Life lessons from Dr. Jane Goodall: An overview and interview

On Monday, October 19, the Brown Lecture Board hosted Dr. Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist and activist. Goodall, who began her work in Gombe Valley in Tanzania 50 years ago, has contributed immensely to the study of chimpanzees and the scientific understanding of animal behavior. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 with the aim of inciting individual action to create global change.

Goodall imparted her wisdom and stories to a packed Salomon auditorium; we also had the opportunity to interview her, which appears below.

Goodall began the lecture by walking on stage with two companions—a stuffed cow and gorilla—and greeted the crowd in a language foreign to most: chimpanzee speak. After uttering her guttural sounds, she translated it for the audience: “This is me. This is Jane.”

She took the audience through her life, one story at a time. Throughout the talk, Goodall radiated with the same exuberance and fascination with the world that she described in many of her childhood stories. From hiding in a hen coup for four hours to find out where hen eggs came from, to leaving her family, friends, and country at the age of 23 to venture to a distant, then-less-known land, Goodall always followed her curiosity. She stressed the importance of her mother in her life, who always supported her endeavors and even traveled with Goodall to Tanzania so that she could pursue her dream.

Goodall also spoke of the difficulty of being a woman without a college degree in a field dominated by men. Lacking the funds to go to college, Goodall ventured to Africa with a dream of seeing wildlife, hoping to learn something along the way. “I was just a girl,” she said. “Back then, 70 years ago, in the UK, girls did not have those opportunities.”

After the success of her research—the most pivotal point being her discovery that chimpanzees use tools—she had gained some legitimacy in the eyes of financial sponsors and some of the scientific community. Still, she was lacking in an educational foundation. Naturally, Goodall skipped getting her bachelor’s and went straight for her PhD, though she still faced skepticism and resistance from peers and professors alike.

In 1986, the focus of her work changed. Goodall attended a conference in Chicago that featured presentations on the maltreatment of and experimentation on animals. To Goodall, the situation was abhorrent. “Without any conscious decision, I became an activist,” she explained. Since then, she has not spent more than three weeks in any one place, traveling 300 days of the year to spread her message.

Today, Goodall sees hope for the future, despite the deteriorating environmental situation. Though she fears we have lost a collective wisdom and are too focused on the present, Goodall has faith in the young people of the world. Roots and Shoots—a program she started to empower young people to make environmental improvements locally—has spread to over 140 countries. “Every single one of us matters,” she stressed. “Every single one of us makes a difference every day.”

We had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Goodall and ask her a few questions, alongside other campus publications. Goodall talked about everything from mentorship and identity in the sciences to following one’s dreams.

Brown Daily Herald: How has the observation of chimps influenced the way that you view human behavior?

JG: I think it’s influenced the way many people view human behavior, but the main thing is [that] they teach us that there isn’t a sharp line between us and them, and so much of the behavior of human and chimp is the same, and biologically they’re more like us than any other living creature. And so what it actually helps you to do is to ask the question: what is it that makes us human? That’s the main thing that comes out of this study of chimps.

BlogDH: What kind of mentorship experiences have you had throughout your career path and how have they helped you?

JG: My first, and most significant, influence on my life was my mother–without any question. And then it was people in books, really, cause I didn’t go to college or anything. Then, obviously, it was Louis Leakey, because he gave me my opportunity, and then my supervisor when I finally did my PhD… and then certain people who I truly admire, out there in the big wide world. Probably my most important mentors were, first of all, my dog, Rusty, who taught me that animals have personalities, minds, and feelings; and secondly, David Graybeard who really opened the doors into the chimpanzee world, along with the old female, Flo—they were my mentors. I’ve read that you’re on the road an enormous amount—300 days a year—…why is it important that you specifically speaked [sic] with students?

JG: Because, unfortunately, we’ve messed up the world students are inheriting. And so it’s very important to talk with students, and particularly young children right at the beginning, to get a different kind of mindset so that, together, we can start putting the world to rights before it’s too late. Because it will be too late, otherwise.

BDH: I think it’s incredible that you just traveled to Africa at the age of 26—

JG: —23 was the first time—

BDH: How did you find the courage and confidence to go out?

JG: It was nothing to do with courage and confidence; it was the dream I had when I was ten. And so, eventually I saved up enough money—I was invited by a school friend—and I went. There was no courage involved. And going out to the chimps… nobody knew anything about them and it was out in the forest—it was the middle of nowhere—but for me that was my dream come true.

BDH: What kind of challenges did you face?

JG: The fact that the chimps ran away from me every time they saw me, that was the worst challenge; the fact that the country’s very steep, so it’s quite difficult terrain; the fact that I kept getting malaria–those were the main challenges.

BlogDH: Do you think it’s true that we should really pursue what we love and follow our dreams as you have? How feasible do you think that is? What advice do you have?

JG: I definitely think that’s what you should do…parents and teachers are push-push-pushing young people to go into business. I mean literally you have to go make money—that’s the whole thing—and I meet so many of the students who are crying and saying “I don’t want to do this… but my parents won’t let me… and what shall I do?” And so we say: Do what your parents and your teachers want now, get good at it, make money, and then you can change… Take a year off, keep alert, and suddenly something will happen and you’ll say, “This is really what I want to do.” And then go out there and do it.

BlogDH: Your work has been subject to criticism over the years. How have you dealt with that criticism and channeled it into more productive dialogue and not let it inhibit your ability to do your research?

JG: Because I was very lucky. I never wanted to be a scientist. I had absolutely no interest in going into academia… My goal had been to write books; my goal was to understand these creatures. And so when people criticized, I think the important thing is to evaluate that, and really think about it, and some of the criticisms were valid and I re-thought things. [But] mostly I felt to myself, “you can go and do it your way, but just let me do it my way.” So I was lucky in that it didn’t matter to me.

BDH: What’s the most touching or memorable moment that you’ve had with chimpanzees you’ve worked with?

JG: I think when our Flo let her infant come and reach out and touch me, which showed I’d totally gained her trust—that she let her precious five-month old infant come up… and it was a very magical moment. And he reached out with those big eyes… Flo was the one who taught me so much about maternal behavior. She was there in the very early days, when I knew them all so so well.

BlogDH: Whether it was through the fact that you had a very historical doctorate or just by nature of being a leading woman in the sciences, what advice do you have for people who are trying to forge their paths in fields where they’re not necessarily welcomed?

JG: Well, I guess, I’d give them the advice my mother gave me: if you really want to do this, you’re going to have to work really hard, take advantage of opportunities, and never give up. That’s the only advice I have. You have to really want to do it, though, and you really have to think through what it’s going to mean.

BDH: How has climate change impacted the causes that you’ve worked for?

JG: Climate change is affecting everything, and soon it’s going to affect very much more. And so the causes of climate change are so many and so intertwined… it’s just, in general that we have to change the way we think.


Image via Ryan Walsh ’17. 

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