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Jane Goodall reveals what studying chimpanzees teaches us about human nature

The renowned primatologist wants us to remember that humans aren’t so exceptional — we’re animals, too.

British primatologist Jane Goodall at the chimpanzee enclosure at Australia’s Taronga Zoo in 2014.
Jeremy Piper/Newspix/Getty Images

When Jane Goodall was just 26 years old, she began trekking through the forests of Tanzania to study wild chimpanzees. At first they’d run away from her, but after months of patient interaction, she actually became accepted as a member of their community — the first researcher ever to win that distinction. She had no academic degree, and yet she was making pioneering discoveries. Chimps use tools! Chimps hunt and eat meat! Chimps have complex emotional lives, from loving parental bonds to brutal battles!

Her discoveries overturned the dominant paradigm of the day, which I can sum up in two words: human exceptionalism. It’s the idea that we humans are totally different from, and superior to, animals. Goodall has said that helping us to ditch this idea — to blur the line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom — has been her greatest achievement in life.

So, now that the world-renowned primatologist is 87, I wanted to reflect on what the past 60 years of studying chimps has taught her — not about chimps, but about us humans. And I wanted to ask what we can do to help animals and the natural environment we all rely on.

I discussed these questions with Goodall on the Vox Conversations podcast in advance of the publication of her forthcoming book, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, out October 19. You can listen to the full episode here. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

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Sigal Samuel

When you first started studying wild chimps in 1960, scientists knew almost nothing about their behavior. And yet they were very sure that a scientist should not talk about a chimp having a mind, personality, emotions — only humans had those. But you quickly discovered that’s just not true. What was your first clue that chimps are reasoning, feeling creatures like us?

Jane Goodall

Well, actually, I learned it long before I got to Gombe [in Tanzania] to study chimpanzees, because when I was a child I had a wonderful teacher and that was my dog, Rusty. You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a rat, a bird, a horse, a pig, I don’t care, and not know that they have emotions similar to ours and that they have minds that can sometimes solve problems.

What you have to realize is that when I went to Gombe, I hadn’t been to college. I had absolutely no idea that scientists have this reductionist feeling about animals. So I went knowing that of course the chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, would have emotions, would have personalities, and would be highly intelligent.

The only research being done on chimpanzees at that time was in captivity. There was one wonderful book called The Mentality of Apes written by an Austrian psychologist about a colony of captive chimpanzees. He wrote this book and immediately all the other scientists pounced on him and said: “Well, these are captive chimpanzees, they’re only intelligent because our humanity has rubbed off on them!” I mean, how arrogant can you get?

Sigal Samuel

So it was actually helpful for you to be going into Gombe without having scientific training or an academic degree, because that enabled you to just see what you were seeing without those blinders having been put on you?

Jane Goodall

Yeah, absolutely.

Sigal Samuel

And contrary to the scientific practice of the day, you gave the chimps human names, like David Graybeard or Fifi. That was very taboo in the scientific community, where you were supposed to maintain this veneer of objective distance from research subjects. But I think you have never been shy about developing these loving connections with animals.

But as the years went on there, you did go on to observe some pretty serious violence between groups of chimps, and you’ve even referred to a war that broke out between these different groups. Do you think that at first you romanticized chimps and then had to move away from that view?

Jane Goodall

Yeah, it was a shock. I did think they were like us, but nicer.

The thing is that they’re highly territorial and the males will get together and patrol the boundaries of their territory. And if they spy an individual from a neighboring community, they’re likely to chase. It’s quite scary, actually.

Sigal Samuel

Given the two poles that you discovered — some very trusting behavior and bonds, and some aggression and violence — do you think of chimps as being capable of altruism or kindness on the one hand, and malice or evil on the other?

Jane Goodall

Not evil. I think only humans are capable of evil. Because to me, evil is not just responding to an aggressive impulse (which is what chimps do), but sitting deliberately in cold blood and planning the destruction of another human being or planning a war.

Just like them, we have a good side and a dark side. But I think our dark side is worse because we are capable of evil. I think our good side is better. Because while chimps can be altruistic, they’re responding to the immediate emotion. But we can be altruistic thinking about the consequences to ourselves and realizing that if we move ahead to help that person, it may have serious negative impacts on us, but doing it all the same because of this compassion we have.

Sigal Samuel

There was this fateful day when you observed a chimpanzee sticking a stalk of grass into a termite hole and then pulling out the stalk that was now covered in termites and eating them. You realized, “Hey, this is tool use!” When you later wrote to your mentor, Louis Leakey, about what you’d seen, he replied: “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Did you realize right when you were watching this tool use happening that this was something huge?

Jane Goodall

I’d read enough to know that Western science believed that only humans make tools. So I knew that this was a very important observation and I could hardly believe that I’d seen it, so I waited until I saw a couple more chimpanzees using tools, and it was only then that I wrote to Louis Leakey. The thing is that at the time we were defined as “Man the Toolmaker,” and that’s what caused Louis to write those famous words. And that was the turning point.

Sigal Samuel

As someone who recognized these human-like traits in nonhuman primates very early on, have you found that that either forces people to expand the circle of humanity, or shrink what they understand human nature to be?

Jane Goodall

I think it’s now generally accepted that we are not the only beings on the planet with personalities, minds, and emotions — that we are part of and not separated from the rest of the animal kingdom. And yet, when I first got to Cambridge and I’d been with the chimps one and a half years, I was actually told that the difference between us and all other animals was one of kind. We were on a pinnacle, separated from all the others by an unbridgeable chasm.

Sigal Samuel

Why do you think it was so taboo in your early years for scientists to anthropomorphize animals?

Jane Goodall

It’s still taboo now, actually. I think it was the long arm of religion reaching out. I mean, think of how Darwin was greeted when he got back after the voyage of the Beagle with his theory of evolution. Religion was up in arms immediately, and a lot of scientists believed in religion so they could not believe in evolution. We were different because we had a soul and they [animals] didn’t.

Sigal Samuel

Do you think humans also have had a tendency to dismiss certain species as unintelligent because we think that intelligence has to look the way it does in humans for it to count as intelligence?

Jane Goodall

Of course. That’s the whole premise of science, that we’re above the animals in all these different ways. But there are some ways that animals are highly intelligent in ways that we certainly would be completely stupid. And then we expect animals to respond to intelligence tests as though they’re people — but they’re not people, they’re animals, and they develop their intelligence to cope with the problems that they meet in the wild.

Also, I was told when I was at Cambridge — I didn’t believe it, but I was told — that a scientist should not have empathy with her subject. That you’ve got to be objective and if you have empathy for the subject, you cannot be scientifically objective. That’s just absolute rubbish. Of course you can. I’ve proved it again and again. And if you deny the role of empathy, then you deny a very important avenue of research.

When I got to know the chimpanzees really well, I would empathize with them. I would be looking at a piece of behavior that puzzled me and it would come to me in a kind of aha moment: “I think that’s because ...” — and that was because of empathy. And then once you come to that understanding, you can step back and put on your scientific hat and try to prove or disprove what you believe to be true.

Sigal Samuel

Were there certain findings that you didn’t publish back then for fear of being ridiculed or criticized by the scientific community?

Jane Goodall

Oh, no, never. Absolutely never. And the thing I was criticized most on was the fact that I talked about chimpanzee aggression probably being innate. You know, the reason that Louis sent me to study the chimps was because he believed that about 6 million years ago, there was an ape-like, human-like common ancestor, and because chimps are our closest relatives today, he reasoned: Well, if Jane finds behavior that’s similar in modern chimpanzees and modern humans, then it’s very probable that that behavior was in that common ancestor, and we brought that trait with us through our separate evolutionary pathways.

So that led to me talking about some innate aggressive tendencies in humans. I got so much trouble for that because in the early ’70s, there was this big argument in science about nature versus nurture — is a baby born with a clean slate, and only experience will make that child aggressive or kind? When I said no, there’s an instinctive element to it, I was heavily criticized. But I think it makes sense. How can you possibly look around the world and say that there is not an innate aggressive tendency in humans?

Jane Goodall studies the behavior of a chimpanzee during her research in 1987 in Tanzania.
Penelope Breese/Liaison/Getty Images

Sigal Samuel

Do you feel like in the years since then, the science has come to back up some of the claims that were controversial early on? Do you feel vindicated?

Jane Goodall

Yes, absolutely. I mean, students today can study animal personality and animal intellect and animal emotion. And I couldn’t have studied any of those because they were supposed not to exist.

Science is coming around to understanding that we are part of the animal kingdom. But there are still little pockets of resistance. And, of course, those people working in animal laboratories, animal research, they don’t want to think animals are sentient. People working in these terrible factory farms, they don’t want to believe animals are sentient beings capable of feeling fear and pain. It’s not convenient to believe that.

Sigal Samuel

I think that’s part of why it’s so hard for us to give up on this idea of human exceptionalism — because if we do abandon that idea, we’d have to change a lot of how we’re living. What would be the implications exactly for how we treat animals and the environment if we did ditch that idea?

Jane Goodall

Well, the point is, we have to. We’re almost at a point of no return on the planet today. And this increasing consumption of meat around the world as nations get wealthier — it’s not only the unbelievable cruelty to the billions of animals in intensive farming, but also, they all have to be fed. Huge areas of habitat are destroyed to grow the grain to feed them, massive amounts of fossil fuels are used to prepare the sites, to get the food to the animals and the animals to the slaughter and the meat to the table.

Sigal Samuel

You’re on the record advocating for people to eat no meat, or at least less of it. But I’m curious to ask you about strategy here, because you’ve also said that you don’t find it’s effective to just yell at people about how they need to stop eating meat right now because of climate change — that that sort of confrontational approach might not be the most effective route to behavior change.

One thing that’s being touted a lot now is new food technologies for making meatless meat, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger. Is that new technology something you’re hopeful about as a route to behavior change?

Jane Goodall

Definitely. But you know, the way that I tackle these issues is, I feel it’s really important to reach the heart, because people have got to change from within. They’ve got to change because they want to change. And if you batter at them and try to blind them with science, they don’t want to listen to you. But if you can quietly tell a story, then you may reach the heart. And that’s when people change. We have this program for young people and I’m told again and again and again by children that they are changing the attitude of their parents and grandparents.

Sigal Samuel

You’re talking about the Roots and Shoots program that you created to reach youth and mobilize them. And how when youth get involved in climate and environment, they are typically pretty powerful agents of change with regard to changing their parents’ mindset.

I think what scares me, though, is that we are really running out of time now on the planet in terms of the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. I do love the idea of trying to change people’s behavior by telling stories that reach to their heart, but if we just try to speak to the heart and not be overly confrontational, we may not make it in time. Are you scared about that?

A young eastern chimpanzee in Tanzania.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Jane Goodall

Well, plenty of people are providing all the facts and all the doom and gloom. So my role in life is to give people hope, because if you run out of hope, we may as well give up. If you don’t have hope that your actions will make a difference, why bother?

As you say, we’re running out of time. But if we get together now, there is still a window of time. And remember, the main message of Roots and Shoots is that every single day each one of us lives, we make an impact on the planet and we get to choose what sort of impact we make.

But for this to work, the Western, affluent world must reduce its environmental footprint. We’re not living sustainable lives, most of us. Secondly, we’ve got to alleviate poverty, because if you’re in real poverty, you destroy the environment, you cut down the last tree, you’re desperate to get a bit more fertile land to grow food for your family. If you’re in a city, you buy the cheapest food or clothing. You can’t afford to say: How was it made? Did it harm the environment? Was it cruel to animals? You have to buy the cheapest to survive.

Sigal Samuel

Over your years in Tanzania and beyond, you came to redefine conservation to include the needs of the local people and the environment there. Is that sort of approach, which really looks at poverty, becoming fairly accepted within conservation? Or do you find that too many people, when they think about animal or land conservation, are purely thinking about the animals and the land?

Jane Goodall

Yeah, that’s true. But more and more conservation groups now understand the need to involve local communities. Our program is very holistic and it includes restoring fertility to overused farmland without these terrible chemical pesticides, and improving health and education, and providing scholarships to keep girls in school beyond puberty, and providing microcredit opportunities, particularly for women so they can choose their own small and sustainable businesses. And these people have now become our partners, understanding that protecting the environment is for their own future, not just for wildlife.

Sigal Samuel

You’re the 2021 recipient of the Templeton Prize, which is awarded to people who harness the power of the sciences to explore deep spiritual questions, like humankind’s purpose in the universe. You’ve described your time in the forests of Tanzania as a very spiritual time. How did it deepen your spirituality?

Jane Goodall

When I was spending hours and hours in the rainforest, I felt this really close connection with the spirit of nature. Out in the forest, you just have this very strong feeling of the interconnection of all life forms, how every species has a role to play. And you start to think: I think I’m here for a purpose.

I think the most important message for everybody to hear is that their lives matter. They have a role to play and what they do every day makes a difference. Some people can do a lot either by giving money or raising awareness. When everybody does the best they can to make this world a better place, we can leave a better planet for our children and theirs.

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