This week in history: Birth of Jane Goodall, 1934

On March 3 1934 the primatologist, conservation activist, and UN messenger of peace Jane Goodall was born in London. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and the only human to have been fully accepted into chimpanzee society, Goodall today is a significant figure in the field of animal welfare.

Goodall is best known for her work studying the Kasekala chimpanzee community in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania in the 60s. Her mentor, Louis Leakey, was certain that long-term isolated studies of chimpanzees were vital to better understand their behaviour, and was convinced that Goodall had the correct temperament for the job. In 1960, Goodall set up camp on the shore of Lake Tanganyika on the Gombe Stream Reserve. By establishing the ‘banana club’, a systematic daily feeding method, she was able to build up not only trust, but also complex relationships with the chimpanzees, and remained with them for over 30 years.

Goodall’s lack of conventional scientific methods – she had no formal training in any kind of scientific research – meant that she was able to observe the chimpanzees with a fresh and innovative eye. Her conclusion was controversial: scientists had previously drawn a thick line between animals and humans and stated firmly that they were fundamentally different, but Goodall proved that, “it’s a very wuzzy line, and it’s getting wuzzier all the time as we find animals doing things that we used to think were just human”. The human-like behaviour she observed ranged from the consumption of meat – chimpanzees were previously thought to be vegetarian – to emotional dependence and actions such as ‘swaggering’ and holding hands. Additionally, she discovered that chimpanzees will adapt twigs to use as tools, a previously unheard-of phenomenon.

This similarity between humans and animals so affected Goodall that she became a major figure in animal welfare campaigns, asserting that, “once we are prepared to admit that we’re not the only beings with personality, minds and above all feelings, and then we start to think about the ways we use and abuse so many other sentient beings on this planet, it really gives cause to deep shame”. This is still a major talking point today, and Jane Goodall’s research and discoveries are perhaps a major factor in what drives the discourse forward.

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