The iconic anthropologist and activist on what chimpanzees tell us about our ultimate destiny, the sixth great extinction, and reasons for hope. An excerpt from Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues from The New Press.
When Jane Goodall walked into the building for this interview, faces lit up. Our security chief told me she does animal rescue work after hours because of Goodall. Our stage manager whispered into my ear, “She’s been my hero for decades.” And the nine-year-old daughter of our video editor hurried into the studio because she was writing a school report on Goodall (she got an A, by the way). Everyone was aware of who Jane Goodall is or what she has done to close the gap between the animal world and our own species.
Goodall herself evolved from a youthful enthusiast of animals—inspired by her father’s gift to her of a toy chimpanzee he named Jubilee—to the world’s most noted observer of chimpanzees and a global activist for all of life on earth. Through a chain of unintended consequences, the young Goodall met the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey in Kenya, was hired as his secretary, and then was sent into the forest as his primary researcher on chimps. Over many years in the Gombe Stream National Park, she came to know her subjects as individuals with distinct personalities, and with social and family lives shaped by their emotions, as are our own. Her landmark studies diminished the distance between human and nonhuman, and her television specials were so popular it became easy to think all of us had grown up with her and the chimps.
She and I were born a few weeks apart in 1934, and I am in awe at the pace she keeps, traveling more than three hundred days a year for the Jane Goodall Institute, challenging audiences to see themselves as caretakers of the natural world. Her Roots & Shoots program nurtures young people in more than 120 countries, teaching and encouraging them to improve and protect the environment. In a time of gloom and doom, as species disappear every day, development consumes more and more land, and global warming roils the climate, Jane Goodall insists that all is not yet lost. She makes the case in her book Hope for Animals and Their World, and as the focus of a 2010 documentary, Jane’s Journey.
Bill Moyers: This life you’re living now is such a contrast to the life of the Jane Goodall we first met many years ago, living virtually alone in the forest in the company of chimpanzees, sitting for hours quietly taking notes, observing. And now, three hundred days a year, you’re on the road. You’re speaking. You’re lobbying. You’re organizing. Why? What’s driving you?
Jane Goodall: It actually all began in 1986. In the beginning of the year, I was in my dream world. I was out there with these amazing chimpanzees. I was in the forests I dreamed about as a child, I was doing some writing and a little bit of teaching once a year. And then this conference in Chicago brought together the people who were studying chimpanzees across Africa and a few who were working with captive chimps, noninvasively. We were together for four days and we had one session on conservation. And it was so shocking to see, right across the chimpanzees’ range in Africa, forests going, human populations growing, the beginning of the bushmeat trade, the commercial hunting of wild animals for food, chimpanzees caught in snares, population plummeting from somewhere between one and two million at the turn of the last century to at that time, about 400,000. So I couldn’t go back to that old, beautiful, wonderful life.
Bill Moyers: My team and I were just looking the other day at that great old classic—the National Geographic special—which shows you meeting the chimps for the first time.
Jane Goodall: Among the Wild Chimpanzees. That’s still one of the best films. Hugo shot it, my first husband. I love that film.
Bill Moyers: Were the animals not affected by the presence of a camera crew?
Jane Goodall: Well, once they are used to you, they seem to pay very little attention. It’s something which has surprised visiting scientists, who felt that the chimps’ behavior must be compromised by our presence. But they accept you. And they by and large ignore you.
Bill Moyers: Do you miss them?
Jane Goodall: I miss being out in the forest. I do go back twice a year, not for very long. But a lot of those old friends, or nearly all, are gone. The very original ones have all gone. They can live over sixty years, but still. And, you know, we’re now getting onto the great-grandchildren of the original chimps. And there’s a research team following them, learning about them.
I always tried not to use chimp language in the wild because we really do try and look through a window.
Bill Moyers: I’ve long wanted to ask you about the chimpanzee you loved best, David Greybeard. What was there about David Greybeard?
Jane Goodall: Well, first of all, he was the very first chimpanzee who let me come close, who lost his fear. And he helped introduce me to this magic world out in the forest. The other chimps would see David sitting there, not running away, and so gradually they’d think, “Well, she can’t be so scary, after all. He had a wonderful, gentle disposition. He was really loved by other chimps; the low-ranking ones would go to him for protection. He wasn’t terribly high-ranking, but he had a very high-ranking friend, Goliath. And there was just something about him. He had a very handsome face, his eyes wide apart, and this beautiful gray beard.
Bill Moyers: When you and David Greybeard were communing, what language were you speaking?
Jane Goodall: We didn’t. I always tried not to use chimp language in the wild because we really do try and look through a window. And now we know how dangerous it is to transmit disease from us to them. So we keep further away, which is sad for me.
Bill Moyers: I ask the question because it seemed to me, watching the films, that there was some language being spoken, a means of communication without words that even communicated feelings.
Jane Goodall: Right in the early days there was this wonderful situation when I was following David Greybeard. I thought I’d lost him in a tangle of undergrowth, and I found him sitting as though he was waiting; maybe he was. He was on his own… I don’t know. And I picked up this red palm nut and held it out on my palm. And he turned his face away. So I held my hand closer, and then he turned; he looked directly into my eyes. He reached out and took it. He didn’t want it. He dropped it. But at the same time, he very gently squeezed my fingers, which is how one chimp reassures another. So, there was this communication: He understood that I was acting in good faith. He didn’t want the nut, but he wanted to reassure me that he understood. So we understood each other without the use of words.
You know, we can plan a torture, whether it’s physical or mental. We plan it, and in cold blood we can execute it. The chimpanzee’s brutality is always on the spur of the moment.
Bill Moyers: And where in the long journey that we have made do you think this empathy comes from?
Jane Goodall: It’s the bond between mother and child, which is really, for us and for chimps and other primates, the root of all the expressions of social behavior.
Bill Moyers: I know that you consider cruelty the worst human sin. You wrote, “Once we accept that a living creature has feelings and suffers pain, then if we knowingly and deliberately inflict suffering on that creature, we are equally guilty. Whether it be human or animal, we brutalize ourselves.” But you learned from the chimpanzees that animals can be cruel, too.
Jane Goodall: Yes, but I think a chimpanzee doesn’t have the intellectual ability, or I don’t think it does, to deliberately inflict pain. You know, we can plan a torture, whether it’s physical or mental. We plan it, and in cold blood we can execute it. The chimpanzee’s brutality is always on the spur of the moment. It’s some trigger in the environment that causes this craze, almost, of violence.
Bill Moyers: You saw gangs of males attacking single females. You saw cannibalism, including females who eat the newborn infants of females of their own community although there’s other food available. You describe primal warfare among the chimps. Since you’re looking at them to see what we can learn about us and about our evolution, what conclusion do you reach about their aggression?
Jane Goodall: Some people have reached the conclusion that war and violence are inevitable in ourselves. I reach the conclusion that we have brought aggressive tendencies with us through our long human evolutionary path. I mean, you can’t look around the world and not realize that we can be, and often are, extremely brutal and aggressive. And equally, we have inherited tendencies of love, compassion, and altruism, because they’re there in the chimp also. So we’ve brought those with us. It’s like each one of us has this dark side and a more noble side. And I guess it’s up to each one of us to push one down and develop the other.
Bill Moyers: You even wrote once that it was your study of chimpanzees that crystallized your own belief in the ultimate destiny toward which humans are still evolving. What is that ultimate destiny? And how did the chimps contribute to your understanding of it?
Jane Goodall: When you have the creature that’s more like us than any other living being on the planet, that helps you to realize the differences, how we are different. We have this kind of language that’s led to our intellectual development, that’s led to refining of morals, and you know, the questions about the meaning of life and everything. So I think we’re moving or should be moving toward some kind of spiritual evolution, where we understand without having to ask why.
Bill Moyers: But “why” is the fundamental question, isn’t it? Isn’t that one of the things that makes us human, that we can ask why?
Jane Goodall: Yes, but maybe we ask too often. Maybe we should sometimes be content, just being satisfied with the knowing, without saying, “Why do I know?”
Bill Moyers: Where does your own composure come from?
Jane Goodall: Possibly from months and months on my own in the wilderness. But I think I had it before.
Bill Moyers: I have an image of you in my mind, of a little girl in Bournemouth, England, reading relentlessly from Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan. That’s what you did.
Jane Goodall: Absolutely. I’ve still got all the books. They’re still there in my room.
Bill Moyers: And that’s where your imagination was formed about Africa?
Jane Goodall: Yes.
I’m now working so much with young people because I could kill myself trying to save chimps and forests, but if we’re not raising new generations to be better stewards than we’ve been, then we might as well give up.
Bill Moyers: Well, I read the Tarzan books when I was growing up. You actually did something about what you read!
Jane Goodall: Yes, it was a passion, and I had a wonderful mother. I attribute a lot of what I’ve done and who I am to her wisdom, the way she brought me up. It was very supportive. She found the books she knew I would be interested in—animals, animals, animals. Everybody was laughing at me for dreaming of going to Africa. I was eleven, World War II was raging. We didn’t have any money. We couldn’t even afford a bicycle. My father was off fighting. And Africa was still thought of as the dark continent, filled with danger. And, you know, I was the wrong sex. I was a girl, and girls weren’t supposed to dream that way then. I should have been dreaming of being a nurse or a secretary or something. I was in love with Tarzan. I was so jealous of that other wimpy Jane. I knew I would have been a better mate for Tarzan myself. I was jealous!
Bill Moyers: You would have made a better mate for Tarzan than I would have made a Tarzan.
Jane Goodall: But my mother never laughed at my dreams. She would say, “If you really want something, if you work hard, if you take advantage of opportunity and if you never give up, you will find a way.” See, how lucky I was. I’m now working so much with young people because I could kill myself trying to save chimps and forests, but if we’re not raising new generations to be better stewards than we’ve been, then we might as well give up. So I can go to kids living in poverty in Tanzania or the inner-city Bronx, and tell them my story, and say, “Follow your dreams.” And they write to me and say, “You taught us that because you did it, I can do it, too.” And that is just right.
Bill Moyers: Roots & Shoots, your program of training young people to be active in conservation movements, began in Tanzania, didn’t it?
Jane Goodall: Yes, it began with sixteen high school students in ’91. And it emerged from Tanzania as a very new sort of thing. It’s now in more than 120 countries and involves all ages, from preschool through university. And more and more adults are taking part, even in prisons, the staffs of big corporations. It’s basically choosing three kinds of projects to make the world better. One, for your own human community. Two, for animals, including domestic ones. And three, for the environment. There is a theme of learning to live in peace and harmony among ourselves, between cultures and religions and nations and between us and the natural world. Youth drive it. They choose the projects.
Bill Moyers: Are those young people the source of this hope for animals and their world that you write about?
Jane Goodall: They are a large part of it. I mean, isn’t it great that high school students in some inner-city area will greet me as I walk in as though I were a pop star? That is so amazing, because they’ve got out of what I’ve done a message of hope. And the fact that our main message is, “You make a difference every day. You matter. Your life is important.” This is why they want to come to my lectures. And I’ve met many people who say, “Well, I was really depressed, and a friend said, ’You’ve got to go and hear Jane.’” And they come up in the book-signing line, which can be three hours long, and say, “I’m not as optimistic as you, but at least I now realize my life has more value than I thought, and I’m going to do my bit.” That’s what we need, isn’t it?
Bill Moyers: You once said that you have the peace of the forest in you. What is that?
Jane Goodall: Being out there in the forest, all those months alone, there was a growing sense of this great spiritual power all around, something greater than me. So you could lie and look up at the stars and feel yourself tiny. And yet, somehow, having this extraordinary awareness that we have as human beings that we can encompass a vague sort of feeling of what the universe is. And all in this funny little brain here. So there has to be something more than just brain. It has to be something to do with spirit as well.
Bill Moyers: You had a very powerful experience in the spring of 1974, when you visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Jane Goodall: It was a sort of low time in my life. And there I was. I went into the cathedral, and as I walked through the door, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor just suddenly filled the whole cathedral. And the sun was just coming through that rose window. It just was so powerful a feeling. You know, how could this amazing cathedral, all the people who built it, all the people who’d worshipped in it, all the brilliant minds that had been within it, how could that all be chance? It couldn’t be chance.
I didn’t start as a scientist. I wanted to be poet laureate, and I wanted to be a naturalist. That’s how I began.
Bill Moyers: But does the meaning come with the DNA, or is meaning something we create out of life? As you have created meaning with your life?
Jane Goodall: Don’t think that whatever you’re being faithful about really can be scientifically explained. I don’t want to explain this whole life business through science. There’s so much mystery. There’s so much awe. I mean, what is it that makes the chimpanzees do these spectacular displays, “rain dances?” At least that’s what I call them. They dance at the foot of this waterfall and then sit in the spray and watch the water that’s always coming and always going and always here. It’s wonder. It’s awe. And if they had the same kind of language that we have, I suspect that would turn into some kind of animistic religion.
Bill Moyers: You’re a scientist who observes the world and reaches your observations. Spirituality can’t be observed, it can be felt, and you reconcile those two in your own life.
Jane Goodall: But I also had my mother. And she said she never saw the conflict between religion and evolution. Louis Leakey—my great mentor who dug up early man—he felt the same. So I had this, and then, yes, it all came together in the forest. But you have to remember, I didn’t start as a scientist. I wanted to be poet laureate, and I wanted to be a naturalist. That’s how I began. I didn’t have any desire to go and be a scientist. Louis Leakey channeled me there. I’m delighted he did. I love science. I love analyzing and making sense of all these observations. So it was the perfect rounding off of who I was into who I am.
Bill Moyers: There’s a poem you wrote that I came across recently. I had not read it or heard it before. It seems autobiographical. I’d like to ask you to read it.
The Old Wisdom
When the night wind makes the pine trees creak
And the pale clouds glide across the dark sky,
Go out, my child, go out and seek
Your soul: the Eternal I.
For all the grasses rustling at your feet
And every flaming star that glitters high
Above you, close up and meet
In you: the Eternal I.
Yes, my child, go out into the world; walk slow
And silent, comprehending all, and by and by
Your soul, the Universe, will know
Itself: the Eternal I.
Bill Moyers: I want my grandchildren to read that one. By the way, I took one of my grandsons up to the American Museum of Natural History, to their marvelous Hall of Biodiversity. And we read there that 99 percent of all the mammal and plant species that have existed since time immemorial have disappeared. I told them extinction is a part of life. It’s a part of the history of the world. What’s unique now?
Jane Goodall: Since the Industrial Revolution, our human impact on the planet, our greenhouse gas emissions, our reckless damage to the natural world, our continual growth of our populations, they have had a tremendously damaging effect, which has led to the sixth great extinction.
Bill Moyers: The exhibit at the museum shows that reportedly five times since time immemorial, we’ve had a speeding up of the extinction of species. And that now this is happening again. And that’s why they refer to it as the sixth great extinction.
Jane Goodall: Yes. And it’s happening faster than the others, and you only have to look around. About two months ago I was in Greenland, and I was standing with Inuit elders at the foot of a great cliff of ice which went right up to the ice cap that covers the top of the world. And hearing and seeing huge slabs of ice come crashing off and thundering down, looking at this water that emerged from the ice cliff, which before, even in summer, had never melted, the Inuits had tears in their eyes. Some of them hadn’t been there since they were children. And they said, “This is our country crying out for help.” I think it should give us a sense of responsibility. We’re the ones who have set ourselves up as masters. We can change any environment to suit ourselves. So we’d better start thinking about the long-term consequences of those changes.
Bill Moyers: It may help that human beings can attach emotionally to animals. How do you explain that?
Jane Goodall: I suppose it comes from the time we domesticated wolves and got ourselves dogs. It’s amazing. Like the scientific proof now that if you’re sick, a dog can actually help you to heal, and so can a cat. So there is something in this bond, and it’s again another window into the fact that we are part of the animal kingdom.
Bill Moyers: Is there any evidence that the animals, the chimps in particular, have this “spiritual awareness,” this sense of other beyond themselves?
Jane Goodall: They understand the difference between “me” and “you,” we’re pretty sure. They’re definitely aware of things going on around them. Over and above that, I don’t know. I mean we, with our words, want to question, “Why am I here? What’s the purpose of it all?” We call it a soul. So if I have a soul and you have a soul, then I think my chimp has a soul and my dog has a soul, too.
Bill Moyers: You even find mysticism in the whooping crane.
Jane Goodall: Well, I did, yes. I had the opportunity to visit those amazing birds. They’re so ancient. It was in Wisconsin with Joe Duff of Operation Migration. We were flying up in an ultralight craft, which are used to teach the cranes a new migration route. The cranes normally learn from their parents. And they want to create a second migration route, in case the birds using the existing route are hit by bird flu or something. So some are being trained to fly from Wisconsin to Florida. I think it’s the twelfth migration that’s happening right now. I went up in the ultralight for one of the training flights. Being up there was almost like being a bird up in the sky, open all around and looking down at the wetlands below. It was just so beautiful, training them this way. It’s so impressive to meet people who say, “I won’t give up. We will not let these amazing, beautiful birds disappear.”
Bill Moyers: There’s a report that somewhere around 17,300 species are actually endangered right now. That’s what we’re up against, right?
Jane Goodall: Absolutely. And wouldn’t it be easy just to say, “Well, it’s a trend. And it’s just happening. The pendulum is swinging. We just better sit back and let it swing. And maybe one day it’ll swing back.” If everybody stopped, if everybody gave up, then I wouldn’t like to think of the world that my great-great-grandchildren would be born into. The forests would go—they’ve been going so fast—and the tropical rainforests and the woodlands as well. So there’d be huge areas of desert. The droughts which are already happening in Australia, in sub-Saharan Africa, would be worse. There would be very few wild animals. People would probably be living in some kind of bubble, a very artificial life. The water would all be polluted. The groundwater would be almost gone. I suppose we’d be desalinating the sea for our water. But I don’t want to live in that sort of world.
Is there a disconnect between this incredibly clever brain and the human heart?
Bill Moyers: You remind me that about the time you started at what is now Gombe National Park—it was 1960—I was joining the Kennedy administration. I made many trips to Africa then, for the Peace Corps. When I’ve gone back over the years, as a journalist, it’s been astonishing to me that what I used to see as green, verdant, rich countryside is now a desert.
Jane Goodall: It’s this explosive overpopulation. There are two main causes of intense environmental destruction. One is absolute poverty, because what can you do except cut down some more trees and try to grow food. In the tropics, cut the tree cover down, and you soon get a desert. And that’s happening all over the developing world. It’s happened in the U.S., the great Dust Bowl. Agricultural overuse. So poverty is one. And unsustainable lifestyles are another. And that’s you and me and all the others like us.
Bill Moyers: Why do we not have the imagination to see what is happening but hasn’t quite materialized as yet?
Jane Goodall: Well, I’ll tell you. First of all, I have spent years watching chimpanzees. They are more like us than any other living creature. The brain is almost the same. The intellectual abilities are extraordinary. But even to the brightest chimp, it doesn’t make sense to compare intellectually with the average human, let alone an Einstein. It doesn’t make sense. Think of what we’ve done. Think of our technology. We’ve gone to the moon. We’ve got little robots running around Mars. I mean, it’s extraordinary what we’ve done. So how come this most intellectual being, as far as we know, to ever have walked on this planet is destroying its only home? I think E.O. Wilson was the first to say that if everybody on the planet had the same standard of living as us, then we would need three new planets. Some people say four or five to supply sufficient nonrenewable natural resources. But we don’t even have one new one; we’ve got this one. So do you think we’ve lost something called wisdom? We are not asking: “How does the decision we make today affect our people generations ahead?” Is there a disconnect between this incredibly clever brain and the human heart?
Bill Moyers: We started out talking about the chimps. What is it that we can take from them, that you learned from them, that might help us cope with this world?
Jane Goodall: One way is to help us be less arrogant and realize that we’re part of it all. Some people say, “Well, you know, a few animals, what does it matter if they go extinct?” But I’ve been to places, as you have, where absolute crippling poverty as a result of environmental degradation is meaning that people are suffering horribly, too. And it’s getting worse and worse. People are moving because their islands are going underwater. And, I mean, we should be able to understand the consequences of our selfish behavior by now. So we can learn from the chimp that we’re different in these ways, and we should be able to do more to make change than they possibly could.
Bill Moyers: Do they seem concerned about or aware of their environment? The disappearing forest around them? The difficulty getting the food that they used to get rather easily?
Jane Goodall: They obviously know it’s tough times, but I’m absolutely sure they don’t know why. “Yeah, the forest was there yesterday and now it’s not. I could wander there last year but now I may get shot.” I mean, they know there are changes, but they can’t work out why.
Bill Moyers: They are endangered. You said there were about a million of them when you went to Africa in 1960.
Jane Goodall: Less than 300,000 now.
Bill Moyers: Almost two-thirds of them have disappeared in your lifetime.
Jane Goodall: Yes. And what’s more, many of those remaining are stretched over twenty-one nations in Africa. Many are in tiny, isolated fragments of forest separated from others. They have no hope of surviving in the future because the gene pool’s too small.
Bill Moyers: What do we lose if the last chimp goes?
Jane Goodall: We lose one window into learning about our long course of evolution. I’ve spent so long and looked into these minds that are fascinating, because they’re so like us. And yet they’re in another world. I think the magic is, I will never know what they’re thinking. I can guess. And so it’s like elephants and gorillas, and all the different animals that we are pushing toward extinction. Are our great-grandchildren going to look back and say, “How could they have done that? They did understand. There were lots of people out there telling them. How, why, did they go on not trying to do anything about it?”
Bill Moyers: When I told someone yesterday that I was talking with you, he said, “I just read that there are 3,200 tigers left in the world. And that their Asian habitat is disappearing very quickly.” And he said, “But, you know, when the tigers are gone, will they be missed any more than the dodo is missed? What difference does it make?”
Jane Goodall: It’s just that we don’t know what difference it might make if some of these creatures that we’re pushing to the edge disappear. You can take out a tiny insect from an ecosystem. Who cares? Well, it may turn out that some other creature depended on that tiny insect. So that will disappear. And goodness knows what effect that one had on something over there. So that will change. And so, in the end, you get what’s been called ecological collapse.
Bill Moyers: Is there good news?
Jane Goodall: There’s lots of good news. Can I start with Gombe?
Bill Moyers: Sure. That’s where you yourself started.
Jane Goodall: When I got there, there were 150 chimps in three different communities living on the lakeshore. And from where I was, near Kigoma, you could go for miles along the lake, chimp habitat. You could climb up from the lake, look out, more chimp habitat. Few villages. Then in the early ’90s, I flew over in a plane. I knew there was deforestation. I had no idea it was virtually total. Just gone. So, this tiny little island of forest, 13.5 square miles, is surrounded by cultivated fields, eroded soil, landslides, horrible poverty. Too many people there for the land to support. How could we even think of saving the chimps with so much suffering? So that led to the Jane Goodall Institute’s TACARE program [Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education]. And that program, over the years, has worked to improve the lives very holistically of the people in the twenty-four villages closest to Gombe. Everything from different farming methods, helping them with water projects, and such. Especially important have been microcredit programs for women. A group of five women take out a tiny loan, each one for a different project, or sometimes all together. It’s got to be environmentally sustainable. So, maybe buying a few chickens, selling the eggs, raising chicks, selling some more. Pay back. Then you can take out a slightly bigger loan. So all these women have been empowered, because they now have something that’s theirs. They haven’t had a handout. The real encouragement is that as soon as their lives began to improve, they began to allow trees to come back. As a result, they have set aside the land the government requires them to put into conservation in such a way as to make a buffer between the Gombe chimps and the villagers. And so, other small remnant groups and Gombe chimps will be able to interact again.
Bill Moyers: In other words, as people’s incomes increase, the quality of life increases, and they’re more interested in preserving what is around. They understand more clearly what’s at stake with the environment on which their local economy depends.
Jane Goodall: Exactly. They understand saving the watershed. They understand that you can’t destroy the trees along the edge of a stream or the water level will decrease. They’ve seen it happen, and they completely understand. The trees and the water and the environment and their future wealth and happiness are all mixed together. And you must have had the same experience as me, traveling around the world. And realizing, you know, Africa’s problems aren’t just generated within Africa. They’re generated outside. They’ve been generated through hundreds of years of colonial exploitation. And there’s something else that always irritates me. There’s a saying, “We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children.” When you borrow, you plan to pay back. We’ve been stealing and stealing and stealing. And it’s about time we got together and started paying back.
This excerpt is from the forthcoming collection of Moyers interviews, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues
Copyright © 2011 Bill Moyers
Published by The New Press, Inc.
Reprinted here with permission.
Photograph via Flickr by Nick Step