Why Jane Goodall Still Has Hope for Us Humans
Wherever the story of our natural world ultimately lands, Jane Goodall will have earned a proud place in its telling. Goodall, 87, first found fame in the early 1960s for her paradigm-busting work as a primatologist. Studying the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, she was the first to observe those entrancing animals eating meat and using tools, thus expanding our understanding of primate capabilities. While that work is likely to remain what the public primarily associates her with, Goodall’s career as an activist is arguably her more important legacy. She has spent 44 years leading conservation efforts through her Jane Goodall Institute and seeding the future with like-minded souls via the Roots & Shoots educational programs for young people, which can be found in more than 60 countries and have nurtured millions of students. “You just plod on and do what you can to make the world a better place,” said Goodall, speaking via Zoom from her childhood home in Bournemouth, England, and whose “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times” will be published in October. “That’s all I can do. I can’t do more, I don’t think, than I’m doing.”
The stories you tell about the planet and conservation have to do withBut all we have to do is look around to see the persuasiveness of stories built on fear and anger. Have you ever wondered if tapping into those emotions might be useful? No. It’s one of my big complaints when I talk to the media: Yes, we absolutely need to know all the doom and gloom because we are approaching a crossroads, and if we don’t take action it could be too late. But traveling the world I’d see so many projects of restoration, animal and plant species being rescued from the brink of extinction, people tackling what seemed impossible and not giving up. Those are the stories that should have equal time, because they’re what gives people hope. If you don’t have hope, why bother? Why should I bother to think about my ecological footprint if I don’t think that what I do is going to make a difference? Why not eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?
Are there ideas you have about conservation that you feel are too radical to express publicly? Absolutely. I would never approach people about the crisis of the billions of animals in the factory farms and say you’ve got to bePeople have to change gradually. If you eat meat one less day a week, that’s the beginning. Bad zoos, you want to close them down, but you’ve got to work out what are we going to do with the animals when we do get it closed down. You have to make compromises. When I’m talking to people about eating animal products, I tell them that I read back in the 1970s. I didn’t know about factory farms. I was shocked. The next time I saw a piece of meat on my plate, I thought, Goodness, this symbolizes fear, pain, death. Who wants to eat fear, pain and death? So I just tell them my story. I don’t ever want to appear holier than thou. You’ve got to be reasonable. If you tell people, “You’ve got to stop doing that,” they immediately don’t want to talk to you. The main thing is to keep a channel open. Young activists, sometimes they’re inexperienced and demand something. They ask my advice, and I say: Talk about how the issue is affecting you. How you feel about it. I think that’s the way forward. But that’s just my way.
You mentioned zoos. Should they exist? Oh, yeah. The really good ones have people who understand the animals. They’ve got lovely enclosures. They do a lot of education, especially for children. They put money into conservation programs in the field. They give veterinary training for people caring for animals in captivity around the world. The other thing is, people think out in the wild is utopia for animals. If they’d seen the places I’ve seen, where you hear the chain saws approaching while snares are catching chimps and others are being shot. Then you watch a group of chimps in a good zoo: two or three males grooming, two females lying in the sun, the babies playing. You think, let me put myself in the position of a chimp: I’d rather be in a zoo. People often don’t think from the point of view of the animal.
I’ve seen people talk about certain chimpanzee behaviors — for instance, their apparent capacity for compassion — almost in a context of moral goodness. But when they talk about chimpanzees’ violence or aggression, it’s not in the context of evil. Why is that? If chimps are capable of one, aren’t they capable of the other? This is a very interesting philosophical conversation, andMy definition is that only humans can be evil. Chimpanzees can be brutal, violent, aggressive. Their behavior can be seen as cruel. But my definition of evil, it’s when you can plan attacks on those who aren’t there and then carry them out in cold blood. Chimps don’t plan like that. They act on the spur of the moment. They’re very territorial and dominance-oriented, but maybe because they haven’t got language they can’t be evil. I don’t know. I’d have to look up all the studies to answer you properly.
But chimps can be good? Chimps can be altruistic. We have examples of adolescent males adopting and caring for motherless infants. We do the same sort of thing, but we can make a plan for it. We can help somebody knowing that there will be bad consequences for us. That’s something a chimp can’t do. So I always say we can be worse and better than chimps. Does that make sense?
It does. This is maybe a goofy question, but did you ever personally identify with a chimp you studied? Nobody has asked me that before. The answer is no. There were chimps I liked a lot. Chimps I loved, I guess you could say. Chimps I totally disliked. [Goodall takes a photo down from the bookshelf behind her.] This one here, I’ll show him to you because he was very special. He was the first one to lose his fear of me.
David Greybeard. Yes,He showed me tool-using, helped me get the trust of the others. [Goodall takes down another photo.] Then this one is Frodo. He was a bully. He attacked me several times, but not with a desire to hurt or kill, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here. He was just asserting his dominance. I was always saying in my mind, Frodo, I know you’re dominant. You do not have to prove it. When he was young, other infants would be playing, and Frodo would join in, and the others would immediately stop because when Frodo joined in then the game would turn nasty, and he’d hurt somebody.
There are obviously plenty of unanswered questions about primate behavior. In your mind, does the same apply to humans? You’re asking me, “Do you understand human nature?” Do you?
Definitely not. But I think there are people, for example strict materialists or religious fundamentalists, who have schematics that they feel afford them an understanding of all human behavior. Religious fundamentalism is one of the strangest things. Religion has a bad name because of fundamentalism. But if you look at every major religion, the golden rule is the same: Do to others as you would have them do to you. These fundamentalists are not actually preaching about the fundamental principles of the religion that they are talking about. They’re educating young people to believe ridiculous things. At the beginning of Islam, nobody ever said that if you went and blew yourself up and killed lots of people, you’d go to heaven. Religion can be so damaging. When I think of our attitude to animals in Genesis, where man is told that he has “dominion” over the birds and the fish and the animals and so on — the actual word, I’m told, is not dominion, it’s stewardship.
Which is very different. You believe in God, right? I believe that there’s an intelligence, a spiritual power that I don’t understand. I call it God because I don’t know what else to call this great spiritual power. It gives me strength. I’ve also had amazing times alone in nature when for a moment you forget you’re human. Your humanness goes away, and you’re part of that natural world. It’s the most amazing and wonderful and beautiful feeling.
How do you square things like environmental degradation and war with a belief in that overriding intelligence? Traditional faith will have you believe in a loving God, and when I look at what’s happening on the planet, I think if there is a God like that, is he playing with us? Are we living in some great experiment? How can you believe in a loving God when you see the horrors that are perpetrated against nature, against animals, against each other? I sometimes think it is like an experiment which has culminated in this strange, confused creature that is human beings, and we seem to be lost. Who are we? What are we? Why are we here? I don’t know what the meaning of life is. The meaning of my life is to give people hope because without hope you give up.
Do you know why people areDavid, I wish I could answer that question. I ask it to myself all the time. The thing is, there are two Janes. There’s this one who’s sitting here where I grew up, talking to you, looking out the window at my favorite tree. Then there’s that icon out there. All I can do is try and live up to that image that people have created. What is it? I don’t know. Some people say it’s my voice. Some people say it’s the story with the chimps: beauty and the beast. Some say it’s because I speak from the heart. I discovered to my amazement that I had this gift for communication, and I think that’s part of why I’ve got this weird, alternative Jane out there. Each person feels I’m talking to them like I’m talking to you now.
There probably isn’t anyone who’s going to be able to step in and fillwhen you’re gone. Are you concerned about what that means for the continuation of your work? No. Roots & Shoots gives me the greatest hope, these young people. My mission won’t be carried on by a “Jane,” I don’t think. There will be lots of little Janes; lots of Janes growing up. Kids today are very different because they’re learning all the time: Schools have programs about the environment. You can hardly miss the fact that we’re in the midst of the sixth great extinction, that the climate’s changing. They’re much more aware. Adults are getting much more aware too. I’m always being asked, What do you do if you meet a climate-change denier? Well, are they climate-change deniers in their heart of hearts? Like when I was told by my Cambridge professors that I couldn’t talk about chimps having personalities, minds or emotions because they were unique to humans — did they really believe that? Were they just saying that because they couldn’t quantify it? Had they never had a dog or a cat or a guinea pig or spent time with a horse or a bird? So climate-change deniers, do they really deny that the climate is changing? I can’t believe that they do. They’re burying their heads in the sand: I don’t want to believe it because I want to go on with business as usual. I want to go on making more money. I want to go on getting more power.
I suspect a lot of that resistance has to do with tribal political identification. Your studies have taught you a ton about chimps’ in-group and out-group dynamics. Do you have thoughts about how humans can best transcend those same dynamics? That’s what our intellect should enable us to do. We don’t have to follow our instincts. This political in-group, out-group — America recently has become such a frightening place, hasn’t it? It’s terrifying that vaccination, wearing masks and climate change, that’s political. That’s terrifying because it’s so anti-common sense. Britain’s very much the same.
What are the ways to prevent discussions with science skeptics from lapsing into partisan politics? With climate change, I just say what I’ve seen. I’ve seen the icebergs melting in Greenland; water pouring out of places where Inuit elders told me it never used to melt. I’ve met people who’ve had to leave their island homes because the water levels have risen. Then the climate deniers will say, This has nothing to do with us; that would have happened anyway. Ordinary people actually listen to those stories, and it does impact them. I honestly think the silver lining of this pandemic is that more people understand that we brought it on ourselves by our disrespect of nature, our disrespect of animals. So it’s been awful, but always a bright side.
Can you imagine retiring after your current engagements are fulfilled? My current engagements stretch forward eight to 10 years. I’ll be dead; I’ll never fulfill them. [Laughs.] I can’t retire as long as my body functions and my mind works. Hopefully my mind will stay OK. My mother’s did, my grandmother’s did, my uncle’s did, my grandfather’s did. My body, I’ve got good genes inherited from my father. These are all lucky things. They were given to me for a reason, weren’t they?
The reason being the work you’ve done? Yes, and I have to go on doing it because I care passionately about nature. I care passionately about children. If I didn’t make a difference, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t say that to brag. It’s just that every day people say: “I read your book and I changed. I heard your lecture and I changed.” So if I care, then I can’t stop.
Opening illustration: Source photograph by Amanda Edwards/WireImage, via Getty Images
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.