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Jane Goodall on the mysteries of primate behaviour


The renowned primatologist talks chimpanzees, culture and classification with Andrew Masterson.


Jane Goodall with a chimpanzee.
Michael Neugebauer / Courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute

Ever since 1971, when she published In the Shadow of Man, her groundbreaking field study of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, Jane Goodall has been the best known primatologist on the planet. In the decades since, she has remained an indomitable campaigner and conservationist, and now at the age of 83 she sits atop a naturalists’ Olympus that she shares perhaps only with David Attenborough.

In 1999, after almost 40 years visiting the chimps of Gombe, she co-authored a letter to Nature, in which she sought to calibrate the use of the world “culture” in relation to wild chimpanzees.

Multiple long-term studies, she and her colleagues wrote, showed “significant cultural variation” between colonies.

“The combined repertoire of these behaviour patterns in each chimpanzee community is itself highly distinctive,” the letter concluded, “a phenomenon characteristic of human cultures but previously unrecognised in non-human species.”

Our understanding of what chimpanzee “culture” might mean took a further turn last year, thanks to another paper published in Nature.

The study, led by Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (one of Goodall’s co-authors on the 1999 letter), reported that in several chimp colonies males had been observed banging rocks against particular trees and then piling them up in a fashion “reminiscent of human cairns”.

This, the authors suggested, amounted to “ritualised behavioural display”. Ritual, it was noted, implied abstract and conceptual thoughts, necessary components of lore, of perhaps propitiating spirits. Could chimpanzees, mused some of the commentators, actually hold religious beliefs?

“I’ve never really spent a lot of time thinking about that,” says Goodall.

“It’s certainly true that one by one all the things that we thought were unique to us have been shown not to be unique after all. We’re learning more and more about the extraordinary displays of intelligence and the ability to learn of other species.”

Take bumblebees, she adds, by way of example. They can be taught to roll little pebbles into holes, and other bumblebees can learn to do the same thing just by watching.

“What I’m getting to is that we should never be too dismissive of the use of words like ritual for chimpanzees,” she continues.

“I haven’t studied this particular behaviour in these chimps. But we have the same sort of thing in Gombe.

“The chimps, mostly the males, will approach this waterfall and they do a kind of – well, it’s almost like a ritual display. They will go upright and then move forward, swaying from side to side with their feet in the shallow stream – something they normally totally avoid – and pick up and throw rocks ahead of them.

“So, I don’t know. I’m not prepared to say you can’t use the word ‘ritual’. It should be studied, shouldn’t it?”

Indeed it should, and encouraging more people to study more things is very much the raison d’etre these days of Dame Jane. (Along with a great many other titles, she is a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.)

She spends around 300 days a year on the move, some of it in her beloved Gombe, but much roaming wide in her multiple roles as head of the Jane Goodall Institute, an official United nations Messenger for Peace, and board member of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Over the years her work in primatology has attracted its fair share of flak from others in the field – mostly because her habit of giving names to her studied chimps provokes suspicions of anthropomorphism.

Regardless, even her most trenchant critics concede that she has done more than anyone in history to put great apes, and the need to protect them, in the public mind.

It’s curious, then, that she is ambivalent when asked about the ongoing symbolic battle among some conservationists to have chimpanzees removed from their present genus, Pan, and placed alongside humans, as Homo.

“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s rather taking me outside my field of expertise. I don’t know why in the first place we’re Homo and Pan and so on.

“Certainly, if they became Homo some people would be really upset and see it as demeaning humans. Other people would say that it gives us a better handle to give chimps certain rights. But the actual science of it? I don’t know.”

Whatever its virtues, it is a topic around which court cases occasionally accrete, along with much attendant publicity. In 2015 a US court dismissed a bid to have a captive chimp recognised as having human rights. The same year a judge in Buenos Aires found that a captive orang-utan was indeed entitled to certain human-like rights.

Jane Goodall may well thus be asked more than once about the topic during her forthcoming tour of Australia. It will be fascinating to see how her thoughts on it develop.

Jane Goodall will appear in major Australian and New Zealand cities between Friday, June 9, and Sunday, June 25. More information and tickets.

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Andrew Masterson is an author and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.
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