Jane Goodall: The hopeful messenger

Like Hawking, Goodall has been elevated to the status of sage, but does knowledge of the wild beast really imply knowledge of the human heart and soul?

Published October 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The photo-illustration on the cover of Jane Goodall's new book, "Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey," shows Goodall sitting on the ferny ground, gazing upward. A starry sky has been supplied by the artist.

Like the late Carl Sagan, of whom the illustration is reminiscent, or like Stephen Hawking, Goodall is one of a few scientists who has been elevated to the status of sage. They seem to embody some old-fashioned definition of philosopher from the days when questions about the meaning of knowledge and the habits of the chambered nautilus didn't seem like divergent inquiries.

That definition was never very logical. Wisdom has always been uneven. Knowledge of the elemental particle, knowledge of the wild beast -- do these really imply knowledge of the human heart and soul?

But we'll probably never stop wanting our smart people to be wise, and so we'll keep looking for gurus among scientists. (Loved your work with messenger RNA -- is abortion wrong? Searching for Mayan tombs like you have is my lifelong dream -- should I raise my kids as Lutherans? I'm deeply moved by your work in plate tectonics -- can we defend other than a solipsistic view of the universe?)

Reluctantly, I have to say that Goodall makes a decent sage. Perhaps knowledge of the chimpanzee heart and soul is a more logical source for human insight, and so the cult of personality that attaches itself to Goodall makes more sense than many.

"Reason for Hope" is an autobiographical account of Goodall's convictions, which today keep her traveling around the world almost constantly, promoting the causes of animal welfare -- particularly primate welfare -- and environmental protection, in large part through her organization to teach environmental concern to children, Roots & Shoots.

The autobiographical details are modest, but revealing. Of course the 4-year-old who spent four hours waiting silently in the corner of the henhouse till she saw how a hen lays an egg would become the naturalist who could observe wild chimpanzees where others had failed. Of course she read all the "Tarzan" books. But she also had a crush on the parson, took night-school classes in theosophy and flirted with young men so they would buy her dinner, when she could scarcely afford to eat. She confesses a girlhood ambition to become England's poet laureate and includes some half dozen of her poems, leading even admirers like myself to conclude that she was indeed destined to be a primatologist and a crusader.

Goodall employs a charming combination of candor and reticence: a rare candor about and willingness to discuss religious and spiritual beliefs; and an old-fashioned reticence about her love life and family matters for the most part. Yet she is movingly open about her spiritual battle to accept the death of her beloved second husband, Derek Bryceson.

During the first six months or so after Derek's death I often felt his presence. I had a strong conviction that in his spirit state he could not see or hear - or perhaps that it was he could not feel the things he had loved in earthly life ... I felt very strongly that if I looked and listened with great concentration, and paid attention to every detail, he would be able to enjoy, for a little longer, the things he had loved ... Perhaps it was fancy, but it comforted me, the thought that he was there, that I could do something for him. And then, after a while ... I felt his presence less and less often. I knew it was time for him to move on and I did not try to call him back.

Her virtues are real: Goodall is genuinely tolerant, both of scoffing atheists like me and fundamentalists, to whom she remarks, "You may not believe in evolution, and that is all right." What is important to her is not how we got here, but what we do now.

Her moderation is another source of her appeal. A vegetarian, she doesn't condemn meat eating -- just inhumane factory farming. She also gives an interesting account of being attacked by a stranger for her views on animal experimentation. The stranger, a member of People for Animal Experimentation, stormed up to Goodall and vehemently said that her daughter had a heart problem and would be dead were it not for experimental work done with dogs. "If I had my way," Goodall recalls the woman telling her, "her daughter would have died. People like me made her sick. It was quite a vicious verbal attack and the people around us drew back, embarrassed."

When Goodall had a chance to reply, her soft answer turned away wrath: Her own mother had a pig valve in her heart, she said. Experiments with pigs had saved her life. "I just feel terribly grateful to the pig who saved my mother's life, and to the pigs who may have suffered to make the operation possible.... Don't you feel grateful to the dogs who saved your daughter? Wouldn't you like to support efforts to find alternatives so that no more dogs -- or pigs -- need be used in the future?"

"The woman stared at me," Goodall continues, "she was speechless for a moment. Then she said, 'No one ever put it like that before.'"

For the most part Goodall's spiritual journey seems straightforward. Her initial discoveries about the intelligence and intense social lives of chimpanzees were no surprise to her -- they reinforced things she had long believed about other animals. But, in the mid-1970s, after more than a decade of work, a series of observations of the Gombe chimpanzees shook the world of primatology. There was a mother and daughter pair who stole, killed and ate the babies of their old friends. There were organized raiding parties and brutal warfare between chimpanzee bands. "Had I stopped after only ten years, I should have continued to believe that chimpanzees, though very like us in behavior, were rather nicer," Goodall notes.

These horrifying epiphanies, along with the kidnapping of four student researchers by armed rebels, her divorce from her first husband, Hugo von Lawick, and the death of her grandmother, formed what she describes as "some of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging years of my life ... much of my world had been shattered." The violence of the Gombe chimps' "Four Year War" forever changed her view of their nature.

I had known aggression could flare up, sometimes for seemingly trivial reasons; chimpanzees are volatile by nature, yet for the most part aggression within the community is more bluster and threat than fierce fighting -- a whole lot of "sound and fury signifying nothing." Then suddenly we found that chimpanzees could be brutal -- that they, like us, had a dark side to their nature.

Some people told her she should not publish accounts of these behaviors, for fear of giving ammunition to those who argue that the urge to warfare is not only innate in our species, but also inevitable -- "an unfortunate and regrettable legacy from our brutal ape-like ancestors."

When I published the first observations of intercommunity killing at Gombe I came in for a good deal of criticism from certain scientists. Some critics said that the observations were merely "anecdotal" and should therefore be disregarded. This was patently absurd. We had watched, at close range, not just one but five brutal attacks ... Even more significantly, other field researchers had observed similar aggressive territorial behavior in other parts of the chimpanzees' range across Africa ... the behaviors of the Gombe chimpanzees provided fuel for much theorizing; and many scientists were eagerly arguing about them, using them -- or not -- to substantiate or refute their own theories on the nature of human aggression; whereas I, with my work at Gombe, was trying to understand a little better the nature of chimpanzee aggression. My question was: How far along our human path, which has led to hatred and evil and full-scale war, have chimpanzees traveled?

Goodall says in her introduction that the chimpanzees' brutal behavior did cause her to question whether there could be "some divine plan," but that she eventually overcame those doubts. The crisis of faith that she outlines at the greatest length is the one she experienced at the painful death of her second husband.

"Reason for Hope" suggests that Goodall's beliefs did not spring from her research, but from her upbringing. When speaking of how she reconciles -- or, rather, finds no conflict between -- the scientific outlook and religious faith, she speaks of her observation that most of her fellow scientists at Cambridge seemed to be agnostics or atheists. "Fortunately, by the time I got to Cambridge I was twenty-seven years old and my beliefs had already molded so that I was not influenced by these opinions." What comes from her work seems to be her urgency about animal welfare and about environmental destruction.

In service to these causes, Goodall now spends her life as a traveling guru, making appearances, speaking and writing in a life very far removed from the dream of Africa that guided the first part of her life. Her insights, if not for sale, are put to work raising awareness of these causes. A six-pack of yogurt for sale at my local grocery bears her picture. "Explore the Ocean's Coral Reefs with Eartha and Jane Goodall," it says on the wrapper. (Eartha appears to be a caped flying cow.) Goodall is down in the corner, saying, "Understanding animals and where they live helps us understand our relationship to the planet. Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help."

The message is spread by our attraction to the messenger. It's an important message, and the way she tells it is particularly valuable. So often the messengers who come to tell us that the world environment is in trouble tell such a hopeless tale that we turn away in despair. What use is there in trying? Goodall, who with Roots & Shoots -- and yogurt packages -- is speaking to the young, is one of the few to tell us there is, indeed, reason for hope.

By Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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