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‘If we have souls, then so do chimps’

Freddy Gray meets Jane Goodall, the primatologist whose ‘unprofessional’, empathetic approach led to astonishing discoveries about how human-like chimpanzees really are

7 April 2010

12:00 AM

7 April 2010

12:00 AM

Freddy Gray meets Jane Goodall, the primatologist whose ‘unprofessional’, empathetic approach led to astonishing discoveries about how human-like chimpanzees really are

A 76-year-old woman is making chimpanzee noises at me. ‘OOOHHH HAAAAA, OOOHHH HAAAA,’ she shouts. ‘And then there’s a WRAAAAH! That’s a threat! WRAAAH!’

This woman isn’t mad, though. She is Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist, arguably the greatest behavioural scientist of her time. She is making ape sounds because I’ve asked her to, and because the subject of chimpanzees still inspires in her a child-like excitement. She spent three decades living with our distant relatives in the forests of Tanzania, so she’s justifiably proud of her fluency in chimp-speak. She completes her repertoire with a rendering of the friend-liest chimp greeting — a low-pitched, heavy purr, which sounds a bit like someone snoring. It must trigger some primordial calming instinct within me, because suddenly I feel at ease in front of this famous and distinguished woman.

It also helps that we are not in the jungle, but in a pretty house in Kensington, which belongs to Goodall’s friend and assistant Mary Lewis. Goodall is sitting on a green sofa. As she stares at me, her eyes passive yet fixed, a sunbeam steals though a window and catches the left side of her long, elegant face. It is easy to picture the middle-class 26-year-old from Bournemouth with long legs and a pretty face who, exactly 50 years ago, first went to study the chimps at Gombe National Park, near the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

‘People thought I was crazy,’ she recalls. ‘Girls didn’t do that sort of thing in 1960.’ The British authorities even forbade her to go alone. Luckily, however, Jane’s mother Vanne, clearly a hardy character like her daughter, agreed to accompany her.

Jane had no qualifications or training as a zoologist — although she would later acquire a PhD from Cambridge along with countless other academic honours. She was drawn to Africa simply by an intense fascination with the animal kingdom and the unknown. ‘It was nothing to do with science,’ she says. ‘In fact, I wouldn’t have aspired to study something as complex as a monkey. The fact I was sent out there to study chimpanzees was just fate, I suppose.’

The man who dispatched Jane to the jungle was Louis Leakey, the well-known archeologist and naturalist, who spied in Goodall a boundless enthusiasm and a talent for observation. Leakey clearly had a keen eye himself for attractive and intelligent women; he also sent Dian Fossey to Rwanda to study gorillas, and Biruté Galdikas to Borneo to work with orangutans. These three became known in the press as ‘Leakey’s Angels’ or ‘the trimates’, terms that make Goodall laugh today. ‘He was known to prefer women,’ she admits. ‘He had had strange things happen to him as a child. But really he felt that women were better observers than men. And he realised that I didn’t care about boyfriends and parties and clothes and hairdressers and all that stuff.’


Goodall is rather less reserved about the peculiarities of fellow trimate Fossey, the woman portrayed so romantically by Sigourney Weaver in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist. ‘She was a very strange lady,’ says Goodall with a frown. ‘She was terribly jealous of me.’ One can’t help wondering if Goodall, queen of the chimps, doesn’t have a lingering sense of competitiveness with her opposite number in gorilla world. Did she feel a certain rivalry? ‘No,’ she replies. ‘I just thought it would have been nice if we could have got on more together.’

Fossey was viciously murdered, probably by local poachers. But if her dramatic story has so far held more Hollywood appeal than Goodall’s happy existence in Tanzania, it is Goodall’s findings as a scientist that have made her the more significant figure in the long run.

In her fifth month at Gombe, she made a major breakthrough when she noticed a chimp whom she called David Greybeard using a grass stem to ‘fish’ for termites. Later, she saw other chimps fashioning small sticks for the same purpose. Up to that point, it was widely held that human beings were the only ‘toolmakers’. Goodall reported her findings to Leakey, who wrote back in a telegram: ‘Now we must redefine “tool”, redefine “man” or accept chimpanzees as humans.’

The zoological establishment was quick to frown at Leakey’s girl, however. Here was an untrained woman who treated the chimps as her friends, identified them with names rather than numbers, and who — worst of all — was making amazing discoveries that they had hitherto thought impossible. She even let the apes groom her — a practice that Goodall today admits was bad form, scientifically. Yet it was precisely because of Goodall’s empathetic approach that she was able to get so close to the animals, to know them intimately.

Goodall’s most important observations were on the relations between mother and infant chimpanzees. She recorded how the amount of affection displayed by a mother to a baby chimp could make a dramatic impact on its life and development. Apes who had had bad mothers, she found, would often become bad mothers themselves. She also noticed, however, that mothers could get better with experience.

While zoologists scoffed at these sentimental-sounding claims, in the blossoming field of psychiatry, academics were beginning to take note. ‘I was being roundly berated by scientists for talking about hugging and kissing,’ she says. ‘But these celebrated child psychologists, John Bowlby in the UK and René Spitz in the US, were really interested.’

Moreover, for all her talk about the origin of feelings, Goodall is far from soppy about her favourite species. She was, after all, the first to witness and record the darker side of chimpanzee nature: namely, their propensity for ‘inter-community violence’. ‘Like us,’ she says, ‘they have an inherent fear of strangers, a mistrust. With our community [in Gombe] they separated into two groups and then, after a time of separation, came the violence. It was like a civil war in a way — it was very human.’ The losing side, she adds, ‘were left to die of wounds. It was pretty grim.’

Although frank about cruelty among chimps, Goodall prefers not to dwell on it. She fears that, as a result of her findings, chimpanzees have gained an undeserved reputation for viciousness. ‘You get these documentaries where they pick on cannibalism or fighting,’ she says. ‘You get the impression that chimps are always eating their babies or killing each other, when in fact it is so rare.’

I ask her if she thinks that the apes have a capacity for evil. ‘Not premeditated evil,’ she says. ‘Brutality and violence, yes. But not evil.’ Yet she passionately believes that chimps are capable of doing good. She has observed some remarkable displays of altruism. She fondly recalls Spindle, a 12-year-old male, who adopted an orphaned infant called Mel. ‘He carried him, shared food with him, and drew him into his nest at night. It was so sweet.’

At Gombe, she also recorded the chimps performing what she calls a ‘rain dance’, whereby the creatures noisily run around bashing into the trees and each other in response to changes in the atmosphere. ‘It is literally some kind of ritual,’ she explains. ‘It is like a challenging of the elements.’ In another, similar ceremony, which Goodall calls a ‘waterfall display’, the chimps adopted ‘a very rhythmic motion, going from foot to foot, leaping up, swaying on the vines, maybe th
rowing big rocks’.

This activity, Goodall insists, suggests some spiritual instinct among our closest relatives in the animal kingdom — evidence perhaps of how our own remote ancestors were drawn to a primitive, animistic worship of nature. ‘What’s the one obvious thing we humans do that they don’t do?’ asks Goodall, pausing between sentences so that her interviewer’s less-evolved brain can keep up. ‘Chimps can learn sign language, but in the wild, so far as we know, they are unable to communicate about things that aren’t present. They can’t teach what happened 100 years ago, or ten years ago, except by showing fear in certain places. They certainly can’t plan for five years ahead. If they could, they could communicate with each other about what compels them to indulge in their dramatic displays. To me, it is a sense of wonder and awe that we share with them. When we had those feelings, and evolved the ability to talk about them, we were able to create the early religions.’

Having dropped this mind-blowing anthropological bomb, Goodall turns somewhat vague as we discuss matters of the divine. Do apes have souls, I ask. ‘I think that if we have souls, then they must have souls too,’ she says with a shrug. She acknowledges that she is herself a cultural Christian, but she prefers to talk in terms of ‘believing in some great spiritual path. I’ve felt it in the forests.’

I want to ask much more, but sadly time is up. Goodall is a very busy woman. Today, she serves as a sort of global eco-pilgrim for the conservation movement. Despite her age, she still travels 300 days a year, spreading the message of her formidable Jane Goodall Institute, along with that of other ecological groups. Thankfully, however, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. ‘I don’t know what I am these days,’ she says, laughing, ‘activist, advocate, call me what you will.’ I shake her hand and wish her luck. ‘Oh, thank you,’ she says, cracking a wise and serious smile, ‘we all need good luck.’


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