Jane Goodall, how a woman redefined mankind

A legendary researcher by age 26, Jane defended her findings despite doubts from peers.

Photograph by CBS via Getty
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Jane Goodall in the 1965 film "Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees," National Geographic Society’s first documentary.
Photograph by CBS via Getty

As a child, I’d idolized her. Jane Goodall, “the girl who lived among the wild chimpanzees,” was blond and looked smart in her khaki shorts as she walked on thick jungle branches in her bare feet and play-wrestled with baby chimps. I’d seen her in National Geographic, which I would avidly page through before I could even read. We lived in the L.A. suburbs, and even though we had a swimming pool, I was aware that my life was sadly lacking in adventure. Once, inspired by Jane, I asked my mother if we might go camping. She blew smoke out of her nose and told me we weren’t the camping types.

Jane Goodall is best known for her 26-year study of the chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, located on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. In 1960, while visiting a friend in Kenya, she met celebrated anthropologist Louis Leakey, who obtained a grant for her to collect data on chimps in the wild to study their similarities to humans. There, she made several groundbreaking discoveries that secured her position as one of the greatest field scientists of the 20th century. She was 26 years old.

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A young chimp named Flint reaches for ethologist Jane Goodall. Flint was the first infant born in Gombe after Jane’s arrival.

In 1962, Dutch wildlife photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick filmed Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees. It was the first documentary produced by the National Geographic Society, and it made Jane Goodall a star. Also, a wife, and then, mother. She married van Lawick, and in 1967 gave birth to a son, Hugo Eric Louis, known as Grub. She is the author of dozens of books on chimp and animal behavior, as well as on the critical role of conservation. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a nongovernmental organization devoted to protecting the rapidly disappearing chimp habitat. In 1995 she was made a Commander of the British Empire, and became Dame Jane Morris-Goodall, DBE.

Born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall in London in 1934, her father, Mortimer, was a businessman; her mother, Myfanwe (Vanne) Morris Goodall, was a novelist and looked after her family. The expectations for Jane were standard issue for the time: a marriage to a nice, responsible man, followed by a few children. To her credit, her mother never discouraged her interests: animals, the natural world, and above all, the wildlife of Africa. Once Vanne discovered that little Jane had brought a handful of earthworms to bed; rather than shrieking, she explained that her new little friends needed the soil to live, and together, they took them back to the garden.

Jane was a quiet girl, a bookworm who adored Doctor Dolittle and devoured the Tarzan novels. Reading did its usual stealthy, life-changing thing: Jane developed a deep love of animals and a longing to go to Africa and live among the wild animals. But World War II was raging, and her family had little money. Instead of university, Jane enrolled in secretarial college, graduating in 1952.

Meanwhile, one of Jane’s school friends had moved to Kenya and invited her to come for a visit. Jane was working in London selecting music for advertising films at the time. In a move that seems so very right now, she moved home and worked as a waitress to finance the trip. When she had saved enough, she quit her job and off she went.

By which I mean she took an exciting, month-long journey from England, around the Cape of Good Hope, to Mombasa, eventually making her way to Nairobi. There she met Dr. Louis Leakey, the great archaeologist and paleoanthropologist who traced our human origins to Africa. Leakey was charismatic, influential, and, at the time, a curator at Nairobi’s natural history museum. He offered Jane a job there, then invited her to come along on a dig at Olduvai Gorge. She spent three glorious months immersed in painstaking tasks: removing dirt from a fossil with a dental pick no bigger than your pinkie finger, or digging gently with a hunting knife. Leakey saw in her a person who was patient and thorough: one who could survive long stretches of isolation, who could sit and watch and learn. In sum, she was the perfect candidate for his latest project—observing primates in the wild—and when he asked whether she would be interested in setting up camp at Gombe Stream on the shores of remote Lake Tanganyika, she didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Since women have entered the workforce, it’s been noted that we tend to apply only for positions for which we possess the correct qualifications. If a job description lists the ability to juggle an egg, a flaming torch, and a chain saw, and we can only juggle oranges, we don’t bother applying. Men, on the other hand, feel confident applying for jobs they believe they can do, regardless of their education or previous experience. They send in their résumé, figuring they’ll delegate the juggling once they’re hired.

Jane’s credentials were: I love animals. What’s ethology? Still, she didn’t care. She was focused on her improbable life goal, and presumed herself to be qualified and capable of doing things that the world insisted she had no business doing. She gave herself over to learning what needed to be done.

Jane arrived at Gombe Stream Game Reserve on July 14, 1960. Lake Tanganyika is a vast inland sea, the longest and second deepest deepwater lake in the world. It borders Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Burundi. Leakey would not be joining her on the expedition, and the government, worried about a young white woman camping in the bush by herself, ordered Jane to bring a companion. Her mother volunteered, which was probably not what the government had in mind. The two women had a used army tent, some tin plates and cups, and the services of an African cook named Dominic.

At first, Jane hiked around and looked. Really, it was days and days of marching through the rain forest with a pair of second-hand binoculars. The only thing she saw, at first, was a flash of dark against the greens and golds of the forest: the back of a chimp, running away from her. They could not get away from her fast enough.

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During a trip to raise awareness for chimps in captivity, Jane Goodall interacts with a chimp from the Brazzaville Zoo in the Republic of the Congo.

In case you think this is even remotely romantic, I’m here to tell you it wasn’t. When I was 18 and a sophomore in college, I spent a few weeks in East Africa, part of a student study abroad program.

Tanzania and Kenya are as spectacular as they look in the documentaries. But one thing you don’t see is the lung-squeezing, brain-boiling, itchy, rash-inducing heat—nor the stupendous bugs and insects, pretty much all of which can be described as “the size of your fist.” Picture it: moths, spiders, roaches, beetles, and millipedes—all the size of your fist. Common dung beetles are smaller than your fist—but they are all over the place, and the giant balls of dung they roll, eat, breed in, and live on are the size of your fist. Possibly larger.

I’m not particularly high maintenance (a form of difficulty, as we know), and I’m not unnerved by rats, mice, or snakes. But the dung beetles—the males have horns!—were too much for me. Every time I see a picture of Jane squatting in the dust next to chimps, I always worry that a dung beetle was seconds away from rolling a manure ball over her foot, or a giant centipede was on the verge of crawling up her shorts.

Then there are the diseases. Before my trip, I was required to be vaccinated for cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and yellow fever. None of this prevented me from getting sick; like Jane, I came down with malaria (though my case was considerably milder than hers).

“The more I thought of the task I had set myself, the more despondent I became,” Jane wrote in her first book, In the Shadow of Man. “Nevertheless, those weeks did serve to acquaint me with the rugged terrain. My skin became hardened to the rough grasses of the valleys and my blood immune to the poison of the tsetse fly, so that I no longer swelled hugely each time I was bitten.” (See?)

Note, please, that she didn’t say, “What in the hell am I doing here? I’m a fraud. I don’t have the proper training. Leakey never should have sent me.” She didn’t question her competence just because her mission sometimes seemed bloody impossible.

Chimpanzees—Pan troglodytes—are our closest evolutionary relatives. We share about 98 percent of our DNA with them. Genetically, we are more like chimps than mice are like rats. Their similarity to humans was Leakey’s primary interest. But Jane studied them for the sake of studying them, fascinated with their family and clan relationships. She let her intuition guide her.

For two months, the chimps fled when they heard her coming. Then, one day, a huge male sauntered into camp, climbed a palm tree, and ate a few nuts. A while later, he came into camp and stole a banana off a table. Eventually, he allowed Jane to offer him one. She called him David Greybeard, for his jaunty white goatee.

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Jane Goodall observes chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, 1990.

Naming animals was scoffed at among the scientific community as being amateurish and silly. Serious scientists, “real” scientists, assigned the subjects numbers. But David Greybeard signaled to the rest of the community that Jane was not as scary as they had thought. Consequently, she became acquainted with (and named) Goliath, Humphrey, Rodolf, Leakey, and Mike. There was Mr. McGregor, a cranky old male. There was the alpha female Flo, and her offspring, Faben, Figan, and Fifi. She observed them kiss, embrace, pat each other on the back, shake their fists at each other. She watched them act pretty dang human.

One day, moving quietly through the jungle in search of the chimpanzees, Jane came upon a large termite mound. David Greybeard sat beside it. She watched as, over and over again, he poked long, sturdy blades of grass into a hole, withdrew them, and plucked off the termites with his lips. After he was finished with his meal, Jane inspected the mound, and the grass blades he’d left behind. She poked one in the hole and withdrew it. A dozen or more termites clung to the stem. Yum. A few weeks later, she would watch the chimps make tools, breaking off small leafy twigs from trees and stripping the leaves, before poking them in the termite mound holes.

At that time—the 1960s—the defining characteristic of man was that he alone, among all the creatures on God’s green Earth, made tools. We called ourselves Man the Toolmaker, and that skill allegedly distinguished us from every other living thing. I find this odd. You would think biologists would have focused on something there was no chance of any other creature ever mastering. Why were we not Man the Terrible Joke Teller? Or Man the Insufferable Fishing Trip Yarn Spinner?

In any case, Jane’s discovery was the talk of the scientific world, causing Leakey to proclaim, “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.” Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould would call her observation “one of the great achievements of twentieth-century scholarship.”

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Illustration of Jane Goodall by Kimberly Glyder for the book In Praise of Difficult Women.

Already a legend at the age of 27, Jane would go on to make more discoveries. That chimps were not the benign vegetarians we thought them to be, but omnivores, like us. And also (somewhat sadly), they were wagers of war. Jane’s first article was published in 1963 and was featured on the December 1965 cover of National Geographic. Since then her work has appeared there more often than any other scientist. Even her mentor, Louis Leakey.

A mere woman, and one without any credentials, had redefined what it means to be Man. Louis Leakey believed that Jane’s discovery should earn her acceptance into the Ph.D. program in ethology at Cambridge—despite the fact that before becoming, in a few short months, one of the most important field biologists on Earth, she’d never been to college. Leakey knew she would need a degree if she wanted to be taken seriously, and so he used his influence to convince the dons of her worthiness. It was no small feat: Jane was only the eighth person in the history of the university to enter a doctorate program without a degree.

When the bigwigs in the ethology department at Cambridge learned what she’d been up to, they were appalled. Discovery not-withstanding, Jane was guilty of the most heinous crime in the kingdom of science: anthropomorphizing, or attributing human traits to animals. Naming the chimpanzees! Describing their behavior and interactions in humanlike terms! Could anything be sillier? Plus, it was plain old bad science, according to the thinking of the day, which prized cold, hard objectivity. I can just imagine a faculty meeting, wherein the grizzled old sexists pooh-poohed Jane’s work with barely disguised glee. Her first book, My Friends, the Wild Chimpanzees, was published before she finished her dissertation, and one of the Cambridge dons nearly gave himself a heart attack: “It’s— it’s—it’s for the general public!” For that intellectual crime, she was nearly kicked out of the program.

Jane and Perseverance Dr. Jane Goodall talks about the frustrating start of her research, and the success she achieved through her perseverance.

In fairness, Robert Hinde, her direct adviser, took Jane’s achievement seriously. She praised his influence in a 2017 blog post, saying she could never thank him enough for teaching her to think critically. He was assigned to her, it appears, because he had been studying a colony of rhesus monkeys and he, too, had seen fit to name them. I’m presuming that none of his colleagues thought he was ridiculous or amateurish for doing so.

Can you imagine yourself in this situation? Some of the most esteemed thinkers in your field at one of the most esteemed universities on the planet criticize your methodology. They probably have a point because your methodology, insofar as you had one, was Make It Up As You Go Along. Plus, these men are brilliant and powerful. I don’t know about you, but my knee-jerk reaction would be to cede them their point—or at least pretend to hear them out, then call my girlfriends and complain about being misunderstood.

Jane Goodall not only did not go along with their assessment, she told them they were straight-up wrong. She was soft-spoken, but she refused to back down. She didn’t cite her thousands of hours of current research with chimpanzees, which gave her at least some ethological cred; instead, she referenced a relationship she’d had with her childhood pet, a black mutt named Rusty. “Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true,” she wrote years later. “You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well-developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.”

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Jane Goodall no longer spends much time at Gombe Stream National Park because of her globe-trotting conservation efforts. When she visits, she still finds great joy in watching the chimps.

 

It’s breathtaking, really, the way Jane stood her ground and wouldn’t let her superiors talk her out of her own experience and what she knew to be true. Every time I know I’m right about something, but begin to feel as if it would make life easier to simply pretend to believe that the other person (usually, a man) makes a good point, I remember Jane Goodall in this moment. So genteel, yet so impressively difficult.

In 1986, after publishingThe Chimpanzees of Gombe, which summarized 25 years’ worth of research, Jane concluded her life in the field and became an activist. Her marriage to Hugo van Lawick had ended in 1974; a year later, she married Tanzanian Parliament member Derek Bryceson. Her new husband was also director of national parks and helped preserve the integrity of Gombe, keeping it wild and isolated from animal-loving tourists and well-meaning supporters. As a result, when Jane departed, Gombe was thriving, and continued to thrive. It had evolved into a flourishing research station staffed primarily by native Tanzanians.

Jane had spent enough time in Africa to experience the chimpanzees’ diminishing habitat firsthand—channeling the same zeal with which she threw herself into studying the chimps, she now devoted herself to their conservation. She’s still at it today, still wearing slacks and comfortable shoes, her blond hair gone gray and still held back in its low ponytail. Her look has changed very little in 50 years. She’s simply older, but no less beautiful and intimidating.

It’s not as if Jane Goodall doesn’t have a sense of humor. In 1987, celebrity cartoonist Gary Larson drew a comic that showed two chimps sitting on a branch. One pulls a long, clearly human, hair off the back of the other and says, “Well, well—another blond hair. Conducting more ‘research’ with that Jane Goodall tramp?” The Jane Goodall Institute quickly shot off a letter of objection, without stopping to think that Jane might find it hilarious, which she did.

Still, her dry sense of humor can sometimes be misinterpreted. During a 2014 interview with comedian John Oliver she simply refused to give in. He tried to lure her into admitting that during her time at Gombe she was tempted to dress a chimp up like a butler. She said no. He kept pressing her in his faux hard-hitting journalistic way, and she neither smiled nor acquiesced. Though in the end, she rewarded him with a few chimp gestures that had the audience roaring.

Jane was polite and utterly unmovable. It was as if Oliver was trying to get her to mock her family, and she was not about to do that. It’s a terrific, awkward moment of television where a woman refused to smile, become giddy and jokey to relieve a tense moment and make everyone feel better. It would have been so easy for her to go along with the joke, to make light of her life’s work. But being difficult, she wasn’t about to give in. Difficult women aren’t all swashbuckling extroverts who shoot off their mouths and shout down their adversaries. Sometimes they just sit quietly and refuse to pretend to be agreeable.

Jane Goodall’s life story inspires me still—perhaps even more than when I was a girl. Back then, I thought if you were the right kind of girl (who got to go camping), you could find the path to an incredible life and hike straight to the top. I didn’t understand the concept of female self-sabotage. I had no idea that brilliant, capable women might hobble themselves by indulging in self-defeating ambivalence, chewing their cuticles with self-doubt. Unlike many accommodating women I know (me), difficult women don’t gum up the works with second-guessing, a terrible and counterproductive habit that generally goes something like this: Make decision, regret decision, beat self up for making wrong decision in the first place, further beat self up for regretting having made wrong decision in the first place. Drink too much wine. Sleep it off. Do nothing.

Jane, with her calm, steady ways, sat in that jungle—frustrated at first, but moving forward, trusting that she’d made the right choice. She always seemed to trust herself, which made her a difficult woman.