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Vol. LXIII, No. 10
May 13, 2011

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Primate Scientist Goodall Reflects on Her Career, Activism

On the front page...

At a symposium for the new NIH-Lasker clinical scholars program, Dr. Marston Linehan discusses his research on kidney cancer.

Jane Goodall divulged at her Apr. 11 talk at NIH, “People think I like chimps the best, but I like dogs the best.”

Photo: Michael Spencer

Primate researcher Dr. Jane Goodall greeted the audience in Masur Auditorium by cheerfully imitating the sound a chimpanzee makes on a typical morning in Gombe, Tanzania. It was in Gombe 50 years ago that she began the research program that would later blossom into the Jane Goodall Institute. Over the next hour, Goodall shared the story of how she came to study chimpanzees in Africa and eventually became an activist on their behalf.

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins introduced Goodall at the special event on Apr. 11, remarking on her three dozen honorary degrees, almost 100 awards and 1986 landmark book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. “Tarzan and Dr. Dolittle were her favorite books,” said Collins, speaking of Goodall as a young girl. “She knew she’d be a much better jungle companion for Tarzan than that other Jane. And she was right.”


Laying the Foundation

In 1960, Goodall traveled to the shores of Lake Tanganyika and began her field research in chimpanzee behavior and biology in what today is Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

Goodall observed the importance of early rearing experience and good mothering in chimpanzees and saw a parallel in her own life. “I attribute anything I’ve done in my life of which I’m a little bit proud to the wise way my mother raised me,” Goodall said. She told the audience that her mother was the only person who fully supported her “crazy idea” to go to Africa.

In those early days, Goodall conducted chimpanzee studies using low-tech methods by today’s standards: she peered through binoculars and wrote her notes with a pencil and notebook by the light of a hurricane lamp. Eventually, she “graduated” to more modern technology—a manual typewriter and cassette tapes.

Goodall’s mentor and first research collaborator was archaeologist and paleontologist Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey. Through him, Goodall learned that, “Chimps are doorways of understanding the pathways of human evolution.” It was Leakey’s hope that by better understanding chimpanzees, the animals that are genetically most like humans, we would better understand our early human ancestors.

“What strikes me is how like us they are,” Goodall said. Scientists have been comparing behavior, gene expression and biology between chimpanzees and humans with the aim of identifying a common ancestor of the two species. The chimpanzees in Gombe did indeed exhibit a number of human traits, including making and using simple tools, learning through observation and communicating with each other using gestures and sounds.

Besides laughter—for which Goodall performed another chimp impression—she also observed chimpanzees swaggering in dominance, patting each other for reassurance and gesturing to defuse a seemingly awkward social situation in which a chimpanzee seeks approval from a more dominant individual. In this way, Goodall observed a sort of “culture” among the chimpanzees in Gombe.

As in human culture, Goodall saw the dark side of chimpanzee behavior. Chimps can turn violent when protecting their territory, particularly when it involves males “patrolling” against neighboring social groups. But Goodall took care to also describe the altruism of chimpanzees, which was especially evident in their close family relationships. Female chimps were seen maintaining close bonds with their children for life and older siblings were observed “adopting” younger siblings left as orphans.

Taking Action

As much as Goodall learned from her studies in the field, Leakey urged her to return to school for a formal education. As Goodall worked toward her doctorate and conducted research for her first book, a conference was organized that brought together chimpanzee biologists from across Africa and from non-invasive captive environments.

“I went into that conference as a scientist...but I came out an activist,” Goodall said. At this event, she came to the realization that chimpanzees were quickly disappearing from the wild and being mistreated in their use as objects of entertainment, as pets and as subjects in medical research. The questions posed at this first conference included: Should we be using beings who are so like us in medical research? And if we do use them, should we be keeping them in their current conditions?

While Goodall is a strong proponent of animal rights, she also recognizes the importance of chimpanzees in medical research. Because of their similarities to humans in terms of DNA structure, blood and immune systems, they have been important in the search for cures and vaccines for otherwise uniquely human diseases.

The Way Ahead

One hundred years ago there were 1 million to 2 million chimpanzees in the wild; today, the population is estimated at just 350,000, their numbers falling as a result of habitat destruction and human population growth. Goodall also remarked on some of the other challenges facing the next generation including global warming, hunger, poverty and war. Yet she remains hopeful for the future.

“The way forward, I to find a better way to conduct ourselves on this planet,” Goodall said. She emphasized that each of us has a role to play and that it can begin with thinking about the choices we make, including how we treat animals and the environment. Goodall noted that an important difference between humans and chimpanzees is our ability to discuss big ideas and make plans for the future with one another despite differences in background and philosophy. “Let’s get together, brain and heart, and dream big for the future.” NIHRecord Icon

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