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Jane Goodall Sowing the seeds of hope in Victoria

Dr. Jane Goodall began her pioneering research with wild chimpanzees in what is now known as Gombe Stream National Park, 55 years ago.
Dr. Jane Goodall began her pioneering research with wild chimpanzees in what is now known as Gombe Stream National Park, 55 years ago. Goodall will be in Victoria on March 19 to speak at the McPherson Playhouse.

Dr. Jane Goodall began her pioneering research with wild chimpanzees in what is now known as Gombe Stream National Park, 55 years ago. Goodall will be in Victoria on March 19 to speak at the McPherson Playhouse.

Laura Lavin: Living with the chimpanzees, you learned a host of previously unknown information about them. What is the most important thing you learned about yourself during that time?

Jane Goodall: I learned that all my childhood activities, climbing the steep cliffs above the sea in Bournemouth, scrambling through the undergrowth on the sides of the chines (a chine is a dry waterway leading down to the sea) paid off. That I was super fit for the very steep slopes of Gombe and found it relatively easy to crawl through thick vegetation and tangles of vines. I realized I had a very good constitution for surviving attacks of malaria, and that I was supremely happy living my childhood dream – living with and learning from wild animals. And I felt that I was meant to do that work.

LL: You’ve left a legacy unlike any other in the field of scientific research that generations marvel at. Whose work do you admire and why?

JG: I very much admire the work of Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist who was not afraid to write popular books about the birds he studied, and his dogs – at a time when this was frowned upon in the scientific world (as I learned, first hand!) And I admire the work of the scientists today who study animals, but devote much time to conservation, fighting for people to recognize that bears, wolves, coyotes, cougar and so on are sentient sapient beings, with a right to live. And those who are fighting for animal species and environments around the world. They are many, and their fight is a hard one with many adversaries – hunters, farmers, government officials in the pay of the powerful lobbies. And I admire all who [are] not afraid to discuss animal personality and emotions.

LL: There is a push to get girls and young women interested in careers in science. Have you found advantages or disadvantages being a woman in your field?

JG: I find this hard to answer as when I began I was not interested in a career in science. I wanted to be a naturalist. Initially it was just because I was a girl, going into the forest on my own, that I was of interest to the National Geographic, so that they provided funding. And the image – young woman and wild apes in the forest – has opened many doors for me – just because people’s imaginations have been captured, and they are curious to meet me! It is different for young women today, and there is definitely a gender imbalance – in pay, promotions etc. But there are very many studies of animals in the wild conducted by women – many of whom tell me they were inspired by me. This is what I was told by probably the first woman to go into the field in China.

LL: Why would you encourage women, in particular, to go into the sciences?

JG: We women evolved to be good mothers. A good mother must be patient, and quick to understand the wants and needs of small infants, before they can talk. Both these attributes are useful in science – especially animal behaviour. I think women may be more inclined to allow their intuition to inform their observations – and this provides a good platform from which to test ones theories. But quite honestly, there are many men who have exactly the same characteristics.

LL: The topic of your talk in Victoria is Sowing the Seeds of Hope. What do you see as our most pressing environmental threats?

JG: There are so many – habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, pollution, shrinking water supplies, climate change – and on and on. But underlying all there are three major problems: 1) Extreme poverty. In rural areas poor people cut down the last trees in a desperate effort to grow food to feed their families, or make charcoal to get some money. In urban areas poor people must buy the cheapest food, clothing etc and cannot afford to be concerned about how it was made, where it comes from, and so on. 2) The unsustainable lifestyle of so many people who have far more than they need, buy things they do not need, do not pause to consider the consequences of the choices they make each day, and how this may effect their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren. 3) The sheer magnitude of the numbers of human beings now living on Planet Earth. In so many places there are way more people than the land can support. We are using up the natural resources of the planet in a very unsustainable way.

LL: When you look at the magnitude of environmental threats globally, where do you find hope for the future?

JG: I have five reasons for hope:

1. The energy and commitment of young people once they are aware of the problems and empowered to take action. Our Roots & Shoots program for young people from pre-school through university, and beyond, is now in 140 countries, with some 100,000 groups. Each group tackles three projects of their choice to make the world a better place for the human community, other animals and the environment. And realizing the importance of learning to live in harmony with people of other nations, cultures, ethnic groups and with the environment. We bring young people from different countries together as often as we can, mostly electronically, but face-to-face when possible.

2. The resilience of nature. Give her a chance and places we have utterly despoiled can, once again, support plant and animal life. Animals on the brink of extinction can be given another chance.

3. The human brain. The biggest difference between us, chimps and other animals is the explosive development of our intellect. Many species are way, way more intelligent than they have been given credit for, but they cannot match up to us in innovation and technology. (Which makes it strange that we are destroying the planet, and makes me realize that many people seem to have lost the wisdom that causes us to make a decision only after asking how this will affect future generations. In other words, there is a disconnect between the clever brain and the human heart – love and compassion.) But all the time more and more innovative solutions to the problems we have created are being made — and this is very encouraging.

4. Social media. Of course this can be used for bad purposes, but it provides a whole new way of informing people of environmental and social problems, of calling on not just a few, but hundreds of thousands of people to take action to right a wrong, to protest injustice. There are many examples.

5. The indomitable human spirit. The people who tackle seemingly impossible problems, and do not give up, who amaze us by their determination and dedication. Those who refuse to give up just because of physical disabilities, and go on to lead lives that are so inspirational to those around them.