In a new biography, primatologist Jane Goodall is painted as more intuitive than academic
Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man
By Dale Peterson
Houghton Mifflin, 740 pp., illustrated, $35
Jane Goodall was the perfect hero for those of us growing up in the 1970s who had any sort of bent for science. She was in the jungle with the chimps, on the shores of an African lake with the baboons, on the savanna s counting up the kills of spotted hyenas. She was the hippie dream come true, a human being with long hair and simple clothes welcomed into the bosom of nature. The image of her son swimming naked with the baboons resonates with me the way stories of kindness at Woodstock do for some people.
What Goodall accomplished was a re interpretation of human nature, and she did this by looking mostly at our close kin, the chimpanzees. She was able to accomplish her radical revision through a few obvious tactics that nobody else had felt up to. Field work was the key -- a fundamental tool of biology, but one her male colleagues had mostly overlooked.
Dale Peterson's gender-prodding subtitle is apropos; a big part of Goodall's success stems from the fact that, as a woman flying solo in the field, she was doomed to disapproval from the start. What sets her work apart, and what irked her critics, was how little it rests on arguable hypotheses, how strongly it's built on observation. Her critics looked increasingly foolish as she began to provide photos and footage of such paradigm-shattering behavior as tool use among chimps. Darwin had put humanity on the same continuum as the ape; Goodall showed that we weren't especially far apart on that continuum.
Tool use has been observed in many animal groups since the days of Goodall's breakthrough research, from crows to raccoons and even wasps. It's hard now, with the fact of tool use so firmly established, to grasp that Goodall's claims rocked the last argument that humanity had to special status in the animal kingdom. It made us brothers (and sisters) to the beasts. Her observations on the family structure, communication habits, and hunting tactics of the apes only deepened the bond of kinship.
In his vigorous biography, Peterson paints Goodall as a more complex character than this broad cultural impression suggests. He shows her, for example, as physically tireless and constitutionally dauntless. We discover that she grew up on Tarzan and Doctor Do little, which seems obvious in retrospect. Peterson shows her, too, as a woman rooted among strong women, including a mother who accompanied her to Africa to share the science, the desk work, and even the malaria.
The men in Goodall's life, starting with her father, come across as variously irresponsible, feckless, and pompous. The most impressive of them is the great anthropologist Louis Leakey. Leakey's own work, including his discovery of the human ancestor now called Australopithecus, receives some attention here, but his most admirable accomplishment as it relates to Goodall is in realizing how much better suited women were for fieldwork among the primates. Leakey emerges as a fascinating character, even more interesting than Goodall, partly because Peterson is more willing to see Leakey's warts.
When gender bias threatens to stifle Goodall's findings, Peterson masterfully juxtaposes the misbehavior of Goodall's male colleagues with the male chimps' power struggles. Both groups emerge as simultaneously comic and brutal; the more agreeable human traits, like an open mind and tolerance, belong to the females and to a few older, more civilized males.
Though Peterson's portrayal of gender politics is impressive, I would have preferred more analysis. Peterson is capable of intellectual complexity; for example, he delves into the science of ethology, showing how Goodall's own assumptions, her treatment of animals as individuals, challenged that paradigm. I could have used more of this. But maybe that would have been irrelevant in a biography of Goodall, who is portrayed here as more instinctual than intellectual.
She felt free not only to name the animals she studied, but to pass judgment on their personalities -- she considered the maternally incompetent chimp Passion "unnatural," the baboons of the Gombe, Tanzania, field station nasty, the other chimps variously cute or pompous . Her thoughts on religion and politics -- matters about which she became vocal late in her career -- are distinguished more by her generosity and compassion than by any special originality of thought. I'm not saying, of course, that she lacked for intelligence; she was arguably the most influential biologist of her generation. What Peterson's portrait suggests is that our greatest scientific advances may have as much to do with courage and compassion as with intellect.
Goodall's latter-day exploits, as an ambassador for peace and conservation, fit nicely with the idealistic image of her from the early 1970s, even though her scientific work quickly led to a more complex, and more troubling, view of human nature. Her early years among the chimpanzees led her to think of them as "hairy versions of the Noble Savage," as Peterson puts it. She revised her view as she witnessed war, murder, infanticide, and genocide among the chimps.
It's long been a truism of nature lovers that only humans are capable of wanton cruelty -- what we call in ourselves evil. After Goodall, we lacked even that claim to special grace. If the Manson murders marked the end of the hippie dream, Goodall's cannibalistic chimp Passion, who was active at Gombe while Manson held the stage in America, only confirmed the death of the dream. If we were to find grace, it wouldn't be in our natures, but in our aspirations.
Gordon Grice is the author of "The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators" and the forthcoming "Rough Beasts: A Dictionary of Dangerous Animals."