A Conversation with Primatologist Jane Goodall

In 2010, Jane Goodall, the world famous primatologist who revolutionized our understanding of animal behavior, celebrated the 50th anniversary of her pioneering research among the wild chimpanzees in what it today Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park.

Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park

Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park

The following conversation is excerpt from Reader’s Digest (Sep 2010):

Reader’s Digest:  Can you sum up what you have learned from 50 years of living among wild chimpanzees?

Jane Goodall:  A little humility.  We humans are unique, but we’re not a different as we used to think.  Between chimps and humans, there is only about a 1 percent difference in DNA.  Our biggest difference is our spoken language, which has enabled us to develop culturally in ways that chimpanzees have not.  The Gombe research has taught us to respect not only chimps more but also other animals.  It has also taught me that our aggressive tendencies have probably been inherited from an ancient primate some six million years ago.  But we’ve also inherited love, compassion, and altruism–we find these qualities in chimps as well.

RD:  Do chimpanzees have a moral code?

JG:  I don’t think they have a moral code the way we do.  They have feelings but not a moral code.  They understand to some extent that they are inflicting pain.  But only we, I believe are capable of evil, such as deliberate torture.  Chimpanzees do not have the intellect to think this way.  The anatomy of the chimpanzee and the human brain are almost the same, but ours is bigger.  It is not surprising, then, that they have intellectual abilities once thought to be unique to ours.  They understand abstract symbols, can generalize, can learn 400 or more signs of  American Sign Language, plan for the immediate future, and use and make tools.  They show emotions similar to those we call happiness and sadness, fear and despair, and others.  They show grief, and there are signs of clinical depression in infants who have lost their mothers.  They have a sense of humor, a sense of self.  At some point during evolution, humans developed a  sophisticated language that, I believe, triggered the explosive development of our intellect.  We have a unique ability to discuss and share our feelings.  And it is this ability that enables us to develop a moral code.

RD:  Our planet is under assault from climate change, overpopulation and environmental destruction.  How do you sleep at night without having nightmares?

JG:  If you’ve done everything you can to put things right on that day, you get so tired that you have to sleep.  There is so much positive.  If you dwell just on the bad things, you become useless.

RD:  Where do you stand on the controversy between Darwinism and creationism?

JG:  How we got to be who we are and what we are today is of supreme unimportance compared with coming together to get out of the mess we have made of our world.

RD:  Do you believe in God?

JG:  I don’t have any idea of who or what God is.  But I do believe in some great spiritual power.  I don’t know what to call it.  I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature.  It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is.  I feel it.  And it’s enough for me.

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2 Responses to A Conversation with Primatologist Jane Goodall

  1. dor deasy says:

    And there it is, the contrast between the binary and the continuum, between exceptionalism and unity. It is that difference that shift the focus from past to future, from individual to eco-system.

    There are those who see a great gulf between humans and the great apes, perhaps between humans and the natural world. Exceptionalism, that says we are not related, but wholly different. Seeing the world through the lens of difference interprets the great “I Am” of Judeo-Christian tradition as the one, true God which eventually gives rise to the one true Church, the one right way.

    Jane Goodall speaks of an alternative: overlapping similarities where small differences give rise to separateness. By focusing on commonality rather than difference, God is “some great spiritual power” that holds us all. Seen through the lens of mosaic, the “I Am” becomes, as Paul Tillich phrased it, “the ground of all Being” or “Being itself.” Through this lens we see both art and science, both our humanity and our animal instincts. Only when we can acknowledge that we are a part of nature ourselves can we see nature’s destruction as suicidal.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Hi Dor, I don’t relate to abstractions as well as you do. But I don’t agree with exceptionalism. I see the loss of habit, loss of wilderness, and wish it weren’t so. The one hour I spent, up close and personal, with a “family” of 14 gorillas was a religious experience for me. (I know that sounds trite, but for me it is true.) Yet I see their habitat diminishing. I see the human communities around them at war. I strongly agree with your concluding statement: “Only when we can acknowledge that we are a part of nature ourselves can we see nature’s destruction as suicidal.”

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