Adventures in Chimpland: The Primatology Revolution of Jane Goodall. (Women in Science 26)

Of all the figures I’ve done on Women In Science this year, none have evoked such instant and unequivocal expressions of admiration and downright love as Jane Goodall.

“You’re doing Goodall next? She’s my absolute hero!”

“I want her to adopt me.”

“Goodall is the one who inspired me to do field research.”

“She is my favorite living person, period.”

After a life spent studying our closest relatives, and arguing passionately for their protection, Goodall now enjoys a deserved and all but universal acclaim. But the road has been anything but certain. Her childhood was a prolonged yet curious idyll. Calling herself the Red Admiral, she organized her friends into a makeshift nature enthusiast group, tromping all about, identifying trees and birds, learning how to observe wildlife, and raising money for the care of old or injured animals. She was the grand ringleader of life, and brought everybody into the universe of her own amusements, making everything Fun through her own endless energy and enthusiasm.

She was, in addition, a voracious reader, and particularly loved the charming universe of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan. She dreamt of life in Africa, of becoming a great animal expert, who walked among the beasts and was accepted as one of them.

            To go to Africa was her consuming and romantic dream. While her family was supportive, there was nonetheless the grim specter of reality to be dealt with. Reality said that girls graduated from high school did not head into the wilds of Africa to become modern day John Dolittles.   It demanded that, if they really must have a profession, it was to be either as a nurse, teacher, or secretary. And so, to secretarial school Jane went, learning shorthand and typing, eventually picking up odd work at a film studio while waiting for something grander to come along.

Which it did, in the form of an invitation from a friend in Africa to visit for a few weeks – a friendly trip, a quick dash, and then back at the exciting world of cross referencing video clips. Only, Jane Goodall was a woman in Africa interested in studying animals, and Louis Leakey was a man in Africa interested in women generally, and women interested in animals particularly, and so it was perhaps inevitable that the two would meet, and form a working partnership that would last for the next decade and a half, and rewrite the meaning of humanity in the process.

Taken up initially as a secretary, politely but firmly refusing Louis’s attempts to make her into his nth mistress, Jane proved herself so capable that Louis saw her as a natural to attempt what his previous mistress had failed – a long term study of the chimpanzees around Lake Tanganyika to begin in 1960.

Until Jane Goodall, nobody had had any good fortune in observing the behavior of wild chimpanzees. The animals were skittish around humans, and tended to swiftly disappear at the first appearance of one. Some naturalists had tried building artificial hides from which to observe the chimps, but the clever creatures invariably discovered them and vanished. One researcher thought it would be a brilliant idea to set a circular fire to drive the chimps into an area where they might be observed for a while. It was not a great success.

Thus, the chimp literature preceding Goodall consisted of a collection of half-observations, and long catalogues of things that Didn’t Work. Leakey picked Goodall not just because she was tough and organized, but because she hadn’t gone to college, and therefore could approach the problem of observing chimpanzees in a fresh fashion, unencumbered by orthodox solutions. Her solution was a refreshing blend of patience, theater, and psychological subtlety. Rather than trying to cleverly hide from the chimps, or force them into an observable situation, she walked out into the forest, day after day, and pretended to be totally uninterested in what they were doing. She made herself another indifferent forest dweller, as little of a threat as a passing bird going about its business. She let the chimps acclimate themselves to her presence, and over months and months of excruciating patience and frustrated observation from a distance, she was at last rewarded when an old chimp named David Greybeard appeared to accept her as a neutral presence, letting her approach and observe so long as she played by the chimp’s rules.


David Greybeard.
David Greybeard.

As it turned out, those rules were far more complicated than anything anybody had anticipated. It was Goodall’s greatest gift to bring to the world, not particular and novel observed behaviors of the chimps (though those were fascinating, as we’ll see), but the grand idea of the chimpanzee’s emotional and social profundity, their pure individuality, which mirrors that of humanity so closely.

For all of those dearly bought successes of comparative closeness, however, the first year of observation was fraught with logistic peril. Unable to take intriguing photos, or initially to record anything but the most fleeting of long distance glimpses, it appeared that her mission might go the way of its predecessors, a noble attempt that brought nothing concrete and new to our knowledge of these animals. To get more funding, Leakey needed new results, and those were long in coming.

Just as prospects seemed most grim, however, the chimpanzees began to unveil their secrets. Goodall observed them eating meat, and eventually the grizzly hunting behavior that went with it, overturning a long established theory as to their essentially vegetarian nature. More importantly than that, she discovered their use of tools to solve problems. Using long twigs, the chimps raided termite caves, collecting the delicious protein sources on the swirled twig and then licking it clean to start again. Leakey was ecstatic, telling his backers that Goodall had revolutionized what it meant to be human, and National Geographic, swept up in the impressive results, agreed to further generous funding in exchange for the rights to publish a richly illustrated account of her work.

Goodall, financially secure for the moment, honed in on understanding the chimps around her as individuals. There was Flo, the veteran mother, whose child, Flint, never quite grew up, so psychologically dependent on his mother that, when she finally passed away in 1972, he soon followed, refusing to eat, gloomily revisiting his mother’s favorite spots. Mike, whose ingenuity with fashioning intimidating props from the materials around him allowed him to rise to the level of alpha male in spite of his unimpressive strength and stature. Mr. McGregor, who contracted polio which paralyzed his legs, forcing this once proud ape to drag himself along the ground pathetically as the other chimps shunned and abused him.

The complexity of these individuals’ social interactions, their distinctly personal ways of dealing with loss, status, relatives, and disease, was cemented in the popular imagination by Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, a best-seller that recounted her first decade of chimp research, the stories of the individual chimps she had come to know, and a plea to recognize these creatures as our noble and emotionally identifiable relatives, who need our informed protection.

As the success of the Gombe Stream Research Center grew, so did the demands on Goodall’s time. Married to the photographer Hugo van Lawick in 1964, much of the latter part of that decade was consumed in following him on his research and photography missions to support his first book, Innocent Killers, about the hyenas, jackals, and wild dogs of the Serengeti. As it turned out, she had to write considerable quantities of that book during a time when she was supposed to be writing her own scientific work summarizing the results of her chimpanzee research.

A son followed in 1967, nicknamed Grublin, who grew up chasing after hyenas with dad in the Land Rover and getting bitten by chimpanzees with mom on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Between raising her son, supporting Hugo’s book and research, scrambling for assistants and funding for Gombe, and writing her own articles for National Geographic and long-promised books, there was little time to actually observe her chimps, a role that fell to a string of temporary helpers until finally, with the aid of Stanford University’s David Hamburg, she was able to remain as a semi-permanent resident of Gombe, the grand coordinator of a dozen students pursuing research on chimpanzees, baboons, birds, and insects, transforming the once drowsy two-women-and-a-tent organization of 1960 into the thriving, world-class research station of the 1970s.

There would be tragedy to come. Her first marriage ended in 1974 by Hugo’s continuing professional jealousy, her second in 1980 by cancer. The government of Tanzania was always within a hair’s breadth of shutting her operation down. Other primate researchers criticized her heavily for her unscientific approach to field work, from the naming of the chimps to the use of provisioning stations (Goodall had set these up initially to act as artificial “fruiting trees” which would allow close observation of chimp feeding behavior, but once word got out along the primate grapevine, the provisioning stations attracted dozens of chimps and baboons on a daily basis, leading to an unnatural, dangerous chaos that would be corrected with Goodall’s return as resident scientific director).

However, behind the tragedy and struggle, there was greater success. Through the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots to Shoots program, primate research was placed on a steady financial level, and tens of thousands of youths have had opportunities to learn about wildlife conservation and education. Goodall’s speaking engagements, personal vegetarianism, and willingness to speak to the media have all kept the emotional depth of our furrier cousins resonating in our collective consciousness, allowing for the flowering of conservation efforts world-wide in the last thirty years.

Jane Goodall is deeply loved the world over, yes. She has dedicated her life to the frustrating task of getting the voiceless to speak, and the powerful to listen. It is the work of love, and we cannot help but repay it in its own coin.


FURTHER READING: Unlike with many of our featured heroes, there is no shortage of work about and by Jane Goodall. Dale Peterson’s recent (2008) Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man is magnificent in all ways. It is also about 700 pages long, so there’s a commitment there. If you don’t need to know every graduate student who ever spent a few weeks at Gombe, and like pictures, a fun and slim introductory option is Jim Ottaviani’s Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. It’s a graphic novel about these three pioneers in primate field work that takes all of forty five minutes to read, and is a great gift for any aspiring young biologist you may know! In the Shadow of Man, Goodall’s first mass-market popular account of her research, is also readily available, and a great entry point to her later works.

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