Jane Goodall: Relating Science to Ordinary People

By Ashley E. Rutherford

Thesis: Goodall not only recognizes the behavioral and emotional similarities between humans and chimpanzees, but she also identifies the need for people to release themselves of daily conventions, which complicate our social relations.

During her work on the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, British primatologist, Jane Goodall, discovered correlations between primate and human behaviors. Goodall possesses an ability unlike many of her cohorts. She is a scientist for ordinary people; unlike most forms of scientific writing, which are direct and emotionless, Goodall avoids inflated scientific jargon and complex explanations. Her relaxed and conversational writing style identifies her not only as an educated being in the form of an analyst, but also as a religious thinker in the form of a philosopher, and an ardent author in the form of a poet. Through relating concrete objects and events to abstract ideas through the use of beautiful imagery, she provides readers with a glimpse of untamed Tanzania (Auger 607). Goodall believes that by learning about nature and primate behaviors, humans may better understand their own sociology and place in the natural world. Goodall not only recognizes the behavioral and emotional similarities between humans and chimpanzees, but she also identifies the need for people to release themselves of daily conventions, which complicate our social relations.

Some of these similarities between man and non-human primate include social structure, childish behavior, emotions, and communication. The social structure of chimps mirrors the congregational habits of humans. Goodall observes that small groups join to form larger ones; the large groups then split into smaller ones, and some chimpanzees choose to roam free for a time, unassociated with any troops (Goodall, “Through” 5). In Through A Window, an instance is described when Fanni, an adventurous young chimp, meanders away from her mother only to pitch a crying fit and be consoled by her older sister (Goodall, “Through” 7). Fanni’s actions are  similar to those of many young children who suddenly find themselves alone in an empty grocery store aisle, or who fall and scratch their knee. Parents or older siblings hear their plea for help and immediately sweep them up in their arms or kiss their injury to make things better.

Goodall’s passion for her research is revealed through her attachment to the chimps. To the dismay of many colleagues, instead of numbering each primate, Goodall assigns individual names to each chimpanzee once she recognizes their differing physical and behavioral features (Auger 606). Goodall explains that “animals had personalities, could reason and solve problems, had minds, had emotions- I thus felt no hesitation in ascribing these qualities to the chimpanzees” (Goodall, “Reason” 74). Primates live in a complex society where they form affectionate bonds between family and friends. Some fight and hold grudges while others yearn for attention and sexual appeal. Another similarity is the chimps’ ability to communicate, not only basic necessities, but also emotions.

Many of these were common to human cultures around the world- kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting one another on the back, swaggering, punching, kicking, pinching, tickling, somersaulting, and pirouetting. And these patterns appeared in the same kind of contexts and seemed to have the same kind of meaning as they do for us. (Goodall, “Reason” 76)

Goodall’s writing reads not only as a scientific analysis, but also as segments of philosophical contemplation. She notes the imprisonment of our human-bound perspective of the world: civilization, technology, and education often distract people from the splendor of life. Our closed-mindedness works to domesticate and restrain that which is unfettered. Once we identify and label things, such as a fly, the world loses its marvel; we confine earth by forgetting its fascination and by not questioning the accepted. “The beauty was always there, but moments of true awareness were rare” (Goodall, “Reason” 72). In these unexpected moments, solitude with nature leads to moments of epiphany and self-discovery. “Aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all” (Goodall, “Reason” 72).

Goodall has a talent of bringing her surroundings to life through the use of vivid imagery and description, which she uses to capture her observations. In several passages, her words read as poetry, not science. Prevailing symbols, such as windows, darkness, eyes, and storms, are used to spark reflection and enlightenment. “A pale, watery sun had appeared and its light caught the raindrops so that the world seemed hung with diamonds, sparkling on every leaf, every blade of grass” (Goodall, “Through” 9). Readers can visualize streams of sunlight fighting through a misty haze, clear water droplets sliding down the waxy coating of lush, green leaves, and the reluctant re-emergence of chimpanzees.

In the midst of struggling romantic relationships, lecture tours, and grant applications, Jane Goodall writes from the perspective not of a scientist possessing all life’s solutions, but as a human, philosopher, and poet who questions nature and the purpose of existence. Through these interrogatives and observations, she identifies relations between primate and human behavior, thus disproving the preconceived notions of fellow professionals. Goodall writes in a conversational tone with simple diction after recognizing that ordinary people, not just scientists, needed to become aware of her findings.

Works Cited

  • Auger, Tanya D. “Up Close: Jane Goodall.” Horn Book Magazine 84.5 (Sep. 2008): 606-607. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. [Dupont Library], [Deland], [FL]. 19 Jan 2009 .
  • Goodall, Jane. Through A Window. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
  • Goodall, Jane. Reason for Hope. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1999.

Written for EH 131.03 (Analytical Reading and Writing),  Jan. 27, 2009