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Life Lessons from: Jane Goodall

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Illustration by Jennifer Choat

British Primatologist Dr Jane Goodall has studied chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park since 1960. Now an environmental activist, this UN Messenger for Peace spends three hundred days a year on the road in her mission to conserve the natural wonders of a world fissured by greed, apathy and wilful ignorance. Here’s what you can learn from Jane and her tribe.

Fuck the system.

Jane’s landmark discovery came in 1960, when she observed a chimpanzee modifying a blade of grass to fish termites from a clay mound. This was the first recorded instance of primate toolmaking, and it demanded a radical shift in the definition of evolved humans over adaptive apes.

Goodall’s findings in Tanzania were widely dismissed by her contemporaries. After all, here was a young woman with only a secretary course under her belt, compelled by a childhood fantasy of “going native”. Jane conducted her study on a shoestring budget, with no formal scientific qualifications. She broke every rule of objective observation, calling her chimpanzees by name and referring to their personalities.

Don’t be afraid to feel.

Goodall never relinquished her humanity in her study of animal life. It took her two years of concerted effort to gain the trust of the chimpanzees at Gombe. At first, she followed them from a respectful distance. As she appreciated their social, emotional and intellectual nuances, she was accepted as an observer into their circle. As a result, she had access to aspects of primate life that were hitherto unexplored.

Jane is still a child at heart. Her articulate addresses are peppered with childish sayings. (“The line between human and animal life becomes wuzzier.”) She even has a plush toy monkey she brings to every talk as a kind of security blanket. It is this childish instinct—passion for discovery, the urge to break away from convention and—that we need to reclaim in scientific inquiry.

We’re closer than you think.

Jane’s study of the animal kingdom has revealed a few home truths about the human species. For instance, in spite of angsty post-adolescent independence, chimps suffer lifelong emotional attachment to their mothers. Even after they’ve broken off into their own family unit, they still search for maternal validation in their choice of (flat)mate.

In times of turf warfare chimps reassure each other with pats, strokes and a gentle hand-squeeze. Try these simple forms of intimacy the next time someone upsets your friend by claiming their writing desk in the Baillieu. After all, even sapient creatures need physical connection.