Dr. Jane Goodall is an inspiring example of the power of an individual using her unique vision, courage and talent to make a difference in the world. Over fifty years ago, Dr. Goodall followed her childhood dream of moving to Africa and studying animals. She is a primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and U.N. Messenger of Peace. In 1960, she embarked on an unprecedented journey to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to live with and study wild chimpanzees. She made history with groundbreaking discoveries about chimpanzees: They are able to modify objects to create tools, thereby proving animals have cognitive ability. They have distinct personalities and exhibit emotions. Her research is an invaluable contribution that has enlightened us about the “fuzzy line” between human and animal.
Today, she spends most of her time on the road. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots to continue her work. Recently, I had the good fortune to have a conversation with Dr. Goodall at the Center For Living Peace when she was a guest speaker in the Living Peace Series, presented in partnership with the University of California, Irvine.
SUZA SCALORA: You spoke about a fuzzy line between human and animal. What is the fuzzy line?
JANE GOODALL: If we start with chimpanzees, they differ from us with the composition of the DNA by only just over one percent. So, as far as genetics go, we’re almost identical. The composition of the blood, the immune system, the structure of the brain — almost identical. Our brain is bigger.
That’s never interested me as much, obviously, as behavioral similarities. Chimpanzees kiss, embrace, hold hands, pat on the back, swagger. They have dominance conflicts. They have what amounts to gang warfare between neighboring social groups. You get good mothers and bad mothers that affect the subsequent development of the child. You get love, compassion, and altruism.
So in all these ways, you can see there is no sharp line. And once you’ve realized that there isn’t a sharp line, then you see that chimpanzees and gorillas are pretty well the same, too. Then we [recognize] the fact that animals have personalities, not just chimps — I learned that from my dog. I have never had an animal that didn’t have a personality, one differing from another.
Then you come to know the fact that chimpanzees are incredibly intelligent. They can learn more than 400 signs of American Sign Language. They have memories for spatial distribution, like numbers on a TV screen, way better than ours. You come onto the emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and despair — all the things for which I was accused of being anthropomorphic when I ascribed them to chimpanzees. So, it just isn’t a sharp line. That’s what I mean. Because we all share these [feelings]. We all feel pain.
SS: You were talking about the domestication of farm animals and how they are treated like domestic slaves. Would you say those animals have similar emotions to the chimpanzees?
JG: Of course they do, yes. Right now there’s a hot case. I’ve just been asked to write a letter about it. There are eighteen Beluga whales that are being captured from the wild in Russia for the big aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. They caught them before they got the permits. Now they’re applying for the permits, but the whales have been caught. The transfer is horrible. Whales, like elephants, are so social and intelligent. This hurts me to think of them being transported, put in noisy airplanes, and brought to a horrible concrete pen when they’re supposed to be out in the sea.
There are forty Beluga whales in Canada, in horrible conditions, desperately needing somewhere to go. Why can’t they give them a good home?
SS: Earlier you said that it’s about connecting your head with your heart to find the compassion for all living things. I think this is key. I’m wondering, are you seeing us moving in that direction?
JG: I think we are. I really think we’re moving in that direction. For example, the National Institutes of Health have about 700 chimpanzees in medical research. Most of them aren’t actually being used right now, but the director, Francis Collins, talked with me a lot about the ethics of it. That’s beginning to play a role, so it’s not just are they useful or not? But, even if they are, should we use them? These are two different questions. If they must be used or [if] somebody says they must be used, does it mean they should? Are we just dividing them and keeping them in five-foot by five-foot cages?
I think we’re moving, and people are beginning to accept that yes, animals do have feelings, they do have personalities, and we need to respect them. The awful thing is we don’t respect each other. People say, “Oh, we ought to fight for animal rights.” We fought for human rights, but even if humans have rights, they can still be horribly abused and are every day. You don’t have to go to some far off land, far away place; we have a lot of child abuse in our own society.
SS: Did your first work with primates, before earning your Ph.D., effect how your work was received?
JG: The fact that I didn’t have a Ph.D.?
JG: Well, of course, the scientists felt that everything I saw couldn’t be true because I hadn’t been to college. Then National Geographic sent Hugo Van Lawick, my first husband, to film. Then they agreed that what I had said was true. Then my supervisor, who was one of the very, very strict animal behavior people, came to Gombe, stayed for two weeks, left, and said, “Those chimpanzees have taught me more in two weeks than I’ve learned in the entire rest of my life.” He helped me to express my findings, my rebel way of talking about them, in a way that could be accepted by the scientists. That was incredibly useful.