Primate Rescue Center

How Jane Goodall Changed Our View of Humanity

Erika Fleury June 03, 2014

It took a woman to change our view of humanity – or mankind if you use the language of the time.  It was 1960 and Jane Goodall, a young secretary turned naturalist, began to closely examine our closest biological relative the chimpanzee.

What she discovered changed both our view of animals and what it means to be human and it propelled her on a journey to becoming a Doctor of Science, a Dame of fame, an author of books and a UN Messenger of Peace.  Jane Goodall is now a grey-haired, steel backed environmental rock star who’s most often pictured hugging either Angelina Jolie or a chimp with a no less impressive pucker.

Photo courtesy Michael Neugebauer

Dame Jane left Africa in 1986 to travel the wilds of the world and hasn’t spent more than 3 weeks in any place ever since.  She’s just swung into Australia. “I was given several gifts”, she tells me on the phone from yet another hotel room.  But the gift she most needed to share is that of the gab or her “ability to communicate and change attitudes”. In this, her 81st year, she’s done that even more than normal “everyone wants a piece of me” she ruefully admits.

Perhaps Goodall’s brilliance comes from the fact she, nor her message, is piecemeal. She is a rare combination of scientist and spiritualist, lover and fighter.  She is a rare beast that can appeal to both hearts and minds.  “We have lost wisdom,” she says, “We have disconnected the clever human brain from the human heart. And we can’t work as a species until they work together”.

To head and heart let me add another gift: her spirit.  Goodall is indomitable, tough and almost saint like in her mission.  While I’m sure Jane Goodall isn’t good all the time (her most recent book was accused of borrowing passages from others and had to be rewritten) she understandably arouses great passion in her followers and those she inspires.  It’s this she shares in talks such as those that will take place at Sydney’s Town Hall on Saturday night.

So what of spirit?

In 1960 while observing the chimps, Goodall made some startling discoveries.  The most shocking was that they had skills then considered distinctly human – they used tools (blades of grass to get termites).  She also discovered they had other human like qualities – they had distinct personalities, they kissed, hugged, planned, played, tickled, laughed, kidnapped, danced and carried out warfare, short term monogamy, adoption and kidnapping.  They felt fear, joy and sadness - she even watched one favourite chimp die of grief after the loss of his mother. Goodall wrote beautifully about their social dramas, their comedy and tragedy and became a powerful advocate for the species that can’t talk for itself.

Ike is one of the chimpanzees living at the PRC.

I have to ask the vegetarian, animal lover - do animals have a soul? “If I have a soul then animals have a soul. I sense in every living thing a little spark of spiritual energy, every animal, possibly even a tree.”  Herein lies much of her appeal. Dame Jane still sees wonder and so bridges the gap between science and spiritualism.  “I see no conflict between the spiritual world and science. Science can’t explain everything”.

Women have every right to worry when scientists study animals and talk about our ‘instincts and genetic tendencies’.  But Jane Goodall says biology is not destiny.  She says just like her chimpanzees, humans have innate violent aggressive tendencies but we also have great compassion and “the ability to control our genetic heritage.  Our additional capability for intellect and spirituality and our increased moral sense is what makes us unique to the animal species”.

And what of women’s tendency for aggression? Is it socialised out of us? Or is it a male trait? “We have more of a use of our right side of our brain – intuitive and emotive. It’s innate too, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be introduced as a way of becoming.  Many people overcome terrible backgrounds to be capable of peace and love.”

So what of child rearing and it’s power to influence the future?

I approach the topic of warily as I don’t want Goodall to become another pawn in the media’s much adored ‘Mummy wars’ like Emma Thompson.  Jane Goodall is pleased to stress child rearing is terribly important.  “I put down a lot of my success was the way my mother raised me. She was amazing. Support your child.  Some mothers aren’t suitable but it doesn’t have to be a biological mother it can be a grandparent or another carer that can build a trusting and supportive relationship.  The first two years are very important but if a mother has to work society needs to help get that child good early development support in day care. Too often it’s the first thing cut in government budgets”

Goodall learnt own parenting skills form her mother, the sixties baby guru Dr Spock and her beloved chimps. Her son, nicknamed ‘Grub’ was raised in the field.  You can buy a delightful photographic book of his childhood –called ‘Grub the bush baby’ produced by his parents.  As a tiny baby Goodall says Grub lay in a ‘cage’ for safety but he was never left alone and she always responded to his needs – controlled crying be damned.  He still lives in Tanzania.

With Grub all grown up. Goodall now focuses on the world’s children.  What excites her most is her organisation called ‘Roots and Shoots’ – a program from preschool to university.  There are now groups in 136 countries and each works to make positive change in their community, for animals and for the environment.  She wants every child to grow up thinking about sustainable living – asking about everything they want to buy, “Do I really need this? Who made it? Where? and what from?.”  

The way this environmental giant sees it there are three massive problems that need to be solved; extreme poverty, our unsustainable lifestyle and population (“it’s not fair to deny people two kids but we should try and limit our families to that”).  Each contribute to climate change and she’s appalled at the  “atrocious idea of a coal loader in the Great Barrier Reef.” Goodall has no time for deniers and can’t accept they really don’t believe in climate change.

While Goodall worries about environmental catastrophe or a black death like plague as antibiotics run out of their power, she can’t and won’t give up against the enemies of greed and hopelessness. “It’s only hopeless if we stop fighting.  You have to remember David and Goliath – never give up. I am a very obstinate person”

That’s understatement. It’s clear Dame Jane has a sheer force of will stronger than any alpha male chimp she befriended in Tanzania. As the habitat of world’s animals shrinks, as extinctions speed up, as our planet warms and greed and the worship of money threatens human habitats and social harmony she will continue to focus on hope and action.  And, in her 81st year she will keep constantly moving, talking, inspiring and sharing her gift of communicating.  “I’ll keep going while my body physically can”.

With body, mind and spirit, no doubt.

- Daily Life

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