Jane Goodall's shadow
March 14, 2015 1:13 PM   Subscribe

"In July 1960, Jane Goodall boarded a boat, and after a few hours motoring over the warm, deep waters of Lake Tanganyika, she stepped onto the pebbly beach at Gombe. Last summer, almost exactly 54 years later, Jane Goodall was standing on the same beach. The vast lake was still warm, the beach beneath her clear plastic sandals still pebbly. But nearly everything else in sight was different."
posted by ChuraChura (23 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
A hero. One of the people who made me love science. Proud I saw her speak once.
posted by Trochanter at 1:17 PM on March 14, 2015

It would seem she enjoys a good bottle of wine...
posted by jim in austin at 1:33 PM on March 14, 2015

She wrote the forward to a field guide I produced in high school. I didn't appreciate it as much as I do now. She's truly one of the most remarkable women I've ever met.
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:37 PM on March 14, 2015

Was just going to post this, a great read.
posted by Fizz at 1:41 PM on March 14, 2015

He happened to believe in a hypothesis first put forth by Charles Darwin — and by 1957, largely forgotten — that humans and chimpanzees share an evolutionary ancestor.

posted by Segundus at 1:44 PM on March 14, 2015

That's poorly phrased, but I think the gist of what the author means is that many paleontologists in the early to mid 1900s were pretty convinced that orangutans were the great apes most closely related to humans, not chimpanzees.

A lot of people were firmly convinced that we would find human ancestors in Europe and Asia - definitely not Africa. A lot of that is due to the continuing importance of Eoanthropus dawsoni - Piltdownn man. Piltdown Man was particularly confusing and misleading because its features really confirmed the way European paleontologists would have liked humans to have evolved - it was basically a human cranium with a juvenile orangutan mandible, so it looked like human ancestors had giant brains, and also had been wandering around Europe. Even after Piltdown man was exposed as a hoax in the early 1950s, the paleoanth establishment was very slow to shift their understanding of the way human evolution proceeded and which things came first. This was countered by people like Raymond Dart and Robert Broom (and, importantly, Louis Leakey) who were finding australopithecine fossils in Africa which had small, chimp-like skulls and really large teeth, and really seemed to suggest that human ancestors originated in Africa and developed bipedalism before big brains. This was very much counter to paleoanthropological orthodoxy, which was invested in the defining characteristics of humans being WE ARE SMART AND MAKE TOOLS. So Leakey was thrilled with all the complex behavioral things Jane Goodall was observing (like tool use) because it helped him argue that chimpanzees were a good model for early human evolution. "Now we must redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human."
posted by ChuraChura at 1:59 PM on March 14, 2015 [37 favorites]

An amazing person.

When I think about a society which shares its wealth and has a guaranteed basic income, I imagine how many more folks would live their lives doing great things like Goodall has done. That is not a reflection on Goodall in any sort of critical way, just that I want to live in a world where thousands or millions of people are free to do the things which they're great at and need doing without worry about "earning a living". I have no idea why Goodall in particular fuels these thoughts for me.
posted by maxwelton at 2:04 PM on March 14, 2015 [15 favorites]

(jim in austin, using bottles as candle holders is really common in field sites with no electricity. For example, here was my menorah in the field... I only consumed the contents of a few of those myself)
posted by ChuraChura at 2:33 PM on March 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

Thanks for this. She's a hero of mine, and an amazing person. I have a ticket to see her speak in D.C. in about a month, and it's one of the few things I'm looking forward to right now.
posted by gemmy at 2:38 PM on March 14, 2015

She is the best of all things.
posted by pipoquinha at 3:16 PM on March 14, 2015

A field-expedient menorah? That is brilliant.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:57 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

She is awesome but I want to acknowledge that ChuraChura's comments are blowing my mind.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 4:01 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I found the entire article uplifting. Jane Goodall is a superhero.

A minor point, but here's the bit that I found surprising:
Within two months of her arrival, Goodall met the paleontologist Louis Leakey — Nairobi was a small town for its white population in those days — and he immediately offered her a job at the natural-history museum where he was curator. He spent much of the next three years testing her capacity for patient, repetitive work, in particular during a summer expedition of several weeks to Olduvai Gorge, where Leakey’s wife, Mary, also a paleontologist, would later find the hominid fossils that proved the African origins of homo sapiens.
Never heard of Mary before. I knew the name Louis Leakey, but MARY found the fossils? If the topic of the African origins of homo sapiens ever comes up, I will now refer to Louis-and-Mary Leakey, or, the Leakeys.
posted by aniola at 5:37 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Several years ago, while researching a project in Jane Goodall's East African naturalist community, working with people who'd known her from her very first days there, I was surprised to discover that Jane Goodall was unanimously and profoundly disliked by all.

Until then, I'd seen her as a hero, but after hearing the stories, sometimes about her narcissism but mostly about how horribly she treated people, I had to abandon that view.

(I know this won't be a popular comment here.)
posted by grounded at 6:09 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Many of the older primatologists I know profoundly dislike her. Some of that is certainly related to her working style, and the fact that she was very insular and focused only on Gombe - it wasn't until the chimpanzees at Gombe began to be really affected by poaching and habitat loss that she shifted her own focus. Some of that is related to the fact that she is fantastically famous despite not having really done a whole lot of science - professional jealousy, and general irritation at the fact that there are people who have done a lot more on-the-ground good for conservation across equatorial Africa, and received much less recognition for it. Some of it is men with PhDs who are around her age who are pissed that some woman who wasn't really a scientist to begin with is better known than they will ever be.

Her science can be strongly critiqued. You can argue that her conservation and development work has not had a significant impact on communities or on great ape conservation (though I think that is inaccurate). But I think it's impossible to overstate the impact Jane Goodall had on science in general and wildlife biology and primatology in particular. I became a primatologist because my dad had me read In the Shadow of Man and there was this really cool lady doing really cool things and you know what? I could do them too. I specifically didn't become a paleontologist because the only people I was meeting and hearing about and reading about were men. When I go to primatology meetings, there are seas of ponytails. There are so many women participating in this science, doing really great science, doing really groundbreaking and interesting research, and I trace it back to Jane Goodall. We all wanted to be like Jane Goodall when we were little girls, and when we were in 8th grade science classes, and when we were in AP biology, and when we were in Gen Chem, and now when we're getting our PhDs.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:28 PM on March 14, 2015 [27 favorites]

The most common criticism of her work was in terms of her anthropomorphism of chimps (I can't think of a better way to characterize that) rather than taking the time to habituate the Gombe chimps to her presence as an observer.

For comparison, there is a Japanese team on one of the lake islands in Tanzania that have completely habituated the chimps to their presence, and the chimps carry on about their lives paying no attention to humans. You can study chimps as chimps. I've heard that it's quite an experience having chimps walk right by you, especially when you're an experienced wildlife scientist who's learned (for good reason) to be leery of chimps.
posted by grounded at 6:47 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

(it's also worth remembering that she was literally the first person to have done any longterm observational research on chimpanzees in the wild. Of course her methods can and should be criticized! The way people study primates has changed significantly since 1960. Those are totally reasonable criticisms to make, but I don't think it's grounds for personally disliking someone or ignoring someone's scientific and public legacy)
posted by ChuraChura at 7:06 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think I made it clear that the personal dislike was for other reasons, and the personal dislike was far more widespread than the criticism of her methods.
posted by grounded at 7:12 PM on March 14, 2015

Very interesting post, very interesting comments - thank you.

It strikes me that one thing that Jane Goodall did and did well is draw the curiosity and interest of the ordinary person into the world of chimps and paleontology. Scientists can dicker about the details and techniques of her science, but the common person isn't that concerned about the scientific side of it all; we're fascinated, however, by the very idea of a single person actually living among the chimpanzees and describing the day-to-day experience - it adds a sense of adventure to our own dull lives, for one thing, and I'm sure her research has been helpful in the struggle for conservation, which will be ongoing as long as humans populate the planet.

Again, thanks for the post.
posted by aryma at 7:12 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if some of the personal dislike of her is because she suffers from prosopagnosia, or "face-blindness"—the inability to recognize faces. I saw her speak a few years ago and she discussed it. Fascinating. I imagine she could come across as a bit distant or cold.
posted by stargell at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2015

Say what you will about Leakey, he sure could pick 'em.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:57 PM on March 14, 2015

Her scholarship seems to have come a full circle: I found it sublimely informative that Goodall's time spent understanding the behavioral intricacies of apes would help her deal with various human bureaucracies. With or without snark, her revelations seems to have been both dead on point and panoramic. Amazing.

I see something poignant, though, about living in an African forest for 25 years, then emerging to live the rest of her life a relentless vagabond woking out the nuances given to her by all that data. Even assuming that her earlier studies were not quite as pristine as they might have been, she broke ground, and then learned. What she learned was unimagined then. Her historical role as a pivotal scientist has been secured.

Go Jane.
posted by mule98J at 8:39 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

If she suffers from face-blindness, how does she tell chimps apart?

I saw her speak years ago, and she was great! I'm glad she's still working and fighting for chimps.
posted by monotreme at 10:38 AM on March 15, 2015

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