avatarFeatured Columnist – Meditations
Martin LeFevre

Jane Goodall, the aging but still very active doyenne of chimpanzee studies in the Gombe Reserve, Tanzania, was interviewed recently on America’s premier TV magazine show, “60 Minutes.” Watch Video. In the most evocative moment of the interview, Goodall says, “I thought they were like us, but nicer. But they’re just like us.”

Goodall’s stature in the United States lies somewhere between saint and scientist, between an icon of the romantic solitary in the wilderness, and a tireless advocate for her beloved and endangered chimpanzees.

With a bit of hyperbole and adulation, the announcer says “Jane Goodall was the first to discover that wild chimpanzees were capable of making and using tools, a revelation that turned the scientific world upside down, challenging the convention that tool-making is what made humans unique.”

It’s true that Goodall, who hadn’t trained as a scientist, made new discoveries about chimp behavior in the wild, but they came at a time when the mythos of ‘man the toolmaker’ was being challenged. Her findings certainly didn’t “turn the scientific world upside down.”

Even today, Goodall speaks in poetic rather than scientific terms about those early years, a half century ago, in Tanzania: “It was a kind of magical place, where I never knew each day what I might see or discover.”

Jane’s practice of giving names to the chimps in the wild—for example, grandmother Gremlin, mother Gaia, and baby Google–raises difficult questions. Doesn’t doing so imbue the chimps with human personal qualities, when it’s more accurate to say they possess the same basic range of emotions that we do?

It’s true that “humans share more than 98% of the same DNA with chimpanzees,” and that we are close enough biologically for chimps to give us blood transfusions, if they wanted to. (Of course that doesn’t stop man from continuing to make them guinea pigs in our labs, objects to gawk at in our zoos, pets for our wealthy, and meat for our desperate.)

Humankind cannot resolve the immense dilemma of our place on this planet by blurring the lines between our closest primate cousins and ourselves.

Goodall has done great work with the Gombe Reserve chimpanzees. It took years of excruciating patience in the beginning, when she had to accustom the wild chimps to her presence before they would trust her enough to observe them in close proximity. It eventually allowed “Jane to enter the world of these wild animals, yielding the personal details she spent 50 years documenting…the largest scientific database in the world for this species.”

Goodall says, “It was obvious watching them that they could be happy and sad.” Strong human correlates—“kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting on the back, shaking the fist”—make thinking people reflect on what it means to be human. However giving wild chimpanzees names and collecting personal details cuts two ways. Chimps aren’t human, and humans aren’t chimps.

When asked what she found out about them that she didn’t like, Goodall betrays her romantic view of animals in nature when she says, “I hated the fact that chimps could be very cruel and brutal, and that they have a dark side just like us.”

Usually over territoriality (“just like us”) chimpanzees sometimes kill their own species, and have even been observed making war and committing genocide against neighboring troops.

Indeed, a male chimp she named “Frodo” nearly killed Goodall, by stomping on her, bashing her head against a rock, and pushing her over a steep cliff.

In fact, though it wasn’t mentioned on the show, many Tanzanians speak of the “killer Frodo,” who wasn’t euthanized despite having killed and partially eaten a young child, because of Goodall’s intervention. Does Goodall value chimp lives more than human lives?

Also, if chimps are “just like us,” shouldn’t they be held responsible for murderous acts, like humans are? The idea is vaguely absurd of course, but personalizing chimpanzees in the wild is also absurd.

The crucial question is: Why does Goodall hate the fact that chimps turned out to be so much like humans? After all, if humans really are inseparable from nature, then our murderous tendencies must have roots in evolution. Chimpanzees can give us, if we’re willing to look and question, insight into where man went wrong.

Martin LeFevre

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