How Jane Goodall Changed Our Perspective of Chimps

After 60 years of revolutionary discoveries, Dr. Jane Goodall’s message resonates as strongly as it ever has.
Eric James Beyer
Jane Goodall, 1965, GombeThe Jane Goodall Institute

During a 2018 interview at a TEDx event in California, Jane Goodall was asked what qualifications she had when she traveled to Africa to work with the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey in 1960. 

“Zero,” she responded, drawing a large circle in the air. “Except that I was born loving animals.” 

It might not be possible to distill the vertigo-inducing career of such a living cultural institution as Dr. Goodall any better. Her work is a symbol of what a life driven by curiosity and love for the natural world really looks like, and it’s because of this characteristic that she has been able to inspire generations of people to care more about wildlife. 

For the last 60 years, she has advocated for, among a long list of other things, environmental conservation, sustainability, and most iconically, the protection of the great apes and their habitats. Her achievements include numerous scientific discoveries, the establishment of multiple foundations, and dozens of published books. 

As is the case with so many prominent public figures that have been around for decades, her story borders on the legendary. As Goodall enters her 87th year, Interesting Engineering looks back on the life of one of the most influential women of the last century. 

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Africa calling Goodall

Born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall in 1934 in London to parents Mortimer (an engineer) and Vanne (an author), Goodall was curious about animals from very early on, sneaking into hen houses to see where eggs came from and refusing to be separated from a stuffed animal chimpanzee her father bought her when she was just a year old. 

Her parents nurtured this inquisitiveness. When she was 10, she told her mother about her dreams of going to Africa to see the wildlife there. Despite a lack of money and the fact that World War II was still raging, her mother was encouraging, telling her, “If you really want something, you’re going to have to work hard. You’ll have to take advantage of every opportunity, but don’t give up.” Goodall credits this advice as the source of one of the messages she has spent a lifetime spreading to young children around the world. 

After leaving school at age 18, her family couldn't afford to send her to university, so Goodall worked a series of odd jobs until, in 1957, she traveled to Kenya to visit the farm of a family friend. While there, she was advised to seek out Louis Leakey, an eccentric and divisive scientist who, together with his wife Mary, would revolutionize our understanding of human origins by discovering fossil evidence for Homo habilis, the oldest member of the Homo genus. 

“Jane Goodall's trailblazing path for other women primatologists is arguably her greatest legacy.”

To Leakey, studying humanity’s closest living relatives—gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans—was crucial to understanding how our ancestors, species like Homo habilis, lived. Jane’s astute observations and depth of knowledge on animal behavior impressed Leakey, so much so that he took her on as an assistant, and soon helped her obtain a grant to study chimpanzee behavior in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, now Gombe National Park in Tanzania in 1960. 

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She took to the work with fervor. Without knowing that she was shirking scientific convention, Goodall started giving the chimps she observed names rather than numbers. Names like Flo, Fifi, Mr. McGregor, and David Greybeard would later obtain a degree of fame in themselves. This act represented her personal and professional conviction that these animals have unique personalities and inner lives, just as humans do. 

Early discoveries and difficulties

What Goodall witnessed in the behavior of David Greybeard, in particular, would shock her and change how the world sees these animals. With only a few weeks of her initial grant time and money remaining, Goodall witnessed David Greybeard eating an animal carcass, the first observation of meat-eating behavior in chimps. Later, she saw him stick a long blade of grass into a termite mound, hold it there, and then pull it out and devour the insects that covered the blade. 

David also removed leaves from a twig and used the stick for the same purpose. Jane would later publish these findings in the journal Nature, showing how a chimpanzee was using tools, a behavioral trait that, up until that point, had been thought to be a uniquely human ability. After contacting Leakey with the details of her discovery, he famously responded, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” 

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It was due to this work that Goodall was able to enter Cambridge University as a Ph.D. candidate in 1962, becoming a part of a small group of individuals to be admitted to as a Ph.D. candidate at that prestigious institution without a university degree. Though she would earn her Ph.D. in ethology (the study of animal behavior) in 1965, Goodall would first encounter both praise and derision for her findings. 

In the scientific and social climate of the time, Goodall had a couple of things working against her. The first was that she was a woman in science at a time when women were actively discouraged from entering such fields. The second was her lack of formal education and scientific training. 

These factors made themselves obvious at the end of a conference at the Zoological Society of London in 1962 in which she gave her first-ever scientific presentation. While many were intrigued by what Goodall had reported, others were less enthused. Anatomist Sir Solly Zuckerman, for example, who had previously studied monkey species in Africa, reportedly dismissed Goodall’s findings as insignificant.  

As Dale Peterson, author of Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man explains in that biographical work, Zuckerman denounced her observations by saying, “There are those who are here and who prefer anecdote—and what I must confess I regard as sometimes unbounded speculation.” To him, it was an open question whether her discoveries constituted “a real contribution to science or not.” 

Despite declaring the work presented in her presentation of great interest, The Associated Press was slightly less veiled in their criticism of Goodall herself, running a newspaper story that began, “A willowy blonde with more time for monkeys than men told Monday how she spent 15 months in the jungle to study the habits of the apes.” 

In spite of such commentary, Goodall would keep on conducting research, and in 1965,  with grants from National Geographic, she founded the Gombe Stream Research Center, which would become a kind of training center for students wishing to study primate behavior. Today, it’s home to a number of students and researchers, both from Tanzania and abroad. 

The Gombe chimpanzee war

Goodall’s early discoveries pointed to a behavioral kinship with humans. While the tool-making behavior she had observed was an exciting reflection of our own utilitarian instincts, later discoveries would mirror the less-proud aspects of our existence as well. 

In September 1975, Jane and her field staff observed an adult female chimp named Passion “seizing, killing, and eating” the infant of another chimp named Gilka, for example. This cannibalistic behavior would turn out to be something of a rare occurrence and not common to chimpanzee society on a large scale. The violence between different chimp communities that would soon break out in the Gombe reserve, however, would change yet again what we know about the species. 

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Throughout the 1960s, Goodall and her team noticed that some male chimps in the Gombe area were beginning to prefer the forests of the northern Kasekela valley, while roughly half of that same group began taking to the forests to the southern Kahama region.

As the 1970s came about, it was clear that these two groups were becoming socially entrenched and attached to their different geographic territories. The exact social arrangements that make up chimpanzee groups are normally quite fluid and relaxed—so long as you are a member of that particular community. 

By the early 1970s, as Peterson notes in his book, the split was complete, and violent attacks at the hands of both factions were common, officially kicking off a years-long territorial dispute that Goodall has since described as similar to a war. In 1975, Jane wrote about the attack of a female named Madam Bee by a group of four males who had ambushed and beat her to death.

The event was a disturbing one. Goodall later witnessed Madam Bee’s daughter hovering over her mother’s body, “gently grooming her and keeping the flies away” as she slowly died from her wounds. 

Goodall received criticism again for these observations, with some scientists going so far as to claim that her very presence upset the natural balance and harmony of chimpanzee society and was a contributing factor to the strife. Continued study of such behavior has borne out the validity of her research here, too, however. 

"I have to work with young people today so that we try and raise new generations to look after this poor old planet better than we have."

“I’ve been criticized by some of my scientific colleagues [who say] you shouldn’t publish this stuff,” Goodall explained in a 1997 interview. “You shouldn’t publish descriptions of inter-community aggression, which is like war, because that will indicate that we have innate aggressive tendencies. Well, yes, I do believe we have innate aggressive tendencies. I don’t honestly think you can look around the world today and deny that that must be true. However, that doesn’t mean that war is inevitable. That doesn’t mean that we have to continue in this mold of aggression.”

Spreading the Goodall word

Apart from decades of observation and research, Goodall has devoted a large part of her life to advocating for various causes she has deep faith in. In 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation, whose aim is to support efforts in Gombe and around the world to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, and whose work continues to this day. In 1991, she founded the Roots & Shoots program, an organization aimed at raising awareness and fostering activism among young people in environmental and humanitarian causes. 

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She’s also been a beacon of inspiration for those interested in primatology, which has largely become a female-dominated field. Former chair of the National Geographic Society Gilbert Grosvenor has even said that “Jane Goodall’s trailblazing path for other women primatologists is arguably her greatest legacy.” 

It’s worth noting that, throughout Goodall’s career, she has been surrounded by cameras. After National Geographic captured the film of her working in Gombe in the early 1960s, the footage was broadcast in December of 1965 to roughly 25 million North American viewers and instantly launched her to fame. Goodall has described the constant presence of media surrounding her as both a blessing and a curse, something she now accepts as a necessity to continue spreading the messages of her work around the world. 

“There’s this glamorous young girl out in the jungle with potentially dangerous animals,” she explained in an interview with National Geographic in 2015.  “People like romanticizing, and people were looking at me as though I was that myth that they had created in their mind.”

Ironically, her life and career feel as if they’re approaching mythical status due to the sheer impact she has had on so many parts of society. At almost 90 years of age, she is still actively working for the causes she believes in, work that continues to be internationally recognized.

Just this May, she was announced the 2021 winner of the Templeton Prize, a $1.5 million award that honors those whose life work marries the sciences with the spirituality of exploring the world and our place within it. 

It is daunting to survey the scope of Dr. Goodall's impact. She has earned the distinction of having created multiple legacies for herself over the better half of a century, but her advocacy of the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, as she explained to the media wing of Jane Goodall Institute in 2018, may end up being her most enduring one: 

“I’m 300 days a year on the road. I’m talking about what we’re doing to our planet, how we’re destroying the forests, we’re polluting the ocean and the air and the rivers [...] I have to work with young people today so that we try and raise new generations to look after this poor old planet better than we have, before it’s too late.”

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