece of prairie on your own doorstep, the people who want to buy it have faces you know – maybe it’s the face of your best friend’s father. You very quickly learn it isn’t easy. There are people who want jobs, who want a business to come in that might destroy the environment. You might hurt somebody else who’s making a living farther down the river.
TR: Do you see the current economic crisis harming the environmental movement?
Goodall: It will hurt people like organic farmers because it does cost more to buy organic food. In England it already has. On the other hand, horrible large-scale developments are being put on hold, and that buys a little more time for environmentalists to band together to protect the areas.
TR: Environmental and wildlife charities always adopt cute animals – chimps, baby seals, polar bears – as their fundraising mascots. Is there an ugly species whose contribution to the environment we should acknowledge?
Goodall: Probably these centipedes we have at Gombe. They can grow to something like 9 inches or a foot. They’re very flat. They have a very poisonous bite. If you’re allergic, they could kill you. They could probably kill a child. I once had one crawl up my leg. Fortunately, it climbed down. I just don’t like them. But these centipedes are very good at making compost. They have a job to do, and they do it very well.
TR: Do you feel there is a disposition to idealism and volunteerism, which can be nurtured in very young children?
Goodall: Give me a child up until age seven, and I’ll have him for life. It’s really true that people do get so much of who they are from those early years. There are three aspects of Roots & Shoots: animal, people, environment. There are always some children who are passionate about one aspect or another. They can choose which area they want to get involved in. But then they’re peripherally involved in the other projects. That’s why it’s working so well. They’re learning to live in peace and harmony with each other and the environment.
TR: You receive many more invitations to speak than you can possibly accept. Why did you agree to address Rotary’s 100th annual convention?
Goodall: I’ve talked to Rotarians in South Africa and in different parts of Europe. We had a board chair of the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania who is a Rotarian. They do good things. I shall emphasize something Rotarians probably know: Every single day we make an impact on the world, and we have a choice as to what kind of impact we’re going to make. We have desperately harmed this planet, and at some point we shall reach the point of no return. It’s not too late, but it’s going to require all of us to make an effort.
TR: Might there be synergies between your initiatives and those of Rotary?
Goodall: I’ve talked about having Rotarians’ kids be part of Roots & Shoots. If that’s something that could come out of this meeting, that would be fantastic, because the Rotarian mission is the same as ours. Well . . . we probably care more about animals.
TR: Your National Geographic appearances once led you to be described as that magazine’s “cover girl.” Did you save those covers?
Goodall: (Laughs.) I use to loathe it. Now I think it’s funny. I suppose the covers are somewhere.
Warren Kalbacker is a journalist based in New York City.