Renowned Primatologist Jane Goodall Offers Reason for Hope

Even in the face of melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, Goodall remains hopeful that our planet can be saved.

Coral Gables (April 30, 2013) — Even in the face of melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, industrial practices that are destroying the atmosphere, and deforestation that’s pushed many animals to the brink of extinction, Jane Goodall remains hopeful that our planet can be saved.

The power of the human brain to hurtle a probe to Mars, where, nearly a year after landing it is still “creeping around” taking measurements, is one thing that makes the renowned British primatologist optimistic, she said before an audience of thousands of students and others on April 29 at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center.

In her lecture, “Reason for Hope,” Goodall also retraced her life’s path—from being a child fascinated by insects and animals to her groundbreaking research on the social and familial life of chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

As a 4-year-old living on a farm in the London countryside, one of her chores was to collect the eggs from hens. But her curiosity got the best of her. “Where does the egg come out of the hen,” she wondered. So she sought out a hiding place in an empty hen house and watched, later telling her mother the story of how a hen lays an egg. “Wasn’t that the making of a little scientist? All of that curiosity might have been crushed if I had a different mother,” she said.

She grew up poor, with only books, radio, and the stories of wise elders to intrigue her. She read Tarzan of the Apes when she was 10, and knew then that she wanted to study animals.

“But I was the wrong sex,” Goodall explained. “Girls didn’t have those kinds of opportunities. That was only for boys.” Her mother encouraged her not to give up, igniting in Goodall a “freedom to think and dream.”

At 23 Goodall became an assistant to famed archaeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, who eventually sent her to Tanzania to study a group of wild chimpanzees, believing such an investigation would shed new light on humans’ evolutionary past.

While at Gombe, she learned all sorts of things about chimps—how they move in small groups and even how they make a bed. She recalled seeing one chimpanzee using a blade of grass as a tool to extract termites from a mound to eat them. After gaining the trust of that chimp, whom she named David Greybeard, other chimpanzees began to lose their fear of her, allowing Goodall to piece together their complex social lives.

Goodall learned that chimpanzees have a male dominated society, that females typically give birth for the first time at 12 or 13 years old, and that the bond between mother and child is strong, lasting for decades.

She also learned that chimps can solve problems, and that they feel despair and pain. They express love, compassion, and altruism, Goodall said, noting a 12-year-old male chimpanzee who adopted an orphaned infant chimp, sharing food with him and protecting him.

Chimpanzees, she learned, also have a dark side. She observed “violent and brutal” behavior such as gang attacks between neighboring societies.

With her mascot, a stuffed monkey named Mr. H, perched on the podium, Goodall said “intellect differentiates us from chimps” but then questioned why, with the caliber of intellect we posses, humans are “destroying our only home.” The burning of fossil fuels, global warming, and depletion of natural resources is taking a toll on the planet, Goodall said.

But hope also comes in the form of nature’s resilience and the energy of young people who want to make the world a better place, she explained.

The world, she said, is full of Martin Luther King Jrs., Nelson Mandelas, and other people with indomitable spirit that “make me never give up on our species.” Victims who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombings are a perfect example, she said, noting that some of them already have vowed to run in next year’s race wearing prosthetic legs.

Goodall, the primatologist, anthropologist, UN Messenger of Peace, and ’Cane (she received an honorary degree from UM in 1993), is now an activist, fighting to protect chimpanzees from being used in research experiments and to preserve their habitats from encroaching human development.

Through her Jane Goodall Institute, micro-credit programs are helping African villagers, particularly women, to obtain capital for small business ventures by pooling their own money. The program has spread to Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Senegal.

“I do have hope for the future,” said Goodall.

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Dr. Goodall answers questions from members of UM's student media prior to her lecture.

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