Jane Goodall: A life in the field

6 min read

As a girl in England, Jane Goodall had a toy chimpanzee named Jubilee — a harbinger of the primatologist she was to become and of the jubilant audiences that greet her at every turn in adulthood.

Beginning in 1960, her groundbreaking studies of chimpanzees in the African wild led to a series of revelations that revolutionized the scientific understanding of these close human relatives.

Goodall, a onetime secretary who skipped past a bachelor’s degree to do a doctorate in ethnology at the University of Cambridge, famously discovered that chimpanzees make and use tools, thrive in socially complex families, and even engage in warfare.

In her first year at what was then the Gombe Stream National Reserve in Tanzania, Goodall also observed that chimpanzees — thought to be vegetarians — supplemented their diet by eating bush pigs, rodents, and insects.

The iconic biologist — now 72 and perhaps the most famous woman scientist in the world — was at Harvard Sunday (March 18) to accept the Roger Tory Peterson Memorial medal, awarded annually since 1997 to world-shaking conservationists by the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Introducing Goodall was Richard W. Wrangham, Harvard’s Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology and, in the early 1970s, a graduate student who worked with her at Gombe. (For his going-away party, Goodall prepared a meal of live termites, which Wrangham had to fish out of a jar — chimpanzeelike — with a twig.)

Goodall’s corpus of articles and books, said Wrangham, “completely advanced the understanding of chimpanzees,” and to this day remains a model of “how to study culture in animals.”

That kind of study came naturally to Dame Valerie Jane Goodall (named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2004), who grew up with a precocious fascination for animals. At 18 months, she brought a family of earthworms to bed with her. As a girl, the budding naturalist crawled into a henhouse and hid for hours to observe a hen laying an egg. This first episode of fieldwork, she said, illustrates the curiosity, persistence, and patience the natural sciences require.

Her girlhood was also filled with reading about animals, and about Africa — the wild place where she dreamed of one day living and writing books. Her bookshelves included the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels, since the Lord of the Jungle seemed an ideal mate. “And then what does he do?” commented Goodall wryly. “He marries that other Jane.”

The episode in the henhouse — which sparked a panicked search for the “missing” girl — reminded Goodall of something else a scientist, or any person, needs: supportive mentors. All those years ago, her mother did not scold her for hiding, Goodall said. Instead, she sat and listened to the little girl with glistening eyes tell her story of the hen and the egg.

Goodall named the top influences in her life: her mother Vanne, who accompanied her on her first Africa field trip; paleontologist Louis Leakey, whose faith in her curiosity propelled Goodall into fieldwork and, later, Cambridge; her childhood dog Rusty, who taught her that animals have personalities and emotions; and David Greybeard, the Gombe chimp who was the first to approach Goodall in her initial year of field study. (It was a shock to science that Goodall gave the subjects of her chimpanzee field studies individual names, including Flo, Freud, and Satan — the chimp who stole a manuscript and had to be bribed with a banana to bring it back.)

And why not name chimpanzees, said Goodall, “who are more like us than any other creature, except perhaps the bonobo.” Chimpanzee DNA is 99 percent the same as human DNA. The two species have similar immune systems and brain anatomy — and their blood is a close enough match to allow interspecies transfusions.

Chimpanzees, who about 6 million years ago shared a common ancestor with Homo sapiens, also engage in humanlike behavior. They kiss and hold hands. They establish long-term family bonds. They not only use tools but pass on the use of tools by observational learning. Chimpanzees at their best resemble humans at their best, said Goodall — “affectionate, playful, and supportive.”

They also employ language, of a sort. Goodall greeted the audience in a packed Sanders Theatre with a crescendo of hoots and huffs, a chimpanzee “distance greeting” meant to project peace and friendship.

Chimpanzees have a dark side, too. They launch brutal, fatal attacks on rival chimps, and engage in long-term civil wars. Violence is a trait humans share, “but I don’t think violence and war [among humans] are inevitable,” said Goodall, who was named in 2002 a United Nations Messenger of Peace. We also share “love and altruism” with our closest primate relatives, she said.

Despite similarities, language sets humans apart from the chimpanzees, whose vocalizations and repertoire of signs and expressions are limited. Language allows humans to learn from the past, plan for the future, and discuss the present, said Goodall. “This should put us in a position of responsibility,” and make us good stewards of the Earth, she said. “But we’re not, are we?”

Two decades ago, Goodall turned her fieldwork over to others in order to concentrate on conservation and global environmental issues. Tiny Gombe National Park itself (only 30 square miles) is an illustration of ecological travail, she said. It’s now surrounded by deforested land, and its chimpanzee population is dwindling — 90 individuals today, compared with 150 in the 1960s. (All over Africa, where chimpanzees are being robbed of habitat and hunted for meat, numbers have shrunk — from 1 million in 1960, said Goodall, to fewer than 150,000 today.)

In the wider world, deserts are spreading and forests are shrinking and clean water is getting scarce, said Goodall. The human population has exploded and is now so big that it would take five planets to sustain it if everyone followed a Western lifestyle.

Yet there is, to take the title of Goodall’s Harvard lecture, “Reason for Hope in a Complex World.”

She named five reasons, starting with the young of the world, who seem more aware and empowered. (The Jane Goodall Institute sponsors “Roots & Shoots,” a sustainability initiative with 9,000 chapters worldwide.)

“The second is the human brain,” said Goodall, who marveled at the idea of men walking on the moon, and robots scooting around on Mars. “We’ve done things that I as a child would have considered science fiction forever.”

Then there is the sense of “people coming together, and trying to find solutions,” said Goodall. “That’s where our brain is coming in — but it has to be joined by the heart.”

Add to that a fourth sign of hope, she said: the resilience of nature. Goodall named two local examples: the Charles River and the Boston Harbor, both recovering from a legacy of pollution.

Finally, there is the “indomitable human heart,” said Goodall, “my greatest reason for hope.”

At the end of the lecture, there were no chimpanzee hoots or huffs from the audience. For the woman who still has Jubilee on her dresser, there was a standing ovation.