What It Means to Be Human
Jane Goodall is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and its youth program, Roots & Shoots. She has been the subject of many films and documentaries, including “Jane Goodall: The Hope” and hosts the Jane Goodall Hopecast. Her many books include In the Shadow of Man, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, and most recently, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times.
Krista Tippett, host: Several years ago, I moderated a gathering on an island off Istanbul that included the primatologist Jane Goodall. I knew about her epic early years studying chimpanzees in the wild, at first without even a college degree. The science she proceeded to do also ended up shaping the self-understanding of our species. She recalled modern Western science to the fact that we are a part of nature, not separate from it.
But what I’d never gleaned from all I’d read about her across the years — yet saw powerfully when we met — is how fully she had, mid-career, given her life’s work over to a new passion. Humanity had become a threat to its own kin in the natural world. With the same careful, empathic eye she trained on the entire ecosystem of the Gombe forest, she began to do her part to tend to the human pain and misunderstanding that led to her beloved chimpanzees’ suffering.
This hour, in honor of the publication of her 32nd book, we revisit the beautiful conversation I had with her in 2020. We experience the moral and spiritual convictions that have driven this extraordinary woman; what she is teaching, and still learning, about what it means to be human.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Jane Goodall: I believe that a trick of this development of the intellect, which is so startling, really, was the fact that we developed this way of communicating. So I can tell you things you don’t know. You can tell me things I don’t know. We can teach children about things that aren’t present. And all that has enabled us to ask questions like, Who am I? Why am I here? And I believe part of being human is a questioning, a curiosity, a trying to find answers, but an understanding that there are some answers that, at least on this planet, this life, this life-form, we will not be able to answer.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Jane Goodall’s new book is The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. She spoke to me over Zoom from pandemic lockdown in Bournemouth England, in the home where she spent part of her childhood, living with her mother and her beloved grandmother, whom she called Danny. Both feature largely in her many books and stories.
So I want to start where I always start, which is, if I ask you about the spiritual background of your childhood, of your earliest life, however you understand that word now, where does that memory take you?
Goodall: Well, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of anything spiritual when I was a child. You know, my grandfather was a Congregational minister. I never met him. We — Mum, my sister, and I, came to live in this house where I am now, with my grandmother and Mum’s two sisters.
Tippett: So was he the husband of Danny? Was he that grandfather, of your grandmother you called Danny?
Goodall: That’s right, he was the husband of Danny. And I wish I’d met him, because he sounds completely wonderful, but I didn’t. And so we sometimes went to church — we weren’t particularly religious. And I loved to spend most of my time outside, in the garden. It was pre-television, pre-laptops, pre-cellphones and all the rest of it. And so we had books and imagination and nature. So I learned a lot from nature.
And I was outside, and I loved climbing trees. I had one special tree, which I’m looking at right now, Beech, and I spent hours and hours up Beech, feeling close to the sky and the birds. And I suppose that was the closest to some kind of spiritual feeling of nature that I had, although I wouldn’t have thought of it as that, at that time.
Tippett: You’ve said that you really feel like you loved animals and loved nature, I think, from the womb onwards.
Goodall: From the womb onwards, yes, when I was one-and-a-half. [laughs] My first serious observation of animals was four-and-a-half, when I waited four hours to see a hen lay an egg. And I have to say that it was my supportive mother, I think, who’s enabled me to do what I’ve done, because she didn’t know where I was. I was hiding in a henhouse, waiting, because nobody would tell me where the hole was where the egg came out.
Tippett: And it wasn’t logical, was it. It was a logical observation that it didn’t make sense. [laughs] It wasn’t obvious.
Goodall: Not really. So I saw a hen go into a henhouse, where they slept at night, and the nest boxes were round the edge, and I thought, ah, she must be going to lay an egg. So I crawled after her, which was a big mistake. She flew out with squawks of fear, and so in my little four-and-a-half-year-old mind I must have thought, well, no hen will lay an egg here. There were, I think, five other henhouses. And so I went into an empty one and waited.
And apparently, I waited about four hours. And they’d even called the police. They were all searching for me. We’d gone up for a holiday, onto this farm. And my mother must’ve been really nervous. You can imagine, your little four-year-old girl has —
Tippett: Has disappeared.
Goodall: But when she saw me rushing towards the house, she saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear the wonderful story of how a hen lays an egg.
And the reason I love that story is, isn’t that the making of a little scientist? The curiosity; asking questions; not getting the right answer; deciding to find out for yourself; making a mistake; not giving up; learning patience. And you know, a different mother — how dare you go off without telling us; don’t you dare do it again — might have crushed that early scientific curiosity. And I might not have done what I’ve done.
Tippett: It strikes me, there’s another story that you tell — well, let me just say, so we’re speaking in 2020, just about 60 years after you first went to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika, which is now Tanzania; July 1960. I was born in that year, in 1960, a few months after you went to Gombe. And I’m so aware that what you began to see and study and turn into scientific observation there really transformed the world I grew up learning about.
I was also struck — like the story you just told, about watching the hen laying the egg, the stories about you taking worms to bed as a child, or your love of your dog, Rusty — there’s another story that struck me when I was reading — I think this was in In the Shadow of Man [Editor’s note: that story is in Reason for Hope] — about when your mother was with you for a while, in the early part of the study. She went back to England, you were first alone, and how you were walking around, kind of naming the aspects of the forest. “Good morning, Peak … Hello, Stream … Oh, Wind, for Heaven’s sake, calm down.”
And then, of course, that echoes stories that are so alive in our culture; and even the ones that influenced you, the Dolittles [Doctor Dolittle], Tarzan, Wind in the Willows. I think as a parent, children, and adults in the presence of children, see aspects of the natural world as animate and alive, and they give things names, so that the human imagination has always inclined this way. So there’s one way in which, as I read the sweep of your story, I understand that one thing you did is you helped substantiate an intuitive understanding and bond that human beings have. You put data to the truth such stories carried.
Goodall: Well, when I first went to Gombe, nobody else had studied chimpanzees in the wild: uncharted territory. And of course, the first problem was that the chimps ran away as soon as they saw me. They’d never seen anything like this white ape before. And it was very wonderful at that time, that my mother was there. The reason she was there is because the British authorities — Tanganyika was the last outpost of the crumbling British empire back then, and they wouldn’t take responsibility for me coming on my own. They said, well, I’d have to bring someone with me. So she volunteered.
And so she was there to boost my morale in those early days, because I’d get back, dejected the chimps had run away again, and she was pointing out that on this peak that I discovered — I used my binoculars. And she said, “You know, you’re learning how the chimpanzees make beds at night, bending the branches over. You’re learning how they sometimes travel alone, and sometimes in small groups, and sometimes in big, excited gatherings. You’re learning the foods that they eat and the calls that they make. So you’re learning more than you think.” And it was really sad that she left just two weeks before that breakthrough observation, when the one chimp who had just begun to lose his fear, darling David Greybeard, I saw him using and making tools to fish for termites.
And you know, that was the turning point. That was what enabled my mentor, Louis Leakey, to go to the National Geographic Society, and they agreed to fund the research when the six months’ money ran out. Six months’ money came from an American philanthropist; I’m grateful to him still. And they sent Hugo van Lawick to take photographs and make film. He became my first husband. And it was his photographs and film, in the Geographic magazines and documentaries, that forced science to believe what I was saying, because before that, many of them had said, “Well, why should we believe what she says? She hasn’t been to college. She’s just a girl.” But when they saw Hugo’s film, then they had to believe.
Tippett: When they saw what you saw. But I do think it’s worth underlining, because it’s so hard for people now to imagine that, as late as the latter half of the 20th century, human beings thought that we were the only creatures who made tools.
Goodall: That’s what Western science believed. If somebody at that time had gone to the pygmies in the rainforest in Congo, they could’ve told you. I’ve sat and talked to them. They’ve watched it. But it was “man, the toolmaker.” It was Osmond Hill who defined us thus. And so it was a shock, I think, to the scientific world.
And when I finally was made to go to Cambridge University, by Louis Leakey — he said I needed a degree; he wouldn’t always be around to get money —
Tippett: And, also, you were the eighth person in the history of Cambridge to come in — you came in to do graduate work without an undergraduate degree, which was almost unheard of, yes?
Goodall: Yes, I did. He said there was no time for that. [laughs]
I was greeted with scientists who said, “Well, you’ve done your study wrong. You shouldn’t have named the chimpanzees. They should’ve had numbers. That’s science. And you can’t talk about personality, mind capable of problem-solving, or emotions, because those are unique to us.”
But the dog you mentioned, Rusty, he taught me, when I was child, that that certainly wasn’t true. We’re not the only beings on the planet with personalities, minds, and emotions. And we are part of, and not separate from, the rest of the animal kingdom.
I was actually taught, and it’s in the textbooks, that the difference between us and all other animals is one of kind.
Tippett: That’s such an important distinction for you, and would you elaborate on what you mean, and why it’s so important that there isn’t a difference in “kind”? In “kind,” what does that word hold?
Goodall: The opposite of it is degree. The difference is degree. In other words, following Darwin’s theory of evolution, the species gradually evolved, and we’re just one of the species.
And so I just could not believe that the scientists were saying that. And talk to many of the religions — talk to the Buddhists and talk to the Indigenous people. They believe that we’re part of the animal kingdom. They believe animals are our brothers and sisters.
Goodall: And arrogant western science — and I think it probably stems from religion. God made man. God made man different. And God made man to have dominion over the birds and the animals and the fish and so on.
But that is a wrong translation. I’ve got Hebrew friends, and the original Hebrew word, which I do not remember, but I’ve written it down in one of my books, meant something more like steward, not dominion.
Tippett: Right, the dominion. But that point of view, that way of thinking and seeing, also penetrated Western science. It seems to me that the significance of your work in the self-understanding of our species — there are so many ways to talk about it. But it also, these observations reconnected us, as you said, that we are part of the animal kingdom, that we are part of nature, not just in our bodies. Here’s another way you say it: that there’s social and emotional continuity with the natural world; that we’re creatures — [laughs] rather than all the other creatures being creatures, as another way people talk about, I think, those Genesis stories.
Goodall: Yeah, well, it’s just very arrogant to think that way. Do you know, some people still do. The other thing which is very dangerous about science: I was told at Cambridge that you have to be absolutely objective, and you must not have empathy with your subject. And to me, that right from the beginning was so wrong, because when I was watching a chimpanzee family, for example, and one of the young ones did something a little strange, and so because I was empathetic towards them I thought, well, if they were human, they’d do it because of — whatever.
And that gives you a platform. And you can stand on that platform and then try to analyze what you’ve seen, in a scientific way. But it’s the empathy that gives — it’s that intuition, that aha moment, which you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have empathy, I don’t think. And also, the cold, scientific approach, I believe, has led to a lot of suffering on this planet.
Tippett: I mean, you also experienced — because, I think, you were open, because you were seeing, observing — you also experienced empathy on the part of the chimpanzees you were studying, right? I mean, there’s that moment with David Greybeard that you’ve described, about offering him a piece of fruit, which he did not take, but he took your hand instead.
Goodall: No, he took it and dropped it, and then gently squeezed my fingers, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other.
Tippett: Which you understood as him sensing your motivation and honoring it.
Goodall: Well, the thing was, we totally understood each other, in a language that clearly predated human spoken language; a language of the gestural and postural languages. They’re almost the same: holding hands, patting one another, kissing, embracing. You know, our gestures, when we communicate nonverbally, are virtually the same as the chimpanzees. We also swagger and shake our fists, and [laughs] male chimpanzees sometimes remind me of a number of human male politicians, I have to say. They swagger, and they bristle, and they try to look big and important, and intimidate by bunching their lips in a furious scowl. I’ll leave it there. [laughs]
[music: “Confectionary” by Blue Dot Studios]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today exploring what it means to be human, with the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall.
[music: “Confectionary” by Blue Dot Studios]
So 1960, you went to Gombe. You began to write. Your work became well-known, as you said, in many ways. You’ve described 1986. In 1986, you helped to organize a conference of primatologists, in Chicago, around chimpanzee behavior in different environments. And you actually describe that not just as a turning point, but, in some places, as a “Road to Damascus moment.” Could you tell that story, what happened to you there?
Goodall: Yes, well, by that time, by 1986, I had my Ph.D., I’d built up a research station, and best of all, I could spend hours alone in the rainforest. And that’s where I felt that deep, spiritual connection to the natural world, and also came to understand the interconnectedness of all living things in this tapestry of life where each species, no matter how insignificant, plays a probably vital role in the whole pattern. And I imagined continuing in that way, well, for the rest of my life. Why not?
And then we organized — it was when I published that big book, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. And it had all my scientific observations, but it also had all the stories, because a story, an anecdote, can be a very carefully recorded observation. It’s an anecdote, because you only see it once, but those anecdotes are sometimes the key to unlocking a puzzle. They’re terribly important. And a collection of anecdotes, stories, has been very, very important in my research.
Anyway, there I am, arranging to bring — there were, I think, six other study sites back then, and we invited scientists from each, and also a few from noninvasive, captive research, like big zoo groups, for example.
But we had one session on conservation and one session on conditions in some captive situations. And both were utterly shocking. I mean, I knew there was deforestation going on; I was totally unaware of the extent of it. And that’s way back then, in 1986: chimpanzee numbers decreasing; the rise of the bushmeat trade as the commercial hunting of wild animals for food; the live animal hunting — shooting mothers so that you can sell their babies, locally as pets, or trade them overseas. And that was a huge shock.
And then the captive situation, that was even worse, seeing our closest relatives, who can live up to — well, more than 60 years, in 5 foot by 5 foot medical research labs, surrounded by iron bars, totally alone, nothing to do, just because their bodies are so like ours that we share 98.6 percent of our DNA. So I didn’t make a decision. I just knew when I left, I’d gained so much from the chimpanzees, I had to try and do something to help.
That’s why I call it my Damascus moment. It was like I went as a scientist, and I left as a — I suppose you’d call me an activist or something like that. Just happened. I knew I had to do something.
Tippett: It’s quite astonishing to me, too, though, that the next move you made really was very similar to the approach you took, the skills you had learned and cultivated, in studying in Gombe. Seeing the plight of chimpanzees then led you, in fact, to be an activist in terms of the plight of human beings that led to forests disappearing and to these kinds of atrocities perpetrated on these animals; on our kin.
I believe that the title of your book In the Shadow of Man, in 1971, was that chimpanzees live in the shadow of man as we had evolved to overshadow them with our powers of thought and speech. But what you also then picked up was how we had evolved and become a threat to the natural world from which we emerged and with which we remained in kinship.
Goodall: Yes, absolutely, and it’s a big puzzle. The biggest difference between us, chimps, and the other animals is the explosive development of our intellect. So because science is now acknowledging that animals are not the machines they once thought, there’s a huge flurry of information, really exciting, about animal intelligence. It ranges from chimpanzees using computers in clever ways, and elephants with their very close social bonds and strong relationships between herd members, and crows, who turn out to be able to actually use and make tools, and pigs — you know, they’re as intelligent as dogs; more intelligent than some. And now we know the octopus is highly intelligent, and we know trees communicate with each other.
Tippett: Exactly — plant life, the intelligence of plants.
Goodall: Yes. So here we are with this intellect that’s enabled us to do something very different from all the animal successes, and that’s design a rocket, for example, that went up to Mars, and a rocket that’s been crawling around, taking photos for us to see. So at one time, people thought, maybe we can live on Mars. Well, we now know that’s not possible. And bizarre, isn’t it, that the most intellectual creature, surely, that’s ever lived on the planet is destroying its only home. And I always believe it’s because there’s a disconnect between that clever, clever brain and human heart, love and compassion. And I truly believe, only when head and heart work in harmony can we attain our true human potential.
Tippett: But again, that empathic scientific eye that you brought, in Gombe, of wondering how you might behave in that situation, when you flew over Gombe in a small plane — that was another moment that shaped the approach you took to doing your part with our species. [laughs]
Goodall: I’ve always believed that if you want to really understand and to be able to talk to people about something, that you’d need firsthand experience, which is why I forced myself into the medical research labs and began a long, long struggle, but which finally — success.
Tippett: To stop research on chimpanzees.
Goodall: Yes, and maybe I should divert a little bit here, just to say that in dealing with these people in the labs, a lot of animal rights people stopped talking to me. They said, “How can you sit down with them?” I said, “If you don’t sit down and talk to people, how can you expect they’re going to change?”
So I also had previously learnt the value of, don’t be confrontational. So I told them stories, because I don’t believe that people change because they’re bullied. I believe people change because they change from within. So I didn’t blame them for what they were doing, I just gave stories and showed pictures of the Gombe chimps lazing around and grooming and playing and swinging through the trees. Then, in their minds, they’d probably never even seen that before. So that’s how I dealt with them.
But then, yes, going to Africa to learn firsthand about why were chimpanzees disappearing, what was going on, and learning a great deal about it. But even as I was learning about the chimps, I was learning about the crippling poverty of so many people living in and around chimp habitat.
Tippett: It’s like you looked at the ecosystem that gave rise to poverty and that gave rise to this distorted relationship to the land, which had these ripple effects on the chimpanzees and the other great apes, and that you started stitching an ecosystem back together again.
Goodall: Well, they did. But that’s the point.
Tippett: They did. So they were your partners. You listened to them, I think, and let them lead.
Goodall: They have become our partners. They depend on the forest. Protecting it isn’t just for the wildlife, it’s for their own future.
[music: “Cloudcover” by Blue Dot Studios]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Jane Goodall.
You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do, on the On Being podcast feed, wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Cloudcover” by Blue Dot Studios]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m with the primatologist Jane Goodall. Over 60 years ago, she first went to the Gombe forest in what is now Tanzania, and transformed the understanding of Western science and culture about the closest kin to humanity. We’re exploring what she’s learned, and is still teaching, about our species. She’s been talking about her more recent adventures, which took her out of the forest: first, advocating in the human habitat of research laboratories, towards ending experimentation on great apes; and then into a unique method of holistic, community-based conservation around Gombe, called Tacare. Three decades ago she also founded the Roots & Shoots movement, with the inspiration of 12 teenagers on her porch in Tanzania. It’s now in more than 60 countries.
Did Roots & Shoots emerge out of Tacare?
Goodall: No, Roots & Shoots emerged because Tacare was expensive to operate. We were already starting in some other African countries. So I was going around the world — gradually further and further around the world — talking to people about the problems in Africa and the reasons for them, and hoping to raise, certainly awareness, but maybe some money. And I kept meeting young people — this was in 1990 — young people who seemed to have lost hope. I’m talking mostly about university students, some high school.
And they were mostly just apathetic, but some were depressed, really depressed, and some were angry. And when I asked them why they felt that way, they all said more or less the same. And that’s in Asia, in North and South America, in Europe — and by then I hadn’t gone to the Middle East, but I know they say the same there now — “because,” they said, “you’ve compromised our future, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
So you’ve heard that saying, “We haven’t inherited this planet from our ancestors, we’ve borrowed it from our children”? But we haven’t borrowed, we’ve stolen. And we’re still stealing, today.
Tippett: Yes, these themes are as alive now.
Would you — all of the nuance of the title, of the name, Roots & Shoots, I think also really speaks to the philosophy of this. Would you just describe that?
Goodall: I’d love to, yes. I’ve already said how I love trees. I think probably, my very favorite individual tree has to be Beech, in my garden. And when Beech began to grow, over 100 years ago, actually, it was from a pretty tiny seed. And if I had picked it up at that time, it would’ve seemed so small and weak, a little growing shoot and a few little roots. And yet, there is what I call magic. It’s a life force in that little seed, so powerful that to reach the water that the tree will need, those little roots can work through rocks and eventually, push them aside. And that little shoot, to reach the sunlight which the tree will need for photosynthesis, can work its way through cracks in a brick wall, and eventually, knock it down. And so we see the bricks and the walls as all the problems, social and environmental, that we have inflicted on the planet. So it’s a message of hope: hundreds and thousands of young people around the world can break through and can make this a better world.
And we’ve got members in kindergarten, university, and everything in between. And it’s my greatest reason for hope, because everywhere I go, these young people are telling me, showing me, shining eyes, what they’re doing, what they’ve been doing, what they plan to do, to make the world better.
Tippett: In your book Reason for Hope, you use the language of moral evolution, and even spiritual evolution, as your hope for our species. And I wonder what that means for you, and how do you think about the contours of that challenge? You know, that was in 1999 that you wrote that book — 20 years on, in a changed place and in a strange, strange time.
Goodall: Yes. Well, I think that during this time we’ve seen a very big move towards more moral behavior, greater understanding. And you can just trace it very clearly in our attitude to animals around the world, the growth of these organizations that are protecting animals from cruelty. And then, on the other hand, you’ve got a proliferation of organizations trying to help victims, human victims of domestic violence, and orphans, and refugees, and migrants. So we’re getting there, but some people are much more — [laughs] much further advanced than others.
Tippett: Well, I think that’s something that you became aware of in your study of chimpanzees over time, and that you’ve always been aware of in the human condition, is our capacity for great empathy and play and creativity and intelligence, and also, cruelty and atrocity.
Goodall: OK, I was shocked to find chimpanzees have this dark, aggressive side, like us. It made them more like us than I thought they were, which is a pretty sad statement to have to make. But I think only humans are capable of true evil, because a chimpanzee will kill, but it’s a spur of the moment. It’s an emotion. It’s an emotional response to a situation, whereas we can sit down, far away from an intended victim, and in cold blood plan out the most brutal forms of torture. That’s the difference. And that’s our intellect that has enabled us to think in those terms.
Tippett: There’s irony that you have spent these years, these decades now since that Damascus experience of, as you say, when you realized you had to be — that you became not just a scientist, but an activist, and you needed to be working with human beings in changing our relationship to the natural world. There’s just kind of this inverse — the stories, the early stories in your early writing, and the films — there’s almost this dreamlike quality to the fact that you, this young Englishwoman without a college degree, who had always wanted to go to Africa and always loved animals, that you were able; and you were able to go work with Louis Leakey and become a scientist and be in this extraordinary place where you were so at home.
And then you have ended up, as part of the calling to that same purpose, spending most of your time outside that forest, spending a lot of time in airplanes and on the road. You’ve asked this question in writing: “What if I had known that … my efforts would keep me more or less permanently on the road? … Would I have been strong enough, committed enough, to start out along such a hard road?”
But I sense that you still feel that the answer to that is yes.
Goodall: I think so. I don’t know; I look back over my life and see all these turning points when I could have done this, or I needn’t have done it. I think I’ve made the right decisions. There was all these little things that happened — meeting Louis Leakey, and him taking me to Olduvai and seeing how I reacted to rhinos and lions and deciding I was the person he’d been looking for. But you know, it all goes back to having this amazing mother. Mum let me go, alone on a boat, to Africa. It wasn’t done, in those days. Yes, young men did the world tour. But it wasn’t like students today go off and have experiences backpacking. It was totally different.
And the other thing she did, which I think helped to make me who I am, after the war — you can imagine that during the war, the sound of a German voice sent chills up one’s spine. We hated the Nazis, and we hated Hitler. And yet, after the war, when my uncle went out to Germany, and it was the English sector, he headed it up, and he found a German couple with three children, who wanted somebody to come and teach the children good English. And mum let me go. And she let me go because, afterward she told me, just because of Hitler and the Nazis doesn’t mean Germans are bad people. She wanted me to see for myself that we are, beyond all else, human beings, and circumstances and culture and nationality change the way we behave, but inside it all, we’re human.
I think that was a very good lesson for me to learn.
Tippett: I think it’s such an important lesson to put in front of our species now, because the challenges are great, the existential challenge of what it means to be human in this century.
Goodall: You know, amazingly, although I don’t think I imagined it to start with, but Roots & Shoots has developed a very strong ethical set of moral values. And I’ve found, increasingly, that those I call the alumni, who were part of Roots & Shoots at school or college, they hang onto those values. Like in China, people come up to me and say, “But of course, I care about the environment. I was in Roots & Shoots in primary school.” I come in all their schoolbooks; it’s interesting, isn’t it? So we have a huge group of young people in China who are passionate about the environment and protecting animals and all the rest of it.
Tippett: And again, it’s so important to hear that story, which is a story of things that are happening, but it contrasts with big, sweeping generalizations that get made.
I mean, I think we tend to turn — especially in a moment where people are so fearful in their bodies, which is very hard for us to behave at our best, when we’re so fearful in our bodies, so confronted with uncertainty. But we turn these great challenges before us into big fights. And I just — I want to read, this is a passage from Reason for Hope; and you said this a minute ago, but I don’t think it can be emphasized too much if we think about what’s before us, in terms of how do we completely rearrange our relationship with the natural world, how do we remake the world around what has surfaced in this pandemic, of what is simply unsustainable and inhumane? And I think of you in Gombe, going in to be present to mysterious kin of humanity, and observing, and what you learned about approaching the other.
And here’s something you wrote in Reason for Hope: “It is my task to try to change their attitudes in this matter; they will not listen if I raise my voice and point an accusing finger. Instead they will become angry and hostile. And that will be the end of the dialogue. Real change will only come from within; laws and regulations are useful, but sadly easy to flout. So I keep the anger — which of course I feel — as hidden and controlled as possible. I try to reach gently into their hearts.”
There’s that “heart” word again.
Goodall: Well, it’s lucky, isn’t it. I always wanted to write. I’ve loved writing, and I think I was given it on purpose, gifts. And one gift was a healthy body — not too many 86-year-olds can do what I was doing before the pandemic. [laughs] And I’m working harder now than even on a tour, I have to say, from morning till night. As you can hear, my voice is getting hoarse — podcasts and video messages to send people, and emails. It doesn’t stop.
But the healthy body is one, but also, the gift of communication. Writing and speaking is a gift. Do you work at it? Yes, of course. But nevertheless, it was a gift that I discovered when I was so terrified to give my first ever lecture, which was to 5,000 people in what’s now dark, Constitution Hall, for Geographic, in Washington, D.C. I was terrified. And for the first, I swear, three or four minutes, I don’t think I breathed, although people said they didn’t notice it. And then suddenly, there I was, 5,000 people, and it was like something came; this gift; like, yes, I want to share with them. I think it’s a wonderful thing to share.
Something like that. [laughs]
Tippett: You’ve often quoted this line that your grandmother Danny conveyed to you, a biblical mantra: “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” Is that something that’s with you now?
Goodall: Absolutely; definitely. And you know, I made my grandmother what we called a “bible box”: it was six little matchboxes glued together, so it was like a little chest with drawers that pulled out with a paperclip. I read every single chapter of the Bible; it took about three months, I think. And it was a secret; it was for her Christmas present. And I wrote out the text on one side and where it came from in the Bible on the other. And so I was setting off on one of my endless tours, and Judy was seeing me off, my sister, you know. And she said, “Oh, have a text before you go.” So I pulled out a text, which read, “He who has once set his hand to the ploughshare and turneth back is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.” So Judy said, “OK, off you go.”
Do you know that before two other tours, I got exactly the same? We always put them back in.
Tippett: [laughs] Oh no!
Goodall: And just last week, when I was moaning about how busy I am, she said, “Oh, have a text,” and it came up. We both nearly — I think we were speechless. [laughs] And nobody else in the house has ever had that one. So you see? My duty lies clear before me. [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] I think so. I think that we all owe you a debt of gratitude for accepting the adventures and the sacrifices, and the hard work that come with them.
If I just asked you in closing — it’s a huge question, but I’m curious about how you might just start answering it today — how your sense of what it means to be human keeps evolving; what it means to be human.
Goodall: What it means to be human — I mean, I am prosaic. I know that we’re part of a natural progression of life-forms, that we’re not — in many ways, we are so much a part of the animal kingdom. And then what’s differentiated us is this intellect. It was some point earlier, you talked about our intelligence. But we’re not really a very intelligent species, are we, when we destroy our home.
But it’s our intellect that enables us — anyway, so I think — not everyone agrees with me, but I believe that a trick of this development of the intellect, which is so startling really, was the fact that we developed this way of communicating — speaking. So I can tell you things you don’t know. You can tell me things I don’t know. We can teach children about things that aren’t present. And all that has enabled us to ask questions like, Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of it all? Is there a purpose? Is there a spiritual guiding force out there? And I believe part of being human is a questioning, a curiosity, a trying to find answers, but an understanding that there are some answers that, at least on this planet, this life, this life-form, we will not be able to answer.
And I get kind of peeved when scientists will say, “But we know how the universe started. It started with the Big Bang.” Well, yes, but, sorry, but [laughs] what led to the Big Bang, please? You know?
And you know what’s fascinating? More and more highly intellectual people — philosophers of science, physicists, and so on — and Francis Collins, he started off as an agnostic, and then when he began unraveling the human genome, he changed completely and became a believer. [Editor’s note: Francis Collins became a believer prior to his work on the Human Genome Project.] And all of these great brains have said there is no way that what’s happened is just chance. What that intelligence behind the universe is — what it is, who it is; probably what it is — I haven’t the faintest idea, but I’m absolutely sure that there is something. And seeking for that something is part of being human.
Tippett: Well, Jane Goodall, thank you so much. It’s a real honor to speak with you, and a pleasure. And I was very glad, as I was getting ready for this, that I’d been in your presence physically, those years ago, because I can imagine you. And thank you for all the gifts you’ve given to all of us.
Goodall: Well, thank you. And I’ve loved talking to you, and I was just going to press my video. Have you got a video to press, so I can see you?
Tippett: Oh, I don’t, actually. I only have sound. [laughs]
Goodall: Oh, you can see me. There you are.
Tippett: [laughs] I’m sorry. I’m sad about that. But maybe, in this strange world we inhabit, we will physically be in the same place again, one of these days.
Goodall: Well, I don’t really see why not.
Tippett: Good, I’m glad to hear you say that. [laughs]
Goodall: And by the way, look, you can see me, I can’t see you, but there’s Rusty. See? There he is, special, special dog. And here is mum. Two key people in my life, and David Greybeard — David Greybeard was up here, but I don’t know where he’s — he’s gone walkies.
Tippett: [laughs] But he’s in the house.
Goodall: Well, it was great talking to you.
Tippett: Thank you so much.
[music: “Pecan Grove” by Blue Dot Studios]
Jane Goodall is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, which has a presence in more than 20 countries. She’s been the subject of many films and documentaries, including Jane Goodall: The Hope. Her many books include In the Shadow of Man, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, and, most recently, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times.
Special thanks this week to Sumanth Prabhaker and Orion Magazine for making this conversation with Jane Goodall possible. You can find an edited and illustrated print version of this interview at orionmagazine.org.
[music: “Pecan Grove” by Blue Dot Studios]
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, Gautam Srikishan, Lillie Benowitz, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Matt Martinez, and Amy Chatelaine.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear, singing at the end of our show, is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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