In the 1960s, Jane Goodall found herself on a few National Geographic covers. Headlines in newspapers around the world trumpeted the news. Comely Miss Spends Her Time Eying Apes and The Primates of Ms. Jane Goodall: Eat Your Heart Out Fay Wray were just two. And yet she became far more than a pretty face and figure doing some ground-breaking work on chimpanzees. A new documentary, based on unseen footage discovered in National Geographic’s archives, debuted on the National Geographic Channel last Monday night. I tuned in to learn what I could learn.
Jane Goodall’s life–and though she’s 83, she’s still hard at work–is a Goldilocks/Wonder Woman (the 2017 film version) kind of story. Once upon a time an inquisitive fair-haired girl sets off for an enchanted land to see what she can see. Chimps as it turns out, not bears. She sets up camp on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. One day a man from a foreign land shows up and begins to film her work. (They fall in love but ultimately separate because they each have their own work to do.) Eventually this Wonder Woman decides to leave her paradise to help save the world.
It’s true that Jane Goodall was lovely to look at. On film, that’s an inescapable fact. As a woman, I can say that without getting into trouble, especially since I’ll follow it up with something far more important: it’s Jane’s love for the animals and the natural world–her patience, common sense and hard work–that has given her staying power and made her an icon for future generations.
“We’re all interconnected, and gosh, you learn that in the rainforest–the lungs of the world!” and “How is it possible that the most intellectual creature [man] to ever walk planet Earth is destroying its only home?” Jane Goodall in an NPR interview, 2015
Jane grew up in a middle class family on the coast of England, an outdoorsy child with a curious nature. Her love of animals was inspired by reading Dr. Dolittle books, but it was the Tarzan novels that made her want to see Africa. At twenty-three, she’d saved enough money to visit a childhood friend then living in Kenya. It took her three months by ship. While working in Nairobi, she managed to meet the renowned archeologist Louis Leakey. How many of us know/remember his name? But he was a big deal. His fossil discoveries helped support his claim that the human species originated in Africa, not Asia or Europe as many scientists believed. (In 1948, he’d discovered the remains of a common ancestor of both humans and apes that lived about 25 million years ago.)
Leakey hired Jane as his secretary, but before long he had a different job in mind. Her Mission Impossible–should she decide to accept it–was to set up a base camp in Gombe, get close to the chimpanzees, live among them and be accepted. Nobody had ever studied chimps to that extent in their natural habitat. Of all the Great Apes, chimps are most like humans. Our DNAs are over 98% the same. Leakey figured that studying the chimps could shed some light on how our Stone Age ancestors might have behaved. What he wanted in a researcher was somebody open-minded who loved animals and had lots of patience. Jane was twenty-six in 1960 when she set off to see what she could do. Gombe is in Tanzania, but back then it was called Tanganyika.
It took her many months, but she did get close to the chimps. Unlike “real” scientists, she gave them human names like David Greybeard, Flo, Flint and Fifi, instead of numbers. Through observation and copious note-taking, she learned some things that shocked the scientific community:
- the chimps were a highly socialized community (with the males dominant)
- they ate meat–not just vegetation–and made primitive tools to fish for food like termites
- they felt a range of emotions, like grief and joy
- mothers raised their babies to adulthood
The study “finally forced science to admit that we were not the only creatures on the planet with personality, minds and emotions. We are part of the animal kingdom, not separated from it,” Jane told London’s Observer, October 2017
By superhero standards, Jane is a quiet film. A human, after all, doesn’t make friends with a community of chimps by creating a ruckus. So it’s mostly quiet, but fascinating, and the film shimmers with colors so lush that I thought the film might have been colorized. (It wasn’t.) The Dutch wildlife photographer sent by National Geographic to film Jane at work sent her a telegram after his assignment ended. Will you marry me? I love you. The feeling was mutual. She and Hugo van Lawick married in England in 1964. While there, Jane earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Not bad for a girl who never got to go to college because there was no money for it. She was one of only a handful of people to receive a doctorate without an undergraduate degree. Meanwhile the chimps were teaching Jane important life lessons.
“One thing I’ve learned from the chimpanzees is the importance of early experience. Offspring who have a good mother–who is protective but not overprotective, affectionate but above all supported–will do better later in life than those who have less good mothers,” she told NPR in 2015. She put this wisdom to good use when she and Hugo had their own son, whom they raised in Gombe until he was of school age. Jane also learned the chimps were capable of rational thought and initially thought they were like us but nicer. “I had no idea of the brutality they could show,” she says in the film. “We have warfare deep in our genes, inherited from our ancient primate heritage.” The difference, she’s pointed out, is that we have less excuse because we are better able to think and deliberate.
Jane returned to Gombe and the chimp community for many years, but she realized there was a greater role she needed to play. By the late 1980s chimp populations were shrinking rapidly. They were being killed for bush meat; their habitats were being destroyed by logging and mining; they were being captured and sold as exotic pets. In 1977, she’d founded the Jane Goodall Institute. By then, she and Hugo had divorced but remained friends. His work had taken him to a different part of Africa. One day in the early 1990s she was flying over Gombe Stream National Park and was shocked to see hill after hill stripped of its trees. The chimpanzees lived in the trees. But the villagers living in the area were poor and needed the money they could get for those trees to buy food. In that instant, she realized she needed to work with the communities if she wanted to protect the chimps. And what the communities needed most was food. Jane’s team went to work and created all sorts of programs to help them better their lives.
Today Jane continues to travel 300 days/year. She gives lectures, shares her knowledge, and advocates for the environment and the people and animals who share it. Young people line up to hear her speak, and she tells them that each one of them can make a difference. Meanwhile, the work in Gombe with the chimps goes on. It’s the longest continuous study of an animal in its natural habitat in history.
For her first birthday, Jane’s father gave her a stuffed toy chimp called Jubilee, in honor of the first baby chimp born at the London Zoo earlier that year. Her father wasn’t around much, but she loved that chimp and still owns it to this day. And she had a mother who encouraged her curiosity and her dreams. “If you really want something,” Jane’s mother told her, “and if you work hard and take advantage of the opportunities and never give up, you will somehow find a way.”
“Goodness, if we could spend the same money learning about the world that we spend on wars. . .We’re so stupid aren’t we? We seem to have lost the connection between our clever brains and our hearts.” Jane Goodall to the Huffington Post, March 2018