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A conversation with the busy, beloved primatologist about the state of the world, 55 years after her start with Gombe chimpanzees

Wild woman

Who will help Jane Goodall save the world?

By Alli Maloney on October 23, 2015

On the phone, Dr. Jane Morris Goodall is exactly how you would imagine her to be. Brilliant. Gentle. Knowing. Equal parts aware and outraged. She has earned her throne as one of the world’s most trusted figures of animal behavior science and conservation by doing what she does best: trust her instincts and work without respite. Goodall has been on a lecture tour almost non-stop since 1986, and she’s tired. “The reason I go on doing it,” she said in an interview with Women in the World, “is because we don’t have much time left. We’re destroying the planet.”

At 81 years old, she travels for 300 days out of the year. We spoke as she was headed to New York City to fulfil her duties as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, a post she’s held for over a decade. Her visit to the city to observe the organization’s International Day of Peace with a caucus of influencers was incongruous, she observed, because the world was not at peace. A few days earlier, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on the shore of Bodrum and she is doleful at the thought of his tiny shoes, the horrors his family faced as they fled Syria as refugees in search of relief. The image of his lifeless body did for the refugees what slain lion Cecil did for conservation, she said.

It’s a strange Peace Day, Goodall mused. Certainly not a celebration.

Nevertheless she composed a solicitous statement — one she’s rather proud of — to commend those who have welcomed the refugees into their homes. In it, Goodall left out her criticism of America and Britain, whose actions she said ushered in the war that has unraveled so many lives. She asked instead that we spend a little time to re-imagine Alyan as a child we know. “Then follow where your heart leads you,” she wrote.

More than 50 years ago, she famously followed her heart from England to what was then Tanganyika, in East Africa, intent to study chimpanzees and equipped with not even an undergraduate degree. It’s where she learned that the animals make and use tools — a discovery that elicited her mentor Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey to declare, “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” With no scientific credentials, just a notepad and binoculars, she also learned that the animals ate meat and noted their violent aggressions. These instrumental findings changed anthropology, and all occurred during her first four months in the field at Gombe Stream National Park. Africa, she said, was “like going home for me.”

Little was known about the chimps she monitored, animals that she gave names like David Graybeard, Goliath and Mike. At first she was in the field on her own, then with sponsorship from National Geographic. (Her first husband, Hugo van Lawick, was the National Geographic photographer responsible for the iconic pictures that introduced her to the world). Then a young woman of just 26 years, she climbed through the forest and patiently waited. Just about everything she saw, from those impactful discoveries to the mundane moments of chimp social and family life, were “new and exciting” not only to her, but to the world’s brightest minds.

Young researcher Jane Goodall with baby chimpanzee Flint at Gombe Stream Reasearch Center in Tanzania. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)
Young researcher Jane Goodall with baby chimpanzee Flint at Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)

She can viscerally recall the memories of Gombe she held dearest: watching a new baby bond with its mother; seeing adult males wave branches and charge during a rain display; the first time David Graybeard took a banana from her hand. Overwhelmed, she sat alone and watched male chimps with bristled hair approach a waterfall, throwing large rocks ahead of themselves. At the bottom of the fall, they dipped their feet in the water — an uncommon act — and climbed the vines at the side of the 80-foot drop, swinging out into the breeze and spray. In the fall’s pool, the chimps watched the cascading water make impact. “What is this? What is coming from up there? It’s always coming, it’s always going, but yet, it’s always here,” said Goodall, poetically describing the chimp’s thought processes.

This story and the outcome of her work with Gombe chimps has been so glorified, it’s easy to forget how young and wide-eyed she must have been, perched in the forest and enthralled by her subjects. Before the sponsorship, it was just Goodall camped out in an old ex-Army tent that let in spiders, scorpions, and snakes. She shared the space with her mother, Margaret Myfanwe Joseph, who volunteered to come along and left her other daughter, Judith, back in London.

At first, Goodall was apprehensive about her dream becoming a mother-daughter trip. “It seemed a little strange,” she remembered, but “it was great having her there.” They were the only two women in the camp, which included a Tanzanian cook, local game scouts and fishermen, for whom her mother founded a clinic. At a time when women weren’t often encouraged to dream outside of secretarial school, Goodall was — and accompanied by a mother whose bravery she admits scales greater than her own.

“Right when I first wanted to go to Africa, she supported me when everybody else laughed at me,” she said, her voice softening. “She was the brave one.” Having Joseph at the camp was a moral booster, especially before Goodall was able to fully connect with the chimpanzees. They kept running away, and running away and running away, she said, and it was frustrating. When she expressed self-doubt or worry, her mother would respond, “Yes, Jane, but with your binoculars from that peak, you’re learning more than you think.”

In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest below for chimpanzees. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)
In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest below for chimpanzees. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)

The chimpanzees had children, as did Goodall: a son, named for his father but nicknamed “Grub.” He grew up among the animals, generations of which have been traced since 1960 and are now one of the longest studies of any wild animal on record. Goodall still visits Gombe, though much has changed from those pivotal years. No longer under colonial rule, Tanganyika is now independent Tanzania, and Gombe is a national park. Goodall divorced her son’s father and shortly after married Derek Bryceson, who died from cancer five years later. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), now boasting nineteen offices around the world, and has worked tirelessly as its head to conserve and protect natural habitats in Africa and beyond. Her child had children. She established her source of pride, JGI’s Roots and Shoots community action program, which serves pre-kindergarten to university-aged youth and is active in 140 countries. She became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004, among dozens of honors from around the world that have been bestowed on her. She dreams of more time to analyze data compiled on the generations of Gombe chimpanzees, but her schedule doesn’t allow for such fun. “The only favorite part now,” she said, “is when I’m deep out in the forest, by myself.”

In 1962, Leakey organized funding for Goodall to undertake her doctorate in ethology from Cambridge University. Her admittance to the esteemed school with no undergraduate degree made her a rarity — where she stood out with her limited field experience (15 months) and personification of her subjects. “[At Cambridge] I was attacked for talking about the chimps having names instead of numbers, and personalities, minds and emotions,” Goodall recalled. She had no female mentors in academia but was encouraged by her thesis advisor, ecologist Robert Hinde, who helped her to express herself in a way where she didn’t lay herself open to attack. Laughing, she recognizes her peculiar notion — that animals are individual, sentient, sapien beings — stems from the relationship she shared with Rusty, her childhood dog. “You can’t share your life with animals without learning that they have personalities, that they can solve simple problems and that they certainly have emotions,” she explained.

The realm of empathy, according to Goodall, is where modern science fails both the environment and potential new recruits. “I think a lot of women turn away from science because it’s perceived as, and often is, rather coldly objective,” Goodall said, adding that she has proved that scientists can be objective and still remain empathetic. “When the brain is divorced from the heart, we get scientists doing cold and horrible things.”

Jane writing up her field notes in her tent at Gombe. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)
A young Jane Goodall, writing up her field notes in her tent at Gombe. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)

After her example, naming animals in scientific studies became routine. Personification itself was a factor in the worldwide outrage at the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old Southwest African lion that was tracked by University of Oxford before being killed for sport by an American dentist on vacation in Zimbabwe in July. Cecil was shot with a crossbow and lived for 40 hours before being found by the dentist and shot again with a gun. “Hundreds and hundreds of animals suffer lingering deaths and just because Cecil had a name, do you think it made any difference in lion society?” They could all be named, she said. The name doesn’t make the animal any different. Goodall knew hunters like these in the 1960s, then called “white hunters,” and would tell them how much braver one must be to photograph the animals, rather than kill them. Sure, she was once in love with a photographer, but her logic is fair: “You have to get closer and you have to get away afterwards.”

Trophy hunters desire to kill the greatest, most impressive animals. “Those genes will die away,” she said, meaning routinely hunted animals like elephants will be born without tusks, or rhinos without horns. She wants the industry — from those in the business of conducting the hunting safaris, to the airlines who allow trophy kills on their flights, “right up to the government” — to be held responsible. In an open letter written by Goodall to the president of UPS International this summer, she asked the company to join 42 other airlines, like Virgin Delta and Jet Blue in banning the shipment of animal body parts, calling the trophy hunting a “despicable goal.” She’s moved not simply by her understanding of the environment implications of picking off a species in such a way, but because it’s a moral issue — her love extends to all living things. (The exception, perhaps, maybe be trophy hunters like the dentist, whom Goodall said she believes must have a “very small penis.”)

Beyond trophy hunting, but there is no shortage of atrocities plaguing the world and rousing the tenacious primatologist. She seems to know a great deal about everything. After five decades of work that reshaped anthropology and effectively changed the understanding of the human-primate connection, her modern discontent with the state of the environment instills a sense of urgency. We could all be doing more.

Young researcher Jane Goodall with David Greybeard, the first chimpanzee to lose his fear of her when she began her studies in Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)
Young researcher Jane Goodall with David Greybeard, the first chimpanzee to lose his fear of her when she began her studies in Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika. (© the Jane Goodall Institute)

When her body rebels – an aphorism all her own – she says she’ll write. It’s what Goodall wanted to do as a child and the talent is already there, of course. Her most recent book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, chronicled the global extinction of plants and is the 15th she’s written. It was originally meant to exist as one chapter of an earlier book, but when publishers said the information made the volume too long, she was so proud of the work from contributing botanists that she figured, ‘Why not gather more?’ “Maybe we [could] sell it at botanical gardens or something like that,” she said, with amusing modesty.

Published in 2013, the first edition of book was met with controversy for lacking citations and for plagiarism of at least “a dozen passages,” according to the Washington Post. It was pulled from the shelves and reissued a year later with corrections from Goodall, who said she learned her lesson and blamed the mistakes made on her non-“methodical” style of note taking. “I don’t think anybody who knows me would accuse me of deliberate plagiarism,” she told Mosiac. “I don’t think a book has ever been more researched than [the reissue]. The notes at the end are about as long as the book.”

Now revised to her satisfaction, Goodall’s tone brightens when discussing Seeds of Hope. “I loved writing it,” she said. “It was as if the plants put roots in my brain and said, ‘Jane, you’ve spent all your life helping animals. What about us?’”

Jane Goodall wants people to extend compassion to other species in our world. (JENS SCHLUETER/AFP/Getty Images)

The book focuses on the state of modern agriculture and the impact of genetically modified plants and herbicides on the health of humans and animals, which are among her primary concerns. She’s especially concerned about the environmental and health hazards of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and glyphosate, the lead ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, which the industry claims to be non-toxic to human and animal health, although there is research that suggests otherwise.

Goodall cites public interest attorney Steven M. Druker’s Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public as underpinning her understanding of the dangers of glyphosate and GMOs. In its forward, she calls the book “one of the most important…of the last 50 years” and regards Druker as a “hero” who deserves “at least a Nobel Prize.” Their anti-GMO viewpoint has been met with backlash and criticism from those who believe Druker’s non-scientific background renders him unqualified to make such claims, but Goodall adamantly stands by his work.

“[Glyphosate is] in the water, it’s in the atmosphere. It’s in the milk. It’s in everything now. All the animal tests that I’ve read, where they tested GMO food, there was harm to the animals,” Goodall said. “The list of thing it can do to you covers again and again all of the things we see come up in our own health.” In 2014, after Seeds of Hope was released, she called for a worldwide boycott of genetically modified foods. “We have to get the word out — you’re in a good position for that,” she tells me. When I express that my influence pales in comparison, she laughed. “The chimps helped, didn’t they?”

In her writing and speeches, Goodall often emphasizes individual responsibility. She wants people to believe in themselves and to extend compassion to other species in our world. She believes that without belief in a future for all, humankind has nothing.

“Particularly now, when this generation is growing up in such a destroyed world, they have to be given hope,” she said. And perhaps, every so often, a good laugh: “Google ‘octopus with coconut shell’.”

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