Jane Goodall talks research, criticism, advice

Jane Goodall, the British primatologist and anthropologist, is best known for her study of social interactions between chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. Since first entering the Gombe in 1960 as a young woman with no collegiate training, Goodall has become a leader in the field of animal behavior and an advocate for environmental conservation.

Goodall now spends more than 300 days out of the year traveling and talking to audiences about how they can help other people, animals and the environment. She visited the University of Miami on April 29 and gave a lecture called “Reason for Hope” in the BankUnited Center. The Miami Hurricane had the chance to speak with her about the impact of her research and translating what she has learned to college students.

The Miami Hurricane: As students, we’re constantly being told what we should and shouldn’t do with our lives. Two things we’re told are “Do what you’re passionate about” and “Do something that will matter,” and you’ve done both in your life. What do you think about that advice that is frequently given to students? What do you think is the best way to approach that?

Jane Goodall: Don’t go deeply into something unless you really care about it. A lot of people have a problem with finding out what their passion is. But there’s so much information out there. If you can do a gap year, even after college, just find out what that thing is. What is that one thing that you really feel you must get involved in? And perhaps even more important than that, don’t be guided by how much money you’ll make. You need enough money to live, but if you go into something just because it’s going to make you more money, you probably won’t end up being particularly happy, even if you do make a lot of money.

TMH: When you started doing your research with the chimpanzees, a lot of the methods you used weren’t the typical scientific methods of the time. As college students, we’re trained very specifically in our field, so what advice do you have for college students going into fields where they might have very specific trainings – not just in science but overall – and what do you think some of the upsides and downsides are to going against that grain?

JG: There was a really good upside for me in that Louis Leakey specifically wanted somebody who hadn’t been to college because he wanted a brain that was unbiased by the very reductionist methods of the animal behavior people back then. He didn’t tell me at the time, however. He only told me later. So the benefit was that I was able to use my common sense, the affinity I always had had with animals, and I therefore had a channel open for me, a method of research, which is to use your intuition. If a chimpanzee behaves in such a way that you think, ‘Oh that probably is similar to what we would have done,’ then you’ve got a platform from which you can ask questions: Am I right or am I wrong? But if you don’t let your intuition play any role, and you try to be this strict observer, I think you miss a lot of the nuances and there are a lot of the behaviors that you won’t even question because you won’t really have seen them … The plus side of the scientific method is that you learn to think logically, and I love it. I had to learn it when I went to get my Ph.D. And everyone says, ‘Oh, how luck you were not to do a B.A.’ It was actually a terrible feeling because I felt that I really hadn’t earned my credentials. It wasn’t until I wrote the big book, “Chimpanzees: Patterns of Behavior” that I had to go back and learn things that most undergraduates would know. And when I’d done all that, and got the Ph.D., I felt I could hold my head up and confront the white-coated scientists in the medical research labs.

TMH: Through the research that you’ve done with the chimps, do you think that there’s something that we as humans can learn from the animal kingdom?

JG: First of all, we’ve learned more and more about the different species and how amazing they are and all the things they can do. We’ve learned that we have been very arrogant in the past, particularly in science, and very reductionist. We learned from the chimpanzees that there’s no sharp line dividing us from the animal kingdom, and so that gives you a new respect not just for the chimps but the other amazing animals with which we share, or should share, this planet. And then you have ethical concerns about the way we use and abuse animals everyday all over the world.

TMH: You’ve been a leader in the field for such a long time now. How do you find new things to get into and get interested in?

JG: I find new things to get interested in, concerned about, fascinated by almost every day. It’s just a question of keeping your ears open. You see a little headline in a newspaper, look it up, you might people, and you find out areas of research you didn’t even know existed. There’s constant, constant stimulation for finding out new things, even in just the one group of chimpanzees we’ve been studying for 50 years. We’re still learning new things.

TMH: There’s been some criticism toward your criticism of genetically modified crops, saying the science isn’t precise and that they’re not really as bad as some people are making them out to be. How do you react to that, and why are you so passionate about going against this genetically modified crop movement?

JG: I’m passionate about it because I have read and learned probably more than I wish I knew. And the science is imprecise to create a new genetically modified thing. I think there are so many outright misconceptions out there, which are pushed by the industry. For example, it was predicted that using genetically modified crops would mean less herbicide, less pesticides, less spraying. In fact, the opposite has happened. We find that the agricultural weeds have grown resistant. There are I think it’s 21 states where there are super weeds. Just as an example, there’s a type of pig weed, and in some of these states, it’s gone up 7 feet. A bit like The Tripods if you ever read that book.

TMH: When you started your research, did you imagine it would become so groundbreaking?

JG: Of course not. How could I? I knew nothing about anything. I was just a young naïve girl going out to Africa to live with animals and write books about them. I didn’t even want to be a scientist. I wanted to be a naturalist. But I think I was a naturalist because there weren’t any courses in being a naturalist in those days, so I was a naturalist from the time I could crawl. I couldn’t possibly have imagined. If I had thought when I began that I would be traveling around, giving lectures, talking to people, doing dinners, doing interviews, I think I would’ve said, “OK, this is not my life” and never gone anywhere near the chimps. I’d have done something else.

TMH: Your research has already had a global impact. But is there a particular area you believe would require more efforts in conservation?

JG: Conservation, if we don’t all jump in, the sad thing today is it’s pretty difficult to go and do field research and not find that you’re involved in some kind of conservation, because habits are still disappearing and species are still vanishing, at least locally, and sometimes totally. The developing and thriving disciplines of conservation biology are really important.

Jane Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute as a global nonprofit that empowers people to make a difference among all living things. College students can get involved through Roots & Shoots, which provides young people with the knowledge and tools to make a change.

Check back with themiamihurricane.com for more coverage of Roots & Shoots, the Jane Goodall Institute’s global environmental and humanitarian youth program.