jane goodall

One of the most extraordinary stories of humankind’s interaction with another species on this planet began 54 years ago today. On July 14, 1960, British naturalist Jane Goodall arrived at Gombe Stream National Park in what was then Tanganyika, a British protectorate in eastern Africa (it’s now Tanzania). Although Goodall had studied primates briefly with an associate of Louis Leakey, who figured large in her life story, she didn’t have a Ph.D. (yet) and no formal training in the field. Yet her arrival that day began an incredible odyssey that has broadened humankind’s understanding of its close biological relatives, the chimpanzee–and indeed of itself, in profoundly interesting and sometimes disturbing ways.

From childhood Jane Goodall was destined to have her life intertwined with those of chimpanzees. Not long after her birth in 1934, in London, her father gave her a stuffed chimpanzee toy. Her mother thought it would frighten young Jane, but it had the opposite effect, and in fact began a lifelong fascination with these interesting creatures. Intrigued by wild animals and the continent of Africa where her favorite species originated, Jane went to Kenya in the late 1950s and obtained work as a secretary. An interview with Louis Leakey proved fateful. Leakey was looking for someone to study chimpanzees full-time and Goodall’s enthusiasm for animals impressed him. With funds raised by Leakey, Goodall took up residence at Gombe 54 years ago today to begin her study, which was later interrupted by gaining a quick Ph.D. at Cambridge. (Nobody does quick Ph.D.s at Cambridge anymore). The fame of her project spread particularly through the 1970s, when National Geographic did several stories on her research and findings.

What Dr. Goodall saw at Gombe was startling and thought-provoking. She carefully documented the complex social interactions of the Gombe chimpanzees, who, in violation of standard practice at that time, she gave individual names instead of impersonal numbers. She interacted with the animals as an equal, seeking to understand not only what they did, but what they thought and felt. It was evident that chimpanzees had emotions, loyalties, prejudices, and even hatreds. In contrast to what was generally assumed about the differences between humans and animals, Goodall proved that chimpanzees use tools and engaged in strategic behavior–intelligence, as opposed to instinct–in obtaining food and interacting with each other. Some of these findings made people uncomfortable. What, after all, does separate human beings from chimpanzees, a species with which we share a 99% genetic similarity? Jane Goodall’s answer: not much.

This “60 Minutes” profile of Dr. Goodall was broadcast in 2010, commemorating the 50th year of her research with the chimps of Gombe.

Most shocking, Goodall observed and documented a war that broke out between two factions of chimpanzees which tore the Gombe wilderness apart with violence from 1974 to 1978. Chimpanzees committed acts of premeditated murder, including females killing and eating the babies of other females. More disturbing, some of the chimpanzees who fought each other had been close comrades for years prior, suggesting that temporal circumstances could trump old bands of family or tribal loyalty–just as they can in humans. If you’ve heard the oft-repeated myth that “human beings are the only species that preys on itself,” you should know that Jane Goodall proved it wrong. Chimpanzees engage in organized warfare too. Another comfortable division between humans and chimpanzees crumbles upon close inspection.

In addition to her research, Jane Goodall has been a champion in trying to preserve these animals, who are in continual danger from poaching, disappearance of their pristine environment, and collateral effects from decades of political instability in Africa. Chimpanzees, like every other life form, are also threatened today by climate change. Today, 54 years after she started, Dr. Goodall tirelessly circles the world advocating for environmental and scientific causes. The list of awards she’s won for her activism is long. Queen Elizabeth II made her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire–basically a knighthood. She’s also been honored numerous times by the United Nations and other organizations for peace.

In my opinion, Jane Goodall is one of the great exemplars of academic environmentalism in the world today, and her impact on our understanding of our own species, as well as chimpanzees, is immense. At age 80 she’s still going strong in her favored causes, which all began on a grassy hillside in East Africa, one hot July afternoon more than half a century ago.

The photo of Jane Goodall is by Wikimedia Commons user Jeekc and is used under Creative Commons 2.5 (Attribution) license.