Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. Dale Peterson.
xii + 740 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. $35.
Dale Peterson has given us a beautiful book—a flowing,
detailed biography of Jane Goodall that clearly explains her
insights and why they created a watershed in the scientific
understanding of animals. His portrayal of her is highly
complimentary, even worshipful; but then, Goodall deserves the
praise. Peterson has achieved the tour de force of
conveying Goodall's charisma while explaining the significance of
her science—and indeed, why neither would exist without the other.
"Dale Peterson knows me better than I know myself,"
Goodall says. Peterson coauthored a book with her and edited the two
volumes of her letters. With this biography, readers will know her
too—and many will wish for even more.
Peterson proceeds at a leisurely pace, going into great detail about
Goodall's childhood and early career. She doesn't sight her first
wild chimpanzee until almost 200 pages into the text. Not until page
546 do we reach the crisis in research at the Gombe Stream Reserve,
the night in May 1975 when "forty intruders, dressed in gray
military fatigues and carrying rope, hand grenades, and AK-47s"
kidnapped four American students and carried them off to the
guerrilla camp of Laurent Kabila, future prime minister of the
Democratic Republic of Congo. Peterson, however, gives short shrift
to Goodall's career since her decision in 1985 to turn from research
to activism, compressing the past two decades into a mere 80 pages.
The book opens with a description of Goodall giving a lecture, her
blond ponytail now silver, her figure spare and upright, her voice
limpid as clear water, her phrases focused like the sharpest
binoculars. Afterward scientists and laypeople line up with her
books to get an autograph—and to tell her what she means to
them. "A young girl with braces on her teeth: ‘When I was
in sixth grade, I had to do a research project. I did it on
chimpanzees. And you!'" Another listener says simply, "May
the universe bless your work."
Then we meet the child Jane, born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall on
April 3, 1934. She grew up in an unremarkable middle-class home in
unromantic Bournemouth, in a household of strong women. Her
racing-driver father was away much of the time, then joined the
military and was posted overseas, eventually writing to request a
divorce. The small girl dreamed of working with animals in Africa
like her hero, Doctor Dolittle. Only a few teachers, however, and
perhaps only with hindsight, recognized her extraordinary
intelligence and powers of concentration.
Having no money for university, she trained as a secretary—and
then grew to be an astoundingly accomplished flirt, to judge by the
number of her beaux and even fiancés. (But none of them seems
to have made as permanent an impression as her dog, Rusty.) Here
Peterson perhaps underplays how much the culture of the 1950s
directed young women's ambitions toward marriage. Goodall's giddy
youth in part shows how successful she was at what was then the
expected career path.
In 1955, Goodall was invited to Kenya by a school friend. She
eventually saved enough money for the voyage and arrived in Nairobi
in 1957, on her twenty-third birthday. There she met archaeologist
Louis Leakey and quickly won him over, along with many others. One
letter home exclaims, "What the devil am I to do with all these
middle aged married men? They hang in multitudinous garlands from
every limb and neck I've got." With difficulty she persuaded
Leakey to confine his role to paternal kindness. Eventually he
offered her the chance to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream
Reserve on the shores of Lake Tanganyika (which later became part of Tanzania).
Here we begin to see the importance of chance in Goodall's life. Her
accomplishments now seem inevitable, but with a day-to-day account
they appear most unlikely. Back in England, Goodall took a crash
course in primatology with John Napier, a comparative anatomist, to
prepare for her fieldwork. At the same time, unbeknownst to Goodall,
Leakey was offering her job to an American graduate student who,
unlike Goodall, had a degree in anthropology. Fortunately for
Goodall, the student eventually turned down the offer. Goodall,
meanwhile, had found a fiancé, although the relationship
would not survive her long absence.
When Goodall finally headed to the field in the summer of 1960, the
Tanganyikan authorities would not let a white woman camp alone at
Gombe, so her heroic mother, Vanne, came along as chaperone. There
were other difficulties: the first trip was only financed for four
months; Jane carried fuzzy borrowed binoculars and an inadequate
camera; and once she was finally established, the chimpanzees were
Day after day she clambered to a vantage point above her camp where
she could survey the wooded valleys. "The Peak," as
Goodall began referring to this spot, sits high in the rift mountain
range that rises from the lake—no wonder at times it was less
tiring to sleep there overnight than to trek down to camp and up
again. Zoologist George Schaller and his wife, Kay, visited in
October. It was "really nice to talk to someone," Jane
wrote home, "who didn't think I was completely crazy."
Schaller, fresh from watching the vegetarian mountain gorillas,
remarked that if Goodall spotted chimps eating meat or using a tool,
she would have the clout to continue her study.
She would witness both within just a few weeks of the Schallers'
visit. She discovered meat eating, meat sharing and tool making (in
this case, dipping long stalks of grass into termite mounds to
"fish" for termites) in that first brief season. After
Goodall reported this last finding to Leakey, he sent his famous
reply by telegram: "Now we must redefine ‘tool,' redefine
‘man,' or accept chimpanzees as humans."
Leakey was able to use Goodall's breakthroughs to secure new funding
from the National Geographic Society. Goodall continued her studies
and eventually recorded the male display she called the "Rain
Dance." After a year of work at Gombe, she wrote in a letter
home that "now life is so wonderful. The challenge has been
met. The hills and forests are my home. And what is more, I think my
mind works like a chimp's, subconsciously. . . . It's most
peculiar." As Peterson adds,
Perhaps her most impressive accomplishment was to recognize
that chimpanzees have minds in the first place. . . . [N]ot that
these apes eat meat, make and use tools, dance wildly in the rain,
and all the rest, but rather that they do such things as active and
willful beings with personalities, beings who inhabit an
intellectual world similar to our own. . . . That slowly appreciated
truth was the real magic behind her first year at Gombe.
The saga continues. Goodall may seem the poster girl of the National
Geographic Society, but over the years its board repeatedly came
within inches of withdrawing its support. She met and, in 1964,
married photographer Hugo van Lawick, aided him in his work on the
Serengeti, and bore and raised their son. But the couple separated
in 1972, and the marriage ended in divorce. Goodall fell in love
with Derek Bryceson, a minister in the government of Tanzanian
President Julius Nyerere. Bryceson and Goodall were married in 1975,
but, tragically, he died of cancer in 1980. Goodall juggled love,
motherhood and the details of her husbands' lives, not to mention
the repeated financial and personal crises of the Gombe Stream
Reserve, along with the perpetual struggle for time to write the
next book or article. Her story is much more complicated than the
idealized picture of beautiful Jane alone in the wilds.
In addition to recounting Goodall's life, Peterson describes the
state of primatology at the start of her career: the behaviorists'
icy denial of innate disposition, and the seminal work of Wolfgang
Köhler, Robert Yerkes, Harry Harlow, Adrian Kortlandt and the
Japanese primatologists who followed the teachings of Kinji
Imanishi. Peterson also summarizes Goodall's contributions to the field:
Jane Goodall had demonstrated that it was possible to live
and walk freely among wild chimpanzees, and that a person—even
a bare-legged, pony-tailed, young female one—could over time
and with great effort construct a critical understanding of what
wild apes do, how they live, and who they are. . . . She propagated
the idea that wild chimpanzees have emotions similar to those of
humans. . . . [S]he was the first or among the first proponents of
the idea that chimpanzee behavior exists in a cultural context. . .
. Jane Goodall practiced and taught a science that combined the cold
purity of traditional European ethology with her own warm embrace of
intuitive and ethical ways of thinking.
Goodall's continuing influence derives from more than just the huge
network of primatologists who have worked at Gombe and the ongoing
research on both chimpanzees and baboons at the reserve. She would
probably cite instead the success of her Roots and Shoots Clubs in
40 countries, which give young people inspired by conservation the
opportunity to reach out to their peers in other nations. She would
describe the changes in housing and care of captive apes that have
come about as a result of her campaigning. Perhaps most of all, she
would discuss the work of the Jane Goodall Institute, which is now a
principal source of support for a million people who live close to
the Gombe Stream Reserve. The institute deals with everything from
reforesting eroding hillsides to education for girls to breeding
hybrid oil palms that bring cash into the local economy. It is there
that the Roots and Shoots Clubs and the adults who work as
development agents or full-fledged researchers connect the practical
needs of human life with the survival of Gombe chimpanzees and their
It is impossible to visit Gombe today without seeing the area and
the chimpanzees through the prism of Hugo van Lawick's photographs
and Goodall's writing. Gimli, a two-year-old chimp, picks up the end
of a stick, a sketch of a future when he will hurl branches in
charging display. Beside him stands Flint, immortalized in just the
same gesture 40 years ago. Gremlin, the matriarch, commandeers a
newborn grandchild, clearly convinced that she is a better caretaker
than young Gaia, the baby's mother. The infant's pink starfish hands
clutch its grandmother's belly fur just as Gremlin clung to her own
mother, Melissa, three decades before. Gremlin's family owes their
continued, apparently timeless, existence to Jane Goodall—and
to the understanding that the Jane Goodall Institute helps to create
among the humans around them.
Come back to the lecture that opens the book. The silver-haired
wise-woman knows how to hold an audience in her hand. Her hearers gasp
and weep. But the basis of her hold is not mere personality. It is the
force of her insight and the urgency of her message.