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Jane Goodall reflects on 60 years at Gombe

On 14 July 1960, Jane Goodall arrived in what is now Tanzania’s Gombe National Park to study chimpanzee behavior. What she learned there would change our ideas about science and alter forever the way we think about and study nonhuman primates. I interviewed Dr. Goodall for an editorial we published today that reflects on the 60th anniversary of her arrival in Gombe. She spoke to me from her childhood home in Bournemouth, England, where she first learned to climb trees and love nature.

Below are some highlights from our conversation. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Holden Thorp: It’s giving me chills just to ask this, but could you tell me a little bit about how you ended up going to Gombe?

Dr. Goodall: I started loving animals from the time I was born. My first real scientific observation was hiding in a hen house to see where the egg came out. My first habituation of an animal was a pig in a field. After 2 weeks of offering my apple core, I got the pig to take it from my hand. And then reading Tarzan—there was no TV when I was growing up—so reading Tarzan, I decided I would grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them.

Well everybody laughed. There was a war, we didn’t have money, and Africa was far away. Worst of all, I was just a girl, and girls had absolutely no chance of doing something like that. But my mother said if you really want something like this, you’re going to have to work awfully hard and take advantage of every opportunity.

When I left school, I did a secretarial training, working in London. A letter came from a school friend inviting me to Kenya for a holiday, and I heard about Louis Leakey when I was there. He was director of the Natural History Museum and had spent his life searching for fossilized remains of stone age ancestors. I went to meet him at the museum, and 2 days before I arrived, his long-term secretary suddenly quit and he needed a secretary, so that old secretarial training paid off. Isn’t that amazing?

And there I was surrounded by people who could answer all the questions I had that I hadn’t been able to find out in books. I think Leakey was impressed by how much I did know, and so he let me go with him to Olduvai Gorge on an expedition and one evening, I met a rhino. Another evening, it was a young male lion, and that made Leakey think that I was the person he’d been searching for. So that’s how it all began.

Holden Thorp: You spent so much time observing and documenting. Would that kind of research be possible today?

Dr. Goodall: For me, the important thing was to actually get close and study the personalities and the little behavioral interactions between mother and child or between brothers and sisters and see how the dominance hierarchy among the males played out. It yielded so much richness. Modern scientific technology has a tremendous use and it’s helping us, but there’s definitely still lots of opportunity for the old way of watching and recording and being patient.

Holden Thorp: In 60 years, work in Gombe has produced 300 papers. Tell me some of the scientific insights and discoveries that stand out to you.

Dr. Goodall: Looking back, I think it’s the observation of tool using, tool making and culture, and the young ones learning [that stand out]. Because when I first mentioned culture, I was completely squashed. The tool using, tool making, and culture—and the fact that these are because chimps are so biologically like us—forced science to emerge from its reductionist way of thinking. We couldn’t claim any longer that we were the only thinking, feeling being on the planet.

Culture is now something that everybody is talking of and, of course, it’s not just chimpanzees that use and make tools. Some of the studies now in animal intellect, they’re just so fantastic.

Holden Thorp: Our readers worry a lot about how to pay for their research. I think it will probably reassure people to hear that you worried about funding for your research too, but tell me how you financed your trips and your publications and the work that you did, especially in the early days.

Dr. Goodall: Well, we still do worry. It’s the biggest worry I’ve ever had is getting funding to continue.

To start with, Leakey managed to get a very small, I mean absolutely tiny, budget for me to go to Gombe for 6 months. And at the start, the chimps ran away as soon as they saw me, and I was getting more and more worried. I knew with time I could get their trust, but did I have time?

Fortunately, the tool using and tool making brought in the National Geographic. They provided funding and sent Hugo [Baron Hugo van Lawick] to take film, and they funded for the next 5 years, if not slightly more. After that, it was writing grant requests and somehow we managed.

The first book I wrote was for National Geographic because it was the part of the deal. The book came out in my second year at Cambridge and I was nearly sent down [expelled]. Robert Hind, my supervisor who I have huge admiration for, was furious. In those days no scientist would ever write a popular book. I said, “But Robert, there’s nothing in this that isn’t true, and I want to share with people what the chimpanzees can do.” Anyway, they wanted this Ph.D. because it was new, so they didn’t send me down.

The writing hasn’t really helped to fund the research. You don’t get that much money from books.

Holden Thorp: What do you think about how we communicate science to a wider audience now?

Dr. Goodall: Well, the trouble is the internet, isn’t it? Because people go to the internet and there’s so much on it that isn’t accurate and, this is a huge problem. How do you sort out what’s true and what isn’t?

To me science for the scientist and science for the general public can be the same. The truth is the same, and I made a vow at the beginning, I will not use jargon. I remember being told when I wrote “self-grooming” that I should write “auto-grooming.” I said well what’s the difference? Grooming yourself, auto-grooming, it’s scientific jargon to me. I hate scientific jargon.

Holden Thorp: Do you think our overreliance on jargon makes it harder for the public to trust science as a whole?

Dr. Goodall: It’s the arrogance of science. The more difficult words you use, the less people will understand whether you are right or not.

Holden Thorp: What are your thoughts on the COVID-19 [coronavirus disease 2019] pandemic?

Dr. Goodall: Well we bought it on ourselves, didn’t we, because we refused to listen to the scientists who have been predicting for years and years that there would be a pandemic like this. We have been disrespecting nature; making animal species have contact with each other who normally wouldn’t as forests are cut down, creating new diseases. Some animals are being pushed into closer contact with humans, which is another way that a virus can spill over. And we kill them, we eat them, we traffic them. [These conditions created the] perfect environment for a virus like COVID.

Holden Thorp: What should we do in the future to show more respect for nature and to protect ourselves from future pandemics?

Dr. Goodall: You know it’s two different things. One is knowing what we should do, two is knowing how we can do what we should do, and I can’t answer all those questions. How do we move into a new green economy? What do we do about all the people who have lost their jobs? How do we alleviate poverty so people can make the right choices and stop destroying the environment? How do we get the wealthy to realize that they don’t need all the stuff that they accumulate? How do we [get people to] realize that putting the short-term economic gain over and above protection of nature is going to be the end of our species as well as the end of most life as we know it?

We know what we have to do, but I have no idea how we get there except I’ve got faith in young people. They’re changing the world and they are so passionate when they understand the problems and we empower them.