Science & Research, University News

Q&A: Goodall reflects on memories from 55-year study

Leading chimpanzee expert discusses relationship between chimpanzees, humans

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In July 1960, Jane Goodall packed her bags and traveled from England to Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where she began what would become her lifelong project and passion: a 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees. Her observations redefined what we know about animal intelligence. Now 81 years old, Goodall spends most of her time speaking about conservation and humanitarian issues as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Goodall came to College Hill Monday night to give a talk sponsored by the Brown Lecture Board. Before the lecture, Goodall spoke to The Herald about her role as a conservationist and leading chimpanzee expert.

The Herald: How have your observations of chimpanzees influenced the way you view human behavior?

Goodall: The main thing they teach us is that there isn’t a sharp line between us and them — so much of the behavior of human and chimp is the same. Biologically, they’re more like us than any other living creature. What it actually helps you do is ask the question: what is it that makes us human? That’s the main thing that comes out of this study of chimps.

When you initially traveled to Africa as a young woman, how did you find the courage and confidence to pursue your dreams?

It had nothing to do with courage or confidence — it was the dream I had when I was 10. So eventually I saved up enough money and was invited by a school friend, and I went. There was no courage involved. I went out to the chimps and nobody knew anything about them. I was out in the forest, and it was in the middle of nowhere. But for me, that was my dream come true.

What kind of challenges did you face?

The fact that the chimps ran away from me every time they saw me — that was the worst challenge. The fact that the country is very steep, so it’s quite difficult terrain. The fact that I kept getting malaria. Those were the main challenges.

Did you ever feel when you were studying the chimps that your scientific objectivity was compromised by the close relationships you had developed with them?

I didn’t have any scientific objectivity. I had never been to college. I was only told later, when I went to get a PhD, that I had done the study all wrong, and that I couldn’t talk about personality, mind or feeling, and that I couldn’t be anthropomorphic, and I had to be cold and scientifically objective. And I just knew this was wrong. This is not the way to learn about another species — to look at them coldly. You’ve got to have empathy, and you have to feel what they’re feeling.

That does not stop you from having scientific objectivity. It’s perfectly possible to do both. And if you don’t involve your heart and you only involve your head, that’s when science can go so wrong, so off the rails, and be very dangerous. So I feel very strongly about that.

So do you think that’s why you succeeded when others had struggled before?

Yes, definitely. Because how can you interpret a being that’s so like us and yet so different unless you try and understand what you’re looking at? You can ask, ‘Why is this chimp doing that?’ You can write it all down, and you get a nice objective list of when this behavior occurs and when it doesn’t, and who is there and what result it gives. But at the same time, very often it’s the feeling you have that can dictate your observations.

What’s the most touching or memorable moment you’ve had with the chimps you’ve worked with?

I think when Flo, an older female chimpanzee who taught me so much about maternal behavior, let her precious five-month-old infant come and reach out and touch me. It showed I had totally gained her trust. She kept her hand around him, but she let him come up to me, which was a magical moment. He reached out with those big eyes.

How has climate change impacted the causes you’ve fought for over your lifetime?

Climate change is affecting everything, and soon it’s going to affect even more. The causes of climate change are so numerous and intertwined, and just in general we have to change the way we think.

The thing that I’m very passionate about right now is genetically-modified organisms. For example, Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world, and just recently a doctor discovered that the main ingredient of Roundup, glyphosate, causes cancer. You see, before genetically-modified crops were made to withstand Roundup, the crops were sprayed only twice a year. They couldn’t do it more because it would harm the crop you were trying to grow, and it would kill most of the weeds. But once they were able to produce a plant that you could spray with Roundup, then they used five times more — that’s five times more cancer-producing element out in the air. This is very scary to me.

— This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction: A previous version of this article quoted Jane Goodall referencing Flo the chimpanzee’s “material behavior.” In fact, she was citing Flo’s “maternal behavior.” The Herald regrets the error.  

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