Photo Gallery: Jane Goodall on What We Can Learn from Chimps

Jane Goodall Interview 'Even Chimps Understand Sustainability'

Jane Goodall spent years observing chimpanzees in the wild. She discovered that the animals can commit murder and wage war. As an environmentalist, the British activist now spends more time observing humans -- and says she still has hope for humanity.

As a child, one of Jane Goodall's favorite books was "Doctor Dolittle," which helped to unleash her love for wild creatures. At the age of 23, she traveled to Africa, where she met archeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, who would hire her as an assistant and later ask her to study chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Goodall was the first to observe the use of tools and also the kind of warfare conducted by the species closest related to humans. Through her research, Goodall rose to become the world's most famous primate researcher. She published her main body of work, "The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior," in 1986. A short time later, she left scientific research behind in order to dedicate her life to the protection of chimpanzees and nature conservation. Goodall travels around the world 300 days a year as part of her efforts as a champion of the environment. The Jane Goodall Institute's Roots & Shoots youth program is active in more than 130 countries. The 81-year-old Briton is also a United Nations Messenger of Peace and carries the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She's been so busy over the past 20 years, she says, that she hasn't even managed to sleep in the same bed for more than three weeks at a time.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, the doyenne of chimpanzee research discusses the often minor differences between humans and apes.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Goodall, the first half of your professional life, you dealt with chimps. During the second half, you have been dealing with humans. Is there anything you learned from chimps that helps you in dealing with people?

Goodall: I believe so. The chimpanzees taught me a lot about nonverbal communication. The big difference between them and us is that they don't have spoken language. Everything else is almost the same: Kissing, embracing, swaggering, shaking the fist. I studied those things a lot in chimps, and I suppose that's why I'm quite good at reading people. For example, if you catch somebody doing something wrong, he will just cringe away and curl up. He will not listen anymore. Instead, he will think of how he can counterattack. So the only possible way to get somebody to change is to reach into their hearts.


Goodall: I remember once meeting the Chinese environment minister. I wanted to convince him to allow our Roots and Shoots program into Chinese schools. However, he spoke no English, and so now here we were, just sitting, a translator between us, and I had only 10 minutes time. So I gathered my courage and started off saying, "If I was a female chimp and I was greeting a very high-ranking male, I would be very stupid if I didn't do the proper submissive greeting," and I made this submissive sound: "Ö-hö-hö-hö-hö-hö." The male, I continued, would now have to pet the female, and with that I took his hand. He stiffened and we sort of had a little tug of war, but I didn't give up and put his hand on my head. At first, there was dead silence. But then he began to laugh. In the end, we talked for an hour and a half, and since that time we now have Roots & Shoots at Chinese schools.

SPIEGEL: You are in New York to address the UN Summit for Sustainability. What happens when so many high-ranking humans meet?

Goodall: Above all: Too much talking. I shouldn't say that these meetings are a waste of time, but the results are disappointing.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps man is far too self-serving and interested in short-term gains to solve problems on a planetary scale?

Goodall: But we have to! We have turned away from the natural world. Instead, it's all about money and power. To reconnect with nature is key if we want to save the planet.

SPIEGEL: Maybe sustainability is just against human nature?

Goodall: I don't think so. Even chimps understand the concept. If a troop of chimps enters a fruit tree, they will only pick the fruits that are ripe and leave the others growing. That is sustainability.

SPIEGEL: What does a primatologist have to say about the current refugee crisis in Europe? Is it in our nature to welcome foreigners?

Goodall: No, not at all. Primates are very territorial. It is in their nature to protect their food resources as well as their females and young. In the refugee crisis, that explains both sides: The refugees flee to protect their families from violence; the Europeans, on the other hand, fear for their jobs that they need to feed their families.

SPIEGEL: But in Germany, especially, refugees are cordially welcomed in many places.

Goodall: Sure. Because we, as humans, have actually developed a sense of social responsibility. We have gone beyond our basic instincts. We can and we do. This is what sets us apart from the chimps. They are extremely brutal and hostile. Your next door neighbor is to be killed unless she is a juicy young female, who hasn't yet had her first baby, in which case you want her.

SPIEGEL: You have now spent more than 50 years studying chimps. What first sparked your interest in the animal kingdom?

Goodall: Books. In particular "Tarzan" and "Dr. Dolittle." When I was a child, the African forest sounded like a dream to me, because it was full of animals and it was wild.

SPIEGEL: At what point did chimps become your favorites?

Goodall: Actually, no. Chimps are far too much human to be my favorite animal. I don't even think of them as animals. I think of them as beings. My favorite animals are dogs. I had a spaniel when I was a young girl, Rusty, and he taught me a very important lesson. You know, when I got to Cambridge, after I had been with the chimpanzees for two years in the forest, the professors told me I had done everything wrong. They told me I shouldn't have given the chimps names, which I did. They told me I couldn't talk about them having personalities or minds capable of solving problems, and certainly not emotions. But I already knew that these professors weren't right, because Rusty had taught me otherwise. Of course animals have a personality and emotions.

SPIEGEL: If chimps aren't your favorite animals, why did you pick them for your research?

Goodall: I didn't. Louis Leakey did. He believed there was an ape-like, human-like common ancestor 6 million years ago. He wanted to get a feeling as to how early man might have behaved. His reasoning was that if I would find behavior similar or the same in humans and chimps today, possibly those behaviors were also existent in the common ancestor. That's why he sent me in the forest.

SPIEGEL: He also chose other women to work with him. Dian Fossey studied gorillas, Biruté Galdikas worked with orangutans. Was Leakey attracted to young women?

Goodall: He was. But I don't think that was the reason he chose us. He genuinely believed that women did better in the field, that they were better observers and better at understanding animals. And that might well be true. Maternal behavior helps when you have to be patient with nonverbal creatures.

SPIEGEL: After a while you made contact with the first chimp, whom you named David Greybeard. How does one build a relationship with a chimpanzee?

Goodall: Just by being patient and non-threatening. I wore the same colored clothes every day. I sat where he could see me but I didn't move when he was there.

SPIEGEL: Was he curious?

Goodall: Let's say that he was less fearful than the others. And one day he came to the camp and took a banana we offered him. And a couple of days later, one of his buddies came with him.

SPIEGEL: The start of a wonderful friendship?

Goodall: Not really. The best relationship you can have with a chimpanzee is total mutual trust. I think that sums it up best.

SPIEGEL: Still, you were criticized later on for interfering with these chimpanzees' lives. You fed them bananas. You touched them. Would you do things differently today?

Goodall: I would. But remember that these were different times. Giving them bananas was a way of getting information more quickly. Also, my first husband, Hugo Van Lawick, couldn't have gotten his film if they hadn't been coming to camp. Without good footage, though, National Geographic would have lost interest and then we would have run out of project money quickly. So there were pluses and minuses.

SPIEGEL: Which do you consider your most important discovery?

Goodall: Back then, the proof of tool use and tool-making were certainly very important. Very early on in the study, I watched David Greybeard fishing for termites using self-prepared sticks. Looking back, that wasn't even that important. We now know that some other animals fabricate tools as well. Personally, I find other observations more fascinating. We found for example that there are good and bad chimpanzee mothers, which has profound effects on child-development.

SPIEGEL: Does the good nature or the aggressive nature prevail in chimpanzees?

Goodall: Most relationships between community members are relaxed. There is a lot of grooming going on and there are some who are real friends. It's the family relations that are so enduring. For example, if a mother dies, an older sister or brother will look after the little orphan. In one case we even observed that a totally unrelated 12-year-old male adopted a little three-year-old male orphan. Not only did he let the child ride on his back. He also shared his food and sat at the edge of his nest at night. In another instance, poachers shot a mother to get the baby for the live animal trade. The hunters were just pushing the baby into a sack when a male chimp came charging out. He basically scalped one of them, pushed the other one over, picked up the baby and ran back into the forest. We only know about this because they ended up in the hospital. You better not mess with chimps. They are much stronger than humans.

SPIEGEL: Weren't you once attacked?

Goodall: No. Not me. But we had one Swiss scientist who came out to Gombe. Soon enough, this one adolescent male chimp, Frodo, started throwing rocks at him. And this scientist defended himself using karate. At first, nothing happened. But two days later, Frodo came up behind him, grabbed him and pulled him over. For three days he was laying down with a bad back. I said, "Well, it serves you right."

SPIEGEL: Chimps can have a very dark side as well. Did it come as a shock to you when you first became aware of it?

Goodall: Absolutely! It was horrifying. First, we observed this brutal attack on a female which ended in the killing of her baby. Chimps are brutal, and it is so deliberate. The males go out and get near the boundary of their territory. And they walk very silently trying hard not to make any noise. They will climb into a tree and stare out over hostile territory for hours. They are waiting for the right opportunity. And then they attack.

SPIEGEL: Is this comparable to warfare?

Goodall: It can be. We observed what I call the four-year war. It all started when a big chimp community split into two because there were too many males. About seven males left with some females and babies. However, they didn't go beyond the range which previously they shared but took up the southern part of it. When relations got completely cold between the two groups, the original group began systematically moving back into the territory they had lost.

SPIEGEL: Killing the others?

Goodall: Yes, every single one. We observed six murders ourselves, and circumstantial evidence showed that the same thing happened to the seventh male. It was horrible.

SPIEGEL: Are they intentionally cruel? Do they want to inflict pain?

Goodall: I thought about this a lot. But I came to the conclusion that being evil is something that only humans are capable of. A chimp would never plan to pull another's nails out. The chimps' way of aggression is quick and brutal. I compare them to gang attacks.

SPIEGEL: Do you think the chimpanzees' emotional world is comparable to ours?

Goodall: In many ways, yes. Take happiness. Good food, for example, can make them really happy. If you offer them something delicious, they give little calls of joy and hug each other. They play. They tickle. They laugh.

SPIEGEL: Can they be jealous?

Goodall: Absolutely. Or embarrassed. The best example was Frodo when he was about six years old. One day, his mom was grooming his big brother, whom he idolized. Nearby, Frodo was swaying about on a branch in this tall tree, trying to impress the others. Suddenly, the branch snapped and he plunked to the ground. A moment later, his little face came up through the grass and you could literally see how he was thinking: "I just hope nobody saw me falling."

SPIEGEL: You maintain that chimpanzees can even experience awe.

Goodall: You are talking about the waterfall display. It's like a dance. And yes, it's amazing. As they approach the falling water, they start standing up with excitement. When they get nearer, they are swaying from foot to foot and they are stamping the water, picking up big rocks and hurling them. Later, you can see them sitting on a rock, just watching the water. Watching it come. Watching it go. The roaring of the water and the breeze that is created as the water falls in this narrow gully. I don't know if they feel awe. But it certainly moves them in a profound way.

SPIEGEL: You interpret it to be a form of worship for the wonders of nature, some pre-religious feeling?

Goodall: I think that this is the sort of feeling that probably would have led to an early animistic religion. The problem of the chimps is that they can only sit and look. They can't discuss what they feel. All that feeling is trapped within each one.

SPIEGEL: So, the development of language was the crucial step in becoming human?

Goodall: Yes. Language allows us to talk about the past and plan the future. We can teach children about things that are not present. And above all, we can bring people with different backgrounds and different knowledge together to discuss our problems. This actually gives me hope. I still think we are smart enough to not destroy planet Earth, our only home.

SPIEGEL: At one point, you decided to give up your life as a field worker for a career as a peace and environmental activist. Why did you choose meetings and lectures over the forest?

Goodall: Because I cared so much about the chimps. There was a conference in 1986 in Chicago. All the chimp researchers came together for the first time and there was a session on conservation. The picture they painted was bleak. Trees were going. The bush meat trade was booming. Chimp numbers were dropping. And then there was a section on chimps in captivity, and the one video I will never forget was secretly filmed chimps in medical research. I knew I had to do something.

SPIEGEL: You founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which finances chimp conservation, and you travel around the world as an advocate for conservation. What have you achieved?

Goodall: When I arrived in Gombe in 1960, the forest was all the way along the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. When I flew over Gombe in 1992, I was shocked to look down on completely bare hills. That is when I realized that it is not enough to protect the chimps. You also have to help the people living in the neighborhood, who are struggling to survive. We began with 12 villages around Gombe. We improved health and education and we tried to restore fertility to the land. When the people started trusting us, we began reforestation. If you fly over the area today, you will see green hills again. The chimps have three times more forest than before. Without our work, Gombe wouldn't be there anymore.

SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, you are also fighting against logging, genetic engineering and climate change. Have we forgotten anything?

Goodall: Look, there is not much time left before we do get on a trajectory with no return. To avert this, every individual can make a difference every day by making conscious choices. Do you really need everything you buy or can you do without it? What do you eat? What do you wear? How will your choices affect the environment, animals and other people? I want to change awareness.

SPIEGEL: You once said that you can only retire once the world is safe …

Goodall: ... which means I can't retire.

SPIEGEL: Really?

Goodall: Well, eventually, I guess, I won't have a choice. At some point, my body will collapse. But I hope that my brain will still be working so that I can carry on with writing.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Goodall, we thank you for this interview.

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