A Jane Goodall Thanksgiving
Editor’s Note: In a U.S. political environment where leaders make hay by rejecting the scientific evidence of evolution and denying the threat of global warming, there is something encouraging about scientists who devote their lives to observation and analysis.
In this Thanksgiving guest essay, Michael Winship gives thanks for anthropologist Jane Goodall and her landmark study of chimpanzees:
Give thanks. Because this isn't one of those Thanksgiving lists of things for which we should be grateful -- although health, family, friends, laughter, etc., would certainly all be on mine.
And Jane Goodall.
Yes, that Jane Goodall, the woman we all grew up with watching those National Geographic specials on TV as she communed with the chimpanzees of Tanzania's Gombe National Park in East Africa.
Everyone I know seems especially to remember those scenes of chimps ingeniously utilizing straw and blades of grass to poke around in mounds hunting for termites, proof that they know how to make and use tools. I still have trouble opening a can of tuna.
Goodall was interviewed by my colleague Bill Moyers for this week's edition of "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS. She began her work in Africa in 1960 at the age of 26, spurred by the encouragement of her English mother and the great anthropologist Louis Leakey, as well as the African adventure books she read as a child.
"I was in love with Tarzan," she told Moyers. "I was so jealous of that wimpy Jane. I knew I would have been a better mate for Tarzan."
I'm especially thankful to Jane Goodall after reading the passage in Sarah Palin's Going Rogue in which the erstwhile vice presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska writes that she doesn't "believe in the theory that human beings -- thinking, loving beings -- originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from trees."
She could learn a thing or two from the chimps. Goodall sees our affinity with them as like "the bond between mother and child, which really for us and chimps and other primates is the root of all the expressions of social behavior you can sort of see mirrored in the mother/child relationship."
But chimpanzees can be violent, too, and Goodall says, "Some people have reached the conclusion that war and violence is inevitable in ourselves. I reach the conclusion that I do believe we have brought aggressive tendencies with us through our long human evolutionary past. I mean, you can't look around the world and not realize that we can be, and often are, extremely brutal and aggressive."
But, she adds, "Equally, we have inherited tendencies of love, compassion, and altruism, because they're there in the chimp. So, we've brought those with us. So, it's like each one of us has this dark side. And a more noble side. And I guess it's up to each one of us to push one down and develop the other."
Jane Goodall has never seen a conflict between religion and evolution.
"I don't think that faith, whatever you're being faithful about, really can be scientifically explained," she said. "And I don't want to explain this whole life business. Truth, science. There's so much mystery. There's so much awe.
"I mean, what is it that makes the chimpanzees do these spectacular displays, rain dances -- I call them waterfall dances. At the foot of this waterfall, [they] sit in the spray and watch the water that's always coming and always going and always there. It's wonder. It's awe. And if they had the same kind of language that we have, I suspect that [they would turn it] into -- some kind of animistic religion."
In 1986, after two and a half decades of quiet research in the African forest, Goodall's career took a dramatic turn at a conference of scientists studying chimpanzees.
During a session on conservation, she said that it was "shocking" to learn that across Africa, because of deforestation, the explosion of human population and commercial hunting of animals for food, the chimpanzee population had "plummeted from somewhere between one and two million at the turn of the last century to, at that time, about 400,000. So I came out - I couldn't go back to that old, beautiful, wonderful life."
She now spends more than 300 days out of the year traveling, speaking out, rallying people to see ourselves as caretakers of the natural world, and inspiring us with word that all is not yet lost.
Her Jane Goodall Institute works ceaselessly for the worldwide protection of habitat, and her program "Roots and Shoots" now has chapters in 114 countries, working to make young people more environmentally aware.
"I could kill myself trying to save chimps and forests," she said to Bill Moyers. "But if we're not raising new generations to be better stewards than we've been, then we might as well give up."
The worldwide chimp population is down to fewer than 300,000 now, spread across isolated fragments of forest, Goodall says, in 21 African nations.
Moyers asked, what do we lose if the last chimp goes?
"We lose one window into learning about our long course of evolution," she replied.
"I've spent so long looking into these minds that are fascinating, because they're so like us. And yet they're in another world. And I think the magic is, I will never know what they're thinking... And so, it's like elephants and gorillas, and all the different animals that we are pushing toward extinction...
"There's a saying, 'We haven't inherited this planet from our parents, we've borrowed it from our children.' When you borrow, you plan to pay back. We've been stealing and stealing and stealing. And it's about time we got together and started paying back."
That's as good a Thanksgiving wish as I can imagine.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers. Additional research provided by producer Candace White and associate produce Diane Chang.
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