Few people have had a greater impact on how humanity sees itself than Dr. Jane Goodall.
This inspirational woman was in Kampala Friday evening to give a talk at a fundraiser for the Uganda branch of the Jane Goodall Institute. It was part of a tour of East Africa commemorating 50 years since she started her groundbreaking research observing the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in 1960.
Her story is a tribute to the power of perseverance and tenacity. As a child she fell in love with Africa through reading the Tarzan books (and lamenting that he “chose that other, wimpy Jane”). At the age of 8 she decided she wanted to study animals in Africa. However, the odds were against her. She came from a poor family, so her options in the Britain of that time were limited. Perhaps more significantly, she is a woman, which meant that she was discouraged from following her desire to study animals because, of course, women can’t be scientists. Instead, she was steered towards a secretarial course after finishing secondary school.
In her favor, though, were an iron will and a supportive mother. “Jane” landed herself a job as Louis Leakey’s secretary in the Natural History Museum of Nairobi in Kenya in the late 1950s. This soon led to her involvement with his paleontological digs at Olduvai Gorge, and his recommendation that she undertake the study of the chimpanzees in Gombe despite the fact that she had no scientific training whatsoever. His faith in her was not misplaced.
Very little was known about chimpanzees at the time, but research funding was hard to come by. With Leakey’s help, Goodall was able to procure funding for just six months in the forest (where she was joined by her mother, since the Tanganyikan government would not let a young woman go into the forest alone). She had to work fast. Unfortunately, three months in, the chimps would still not let her get close enough to gather any useful data. Four months in, she was able to get closer to them, but still had very little interesting information. She and Dr. Leakey both knew that it would be nearly impossible to get any funds to continue the study unless she had some type of a breakthrough.
That is when she changed humankind’s view of itself. In those days, humans were often called “Man the Toolmaker,” as it was believed that the ability to make and use tools was one of the most important abilities that set us apart from the “lower animals.” It was a large part of what made us what we are, and that elevated us above the “brutes.” But then she saw the chimp she had named David Greybeard peeling leaves off a stick and placing it into a termite mound. The termites reacted to this invasion by attacking the stick, after which they were pulled from the mound and eaten by David.
Not only had this chimpanzee used a tool, he had modified it to suit his purposes by first removing the leaves. He had, essentially, made a tool. This was the breakthrough she needed, and the moment that launched her along the path to becoming the Dr. Jane Goodall who is, today, one of the most influential conservationists and scientists on the planet.
But it launched the rest of us along a path, too. Her work made us rethink what it means to be a human and how we can relate to animals.
She was criticized at the time by the scientific community for developing a relationship with the chimps she was studying. She named them and referred to their relationships and feelings. Standard practice was to assign a number to each individual and record actions and behaviors without attaching any meaning or emotion to them. Perhaps precisely because she had no scientific training, she did not feel the need to restrict herself to this cold, objective view of the individuals she came to know so well over time. I believe her scientific insights were richer as a direct result of her seeing the chimpanzees in Gombe as more than biological shells.
So if at least some animals have the intellect to create tools and the emotional capacity to feel, then what, if anything, makes us distinct from other animals? Wild animals have been shown to exhibit empathy, altruism, and intra-species murder, so those talents are not uniquely ours. Love and sadness certainly seem to be expressed when an elephant mother carries the carcass of her dead baby for days after its death.
Is it the ability to self-reflect? To be aware of our existence and wonder what our purpose is on the planet? This is certainly the source of much of our suffering and joy, but how could we ever know whether other animals struggle with their sense of purpose or not? Perhaps any limitations we see in animals are actually just limitations in our tools for understanding them.
I don’t know if we will ever have a definitive answer to what sets us apart from other animals, or even if there is anything that does. However, I am grateful to Dr. Goodall for forcing us to step back and realize that the things we think we understand about ourselves and the other creatures we share this world with might actually be wrong. If we move forward with humility, perhaps more of the world’s wild creatures will begin to share their gifts with us the way that David Greybeard shared his with Jane.