"Never – never – give up"
She became the world's most important primatologist without scientific training: As a young woman, Jane Goodall revolutionized how we see chimpanzees – and our understanding of human beings.
You were only 23 when you decided to fulfill your lifelong dream: researching animals in Africa. In those days, a trip like that was an adventure – and not just for a young woman.
It was very exciting. It took me three weeks to travel to Kenya by ship. There were flights available, too, but they were much too expensive for me back then. My parents weren’t wealthy. I worked as a secretary and waitress to earn money for the passage.
You were brave.
I only did what I had wanted to do since I was a child. That didn’t take courage.
Where did your early passion for Africa come from?
It started when I read "Doctor Doolittle" as a little girl. He could speak to the animals and took circus animals back to Africa. I loved that book. Then I discovered "Tarzan of the Apes" when I was ten. I fell in love with Tarzan. And what did he do? He married the wrong Jane!
What did you especially like about the Tarzan stories?
What appealed to me with Tarzan as well as Mowgli from "The Jungle Book" was that they lived with animals, they talked to animals. I dreamed of that.
Did your love of animals surface very early in life?
I was born with a love of animals. At age four I laid down in the chicken coop because I wanted to know where the eggs came out of the chickens. I didn’t see a hole that was big enough for an egg. No one could explain it to me. So I waited for hours in the coop. My parents didn’t know where I was and called the police.
Curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, not giving up, wanting to find things out for herself and learning to be patient.
You must've gotten in big trouble.
When my mother saw my eyes shining with excitement, everything was forgotten. Instead of getting angry, she listened to my story of how the hen laid an egg. I'm telling you this story because it explains the origin of a young scientist. Curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, not giving up, wanting to find things out for herself and learning to be patient. These things were already there in this little four-year-old girl. Another mother might have nipped such early scientific curiosity in the bud.
In 1960, you began observing chimpanzees in the wild in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Was it easy to gain the chimpanzees' trust?
Not at all. As soon as they saw me, they vanished into the forest. They ran away. This went on for months, every single day. Then one chimpanzee began to lose his fear of me. He didn't run away anymore. He had a lovely white beard, so I named him David Greybeard.
That turned scientific theory upside down.
Was David Greybeard especially curious or intelligent?
He was especially calm. That carried over to the other chimpanzees. They saw David Greybeard sitting next to me and probably thought: "This strange white she-ape can't be too terrible." The chimpanzees eventually accepted me thanks to David Greybeard, and I could observe them from close up. I also owe one of my most important discoveries to him: I saw how he took a twig, stripped off its leaves and stuck it in a termite mound. When he pulled the twig back out, it was covered with termites that he removed with his lips and ate.
What was so special about that?
An animal used a tool that he made himself! That turned scientific theory upside down. Back then scientists assumed that only humans could make tools. That differentiated people from animals. When I informed my boss Louis Leakey about my discovery, he was very excited and sent me a telegram: "Now we must redefine tool STOP redefine man STOP or accept chimpanzees as human."
Do you even think of chimpanzees as animals?
No more than we humans are.
You were the first person to find out that chimpanzees hunt and eat meat – and that they have individual personalities. That's why you were initially dismissed by scientists.
They told me I had done everything wrong. I should have given the chimpanzees numbers, not names. That was unscientific. I shouldn't attribute human characteristics, emotions or minds to them. I knew that these professors were wrong. Fortunately, I had a wonderful teacher as a child, my dog Rusty, who taught me that animals have personalities, minds and feelings, of course. I saw all their differences, how they could be excited or feel sad or miserable. I saw their humanlike behavior, how they begged, embraced and kissed.
It's just a difference of degree between humans and animals.
Why did the scientific community behave this way toward you? Out of arrogance?
Arrogance certainly played a role. And then there was the influence of religion and early philosophers who believed that only humans could have such traits, that there was a difference of kind between humans and animals. These days we know it's just a difference of degree.
You were a young woman, a secretary without scientific training. Would you say that this rejection was also a type of primate behavior? The dominant male doesn't want to listen to anything from a young female?
There really was a lot of talk back then: "Why should we believe this young woman? She didn't even go to college – and she's a woman." That played a role, no doubt about it.
Maybe it was even an advantage that you didn't go to university?
I think so. Let's assume I had studied biology in college: Someone would have told me at a point in time when I was fairly young and impressionable that animals don't have personalities, minds or feelings. They also would have said that I shouldn't feel empathy for my research subjects, that a scientist needs to remain cold and objective. I probably would have believed it. It probably would have colored all of my observations of the chimpanzees. But fortunately I hadn't been told these things. It's rubbish to say that you can't be a good observer unless you're totally objective. Without my empathy I would never have found many things out, or only discovered them much later.
Do visions sometimes require an unprejudiced view?
It's interesting that the three most significant researchers of great apes were women: you with chimpanzees, Dian Fossey with gorillas, and Biruté Galdikas with orangutans. Do women do better in the field than men?
Louis Leakey, who entrusted us three women with this research, thought so, too. He always felt women make better observers in the field.
Did Leakey ever tell you why he thought that?
He had been in the field with women and men, and he saw that women were more patient, much calmer and more observant. You know, if you want to be a good mother, a good human mother, you need to have patience and be observant. You need to understand the needs of a little being before it can speak.
What do you consider to be your most important discovery?
How important the mother is. The most fascinating thing for me is the different ways that mothers raise their children. There are good mothers and bad mothers. The good ones are affectionate, play a lot and, most importantly, they support their child. Even if it gets into a fight with a high-ranking female, a good mother will get in the middle to protect her child – even if she gets beaten up herself.
The most fascinating thing for me is the different ways that mothers raise their children.
Is there an evolutionary advantage to being a loving mother?
We can look back at almost 60 years of research in Gombe and definitively say: Early childhood experiences are fundamentally important. It's rather clear that the offspring of supportive mothers do better in life. Males generally achieve a higher position in the hierarchy and females tend to become better mothers.
You also observed in chimpanzees what you call "the dark side" of primates: violence, fights to the death, territorial wars between rival chimpanzee groups that lasted for years.
That was only after a few years and it was shocking for me. Up to then I thought that chimpanzees were like us, but more noble.
The noble savage?
Exactly. And then this brutality, I even witnessed cannibalism. It was really horrible.
Up to then I thought that chimpanzees were like us, but more noble.
Were there times when you were afraid?
There was a time in the late 1980s when several of the males were very aggressive, real bullies that harassed and intimidated the others. The most aggressive of them, Frodo, pushed me down, beat me and stomped on me. It's clear to me that he didn't want to injure me seriously or kill me, because I wouldn't be here if he did. Frodo wanted to prove his dominance. His aggressive behavior made him the alpha male. But I also experienced how altruistic chimpanzees can be.
With chimpanzees, moving up in the hierarchy and being as dominant as possible obviously plays an important role. Does that remind you of humans?
Yes, male chimpanzees exhibit many behaviors that we also see in politicians: showing off, swaggering around to make themselves appear big and powerful. The presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a good example. You could see his display behavior when she was speaking. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not comparing Trump to a chimpanzee. I'm simply saying that he was displaying a behavior similar to that of male chimpanzees when they want to become the alpha male.
You managed to assert yourself as a young woman in a male-dominated world. What advice would you give young women today?
The same advice my mother gave me: If you really want something, then you have to be prepared to work very hard, take advantage of opportunity and never – never – give up.