Reclaiming the future

Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall spoke in the Sun Dome on Tuesday evening as part of the Frontier Forum and
University Lecture Series. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Chimpanzees, humans and hope were the themes renowned primatologist Jane Goodall spoke of at the Sun Dome on Tuesday night. 

“I meet young people who seem to have lost hope, feel we compromised their future and they can’t do anything about it,” she said. “We did compromise the future of young people, but there is something we can do about it.”

Before the presentation, USF President Judy Genshaft took the stage to welcome Goodall’s message of “peace, kindness and global good” to the university.

“Dr. Goodall has changed the way we’ve viewed animals, and in doing so, challenged human beings around the world to sustain and protect the environment for all of its inhabitants,” she said.

Goodall said her story began as a child with a curiosity for animals. 

“I would sneak into the hen house to see how a hen lays an egg,” she said. 

Goodall said she grew up impoverished; her father served in WWII and her mother struggled to make ends meet. She credited her mother, whom she mentioned throughout the lecture, for encouraging her curiosities.

“A chimp mother is like a human mother,” she said. “The good mother is protective, but not overprotective. She is playful and affectionate, but above all, she is supportive.”

Though studying earthworms and dormice kept Goodall busy at home, it was literature that took her overseas. Goodall said as a little girl she loved climbing the garden tree and reading books about nature, such as Tarzan.

“I fell in love with this glorious king of the jungle living with all these animals,” she said. “He married the wrong Jane.”

Goodall fell in love with Africa after reading Doctor Dolittle, but the “dark continent” was still mysterious and rarely had tourists, especially not young English girls.

However, with the support of her mother and a hospitable friend, she stumbled into a job at a history museum in Nairobi. When visiting, the curator offered to hire her after her passion and knowledge of African wildlife became apparent.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” she said. “But I was also prepared. I was ready for the opportunity.”

Every evening after work, she walked out onto the Africa plains and met rhinos and lions, long before poachers and bulldozers altered the landscape. 

“It was the Africa of my dreams,” she said. “It was a bit scary, but very exciting.”

Goodall said her boss and mentor, Louis Leakey, saw that enthusiasm and encouraged her to go on exhibition to study what behaviors chimpanzees have in common with humans. Goodall was too young to go alone, so she brought her mom.

While Goodall was off in the brush studying chimpanzees through a pair of binoculars, her mother stayed at the camp in the company of centipedes, scorpions and an alcoholic cook.

“People think I was brave?” she said. “I wasn’t brave at all — it was my dream.” 

At first the chimpanzees were “conservative,” she said, running away from the “white ape with a notebook.”

“If I didn’t see something exciting before the money ran out, that would be the end,” she said. 

After six months, Goodall observed how chimps socialized, bent branches into beds and patted each other’s backs in encouragement. But it was not enough, so she asked for more time.

Goodall’s “breakthrough observation” came just after her mother and most of the exhibition left. 

“I was going through the undergrowth, it was very wet, when I saw this dark shape take a piece of grass and push it into the underground,” she said.

Before her observation of a primate using grass to dig for ants, scientists claimed that the use of tools was the defining factor of humanity. She said she also saw chimpanzees use tin cans as noisemakers to show dominance.

Once Goodall was accepted into the chimpanzees’ community, she said the line between man and animal “continued to blur.” 

“The first time a group let me in without running was very special,” she said. “The first time (a chimpanzee) took a banana from my hand was very special.”

Just as controversially, Goodall claimed primates shared human emotions such as true altruism, citing males who adopted orphan offspring. Chimpanzees also showed a brutal nature through primitive forms of warfare.

This idea was taboo to scientists in the 1960s, who didn’t know of the similarities in DNA yet, and Goodall was accused of projecting human qualities onto animals. 

“They said I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names,” she said. “Or I shouldn’t assume they had any emotions or any thoughts.”

Goodall said, when seeking her doctorate, she was also chastised by teachers and peers at Cambridge. But Goodall said her greatest teacher knew she was right: her dog, Rusty, who was proof that animals could love.

Since her breakthrough research, Goodall said many discoveries have given credibility to her original theory. She said scientists have found octopi can hold grudges against college students, crows can make hooks to reach food and peas can communicate through roots in the ground.

Yet despite this evidence, Goodall said she wonders why people still allow experimental tests on animals, especially on primates, with whom humans should identify.

“Once you admit that these animals have feelings and what it’s like to be in those hell holes,” she said. “Then you have to ask what is that doing to us?”

Following a conservationist conference in 1986, Goodall started traveling the world, learning how she could save animals. She discovered the solution, however, with saving humans first.

Exploding overpopulation in poor countries, she said, forces those people to use more resources and destroy the environment, just as the British Empire and corporations stole theirs.

The problem is exemplified by the very place she began her research: Tanzania. She said when she flew over the area in 1960, there were forests “as far as the eye could see,” but by 1991, it was only a small patch of forest surrounded by a dustbowl.

But while she’s learned of the great challenges of our time, she said she also learned about the indomitable human spirit that allows us to tackle seemingly impossible tasks.

Goodall spends 300 days of the year traveling the world to talk to youth about what they can do to reclaim their future, such as Tuesday’s packed lecture sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Frontier Forum Lecture Series and the Center for Student Involvement’s University Lecture Series. Goodall’s lecture cost approximately $60,000, of which $40,000 came from Frontier Forum and $20,000 from the University Lecture Series.

Goodall founded the “Roots and Shoots” organization to rally groups around the world to take on three projects: to help animals, to help humans and to help the environment.

“This problem may seem huge when you look over the entire world,” she said. “But when you know you’re doing something here, someone else is doing something over there and someone is doing something else over there, then the problem doesn’t seem so big.”

At the end of the lecture, Goodall asked the audience to look at the moon before going home for proof of what can be accomplished. 

“Say to yourself, ‘wow, we put a man up there,’” she said. “How is it that the most intellectual creature is destroying its own home? We’ve lost wisdom. Only when head and heart are in harmony can we become the amazing humans beings we could be.”