Jane Goodall: A woman scientist who changed the world

On this Earth Day, DiscovHER would like to honor Dr. Jane Goodall, an English primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace, who has worked extensively as an activist on conservation and animal welfare issues.

Anyone born before the internet era, 500-channel cable TV and VCRs remembers when content available on home screens—formerly known as television sets—was quite limited. Depending on where you lived, there were either one, two or three national networks that dictated exactly what audiences saw and at what time they watched it. In most countries, the majority of prime time programs were escapist entertainment designed to make audiences forget their troubles, not to educate them, nor to alert them to what might going wrong in the world.

There were, however, exceptions. Documentaries were occasionally broadcast and one produced by National Geographic made primatologist Jane Goodall a household name. Audiences were enthralled: Who in the world was this pretty young English woman living with chimpanzees in the middle of the African jungle?

To understand the fascination she exerted, it must be kept in mind that lightweight video equipment did not exist nor could such fare be streamed or downloaded with the touch of a button. Expensive and difficult to produce, footage like this was rare and access to it was even rarer. And, more significantly, this was the pre-feminist, pre-environmentalist, pre-animal rights 1960s. Scientists were men. Nature was to be controlled, conquered and tamed rather than protected and preserved. Apes were comical bad examples to be displayed for laughs in the cages of a zoo rather than closely-related cousins with DNA very similar to our own. 

Paradigm Shifter 

Ms. Goodall was instrumental in changing those long-forgotten attitudes. Thanks to the widespread fame television brought her, she single-handedly inspired millions to see animals and their habitats in an entirely new way. As well, she no doubt inspired thousands of young people, particularly young girls and women, to follow in her footsteps as animal behaviorists, primatologists, zoologists, conservationists and ecologists.

Jane Goodall was what would later be called a “paradigm shifter.” She challenged the age-old notion that humans were superior beings destined to rule the planet with no thought to its animal inhabitants or the environment we shared with them. Certainly television exposure and the sheer novelty of seeing a rather delicate-looking woman in the wilds of Africa had something to do with it. Above all, however, was Ms. Goodall’s complete break with the past in her approach to the study of chimpanzees. In short, she “humanized” them. She held them up as a mirror to human society. She gave the public an opportunity to see chimpanzees as fellow creatures uncannily like ourselves instead of looking on them as untamed beasts with whom we had nothing in common. 

Scientific Rebel  

Adopting a practice that was highly unorthodox at the time, Ms. Goodall gave names to the apes she spent her days observing. The then approved method was to assign numbers to animals under study in order to avoid emotional involvement on the part of the scientist. The simple yet controversial act of bestowing names on the chimps enabled her and, later, the viewing public to see them as individuals. First through binoculars and, as time went by, in their presence and eventually as a “member” of their troupe, Jane Goodall realized that chimpanzees not only had personalities almost as varied as humans, but that they also displayed complex emotions such as fear, love, compassion, attachment, anger, sadness, grief and happiness. They were not simply driven by instinct. They could think, feel and, most importantly to Ms. Goodall’s mind, they could experience pain and suffering and they could inflict it, not only physically but psychologically as well. In our day, the idea that animals of even lesser intelligence than chimpanzees are capable of sustained mental anguish is easily accepted. Fifty years ago that was not so and Ms. Goodall played an enormous role in raising public awareness of animal rights.

The Dividing Line Between Humans and Animals 

Jane Goodall’s most revolutionary contribution to the study of chimpanzees is of still greater importance. Science had declared that the most objective and easily observed difference between humans and animals was the use of tools. Humans had the intelligence necessary to use objects to manipulate their environment. Animals did not. Ms. Goodall proved that the dividing line was far more blurry. One day she noticed the chimp she called David Greybeard using a twig to extract insects from a hole, the very definition of a tool. Over the years she saw other instances of chimpanzees using rocks, leaves and sticks to accomplish a task. This finding transformed the field of primatology. Once again science had to re-think accepted notions. Her subjective data suggesting that apes were more “human” than previously supposed was supported by perfectly objective data that could not be disputed. She had won her case.

Outreach Work to Save Our Planet

Now 80, Ms. Goodall spends increasing amounts of time away from her beloved Africa. Along with her many books for adults and children and the documentaries she has appeared in or helped make, she now feels that she must also devote herself to personal outreach work. She travels the world to speak, attend meetings and oversee awareness initiatives with the same quietly relentless zeal she brought to her study of chimpanzees.

Of her numerous endeavors to spread the message about saving our planet and the animals that live on it, including ourselves, the dearest to her heart is Roots & Shoots. A part of her foundation, the Jane Goodall Institute, Roots & Shoots has local chapters around the world that bring together children, teens and college students to work on environmental, conservation and humanitarian projects. Concerned but cautiously optimistic, Ms. Goodall has oriented her efforts toward young people because she believes that they are our strongest, and maybe our only, hope for a better future. 

Photo credit: CC-BY 4.0: Ben Gilbert/Wellcome Images

For Women in Science

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