Meeting Jane Goodall – Sunday column, April 3, 2011
In 1965, when I was a graduate student in England, my young family and I rented a “maisonette” in north London from a young anthropologist and his family. Vernon Reynolds had lived in Uganda observing chimpanzees, and he had just published a book called Budongo: A Forest and its Chimpanzees. He was moving on to other things, but he mentioned a young woman who was just finishing a Cambridge Ph.D based on similar work in Tanzania. Her name was Jane Goodall.
Youngsters of all ages are captivated by animals, so we often visited the apes and monkeys at London’s amazing zoo. And Jane Goodall – who worked with these fascinating animals in the wild, whom we saw on TV occasionally and read about in National Geographic – became part of our household pantheon, a role model like Pete Seeger, David Suzuki, Rosa Parks, Tommy Douglas and a few others.
Flash forward to 2011. Say hello to Dame Jane Goodall, a UN Messenger of Peace, a member of the French Legion of Honour, Explorer-in-Residence Emeritus with the National Geographic Society, the only non-Tanzanian recipient of the Medal of Tanzania. She could paper a wall with her honorary degrees and other distinctions. Her research has transformed our view of humans and other animals. We thought homo sapiens was the only tool-making animal, for instance. Then a chimp named David Greybeard showed Jane Goodall how he winkled termites out of their hives with a twig that he had stripped of leaves.
And that was just the start. Her research has shown that chimps have personalities, minds and feelings. They show compassion and altruism. Young chimps go through dependency and adolescence, just as humans do. Chimpanzeess live a rich social life, and they have a rudimentary culture, passing knowledge from one generation to the next. They co-operate in hunting, and they’re capable of very aggressive behaviour. They don’t have a language, but they communicate beautifully with hoots, grunts, postures and gestures – including gestures that humans use too. Chimps can pick up bits of human sign language, and a chimp in Japan is very adept at computer games
“The line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom is very blurry,” says Jane Goodall, “and it’s getting more blurry all the time.”
From today’s perspective, the world of 1965 looks pristine and naive. The world’s population has doubled since then, and desperate people in the third world are scrambling to stay alive. The world’s forest cover is perhaps a quarter of what it was then. Along Lake Tanganyika, where Jane Goodall’s beloved chimps reside, the mountains have been shaved by clearcutting. Increasingly, the chimps are pinned inside the small forested area in Gombe National Park.
Jane Goodall has been 50 years at Gombe, and loves it more than any other place, but she is not there now. Instead, she is travelling 300 days a year. The great difference between humans and chimpanzees, she says, is our sophisticated language, and that is the tool she is using not only on behalf of the chimpanzees, but of all life on earth. Including ourselves.
She is using her clear, powerful voice to organize the children of the world. Young people, she says, are depressed, sad and angry about the maimed and poisoned world they will inherit. They want to know if she has hope. She does, and she shares it with them through Roots and Shoots, “a program for hope” administered by the Jane Goodall Institute.
Roots and Shoots projects touch three bases: care and concern for the young people’s own human communities; care and concern for animals, including domestic animals; and action projects to help restore the environment. The program has grown to involve tens of thousands of children, from pre-school to university, in 120 countries around the world. And now when she travels, Jane Goodall meets “children with shining eyes, saying, ‘Look at the difference we’ve made.’”
Jane Goodall is in Halifax this Tuesday, meeting with high school students at the Discovery Centre in the morning and speaking to the Chamber of Commerce in the evening. Rejoice. For one day, at least, one of the great human beings of our time is among us.