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The Last Word: Jane Goodall on Fighting Sexism and What Chimpanzees Taught Her

The primatologist also discusses the horrors of factory farming and what keeps her motivated six decades into her career

Famed anthropologist, conservationist, and activist Jane Goodall should be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the start of her field work with chimpanzees in Tanzania. Instead, like the rest of the world, she’s practicing social isolation at home in England. She recently wrote an op-ed in Slate that correctly points out that COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for how we interact with the natural world: “The global demand for wildlife, the destruction of the natural world, and the spread of diseases are already having a catastrophic effect on the world as we know it,” she wrote. “We are now feeling the true cost of wildlife trafficking.”

Dr. Goodall’s work has changed our basic understanding of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Rolling Stone caught up with Goodall, 86, for our special Climate Issue before the outbreak shut down the planet.

You’re still working in your eighties. What drives you now?
In short, what drives me are my own grandchildren and youth all around the world. There is an old saying that goes, “We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” But I don’t believe we’re “borrowing” the planet from our children — we’re stealing it from them. And if we don’t stop our reckless behavior, then there won’t be a future for our children to inherit.

If you could share one fact about your research, what would it be?
That we humans have been terribly arrogant. We are part of and not separated from the rest of the animal kingdom — we are not the only sentient, sapient beings on the planet.

After more than six decades of research, what’s your best advice for sustaining a long career?
Even before I ever stepped foot in Africa, my mother would always tell me that if I truly wanted something, then I would have to work hard for it and never give up. When I was eventually allowed to begin my study in Gombe [in Tanzania], she even came with me and encouraged me to keep going. Whenever I came back to the base camp in the early months discouraged by not finding any chimps, she would remind me that I was learning much more than I realized: their eating habits, sleeping patterns, daily foraging paths. One’s work won’t always feel fulfilling or meaningful, so I believe that finding meaning in the little details or the small victories is key to a sustained career.

You had to deal with a lot of sexism, especially early in your career. How did you overcome it and press on?
I believed in my work and knew that if I could just get a seat at the table then I would be able to quiet any detractor with the data I had collected. Yes, I had to work 10 times harder than the average man just to get the same level of recognition, but once I had made a name for myself, I let the data speak for me. I also realized early on, once I had started to gain some notoriety, that the future careers of many women rested on my shoulders, and that if I could show them the way and open those doors for them, then it would be that much easier for the next generation of women scientists to break into their chosen field in a substantial way.

It’s been said humans are the only animal to foul our nests. Chimps are our closest relatives, so what do they do differently and better?
I learned much from the chimpanzees, from whom we differ genetically by only just over 1 percent. For one thing I found that there are good and less good mothers in chimpanzee society, as in our own. The good mothers are protective but not overprotective, affectionate, and playful. Most importantly they support their infants if they get into difficulties. And now we can look back over six decades of research (July 14th, 2020 is the anniversary of the day I first set foot in what is now Gombe National Park) and see that the offspring of the supportive mothers typically do better. The males are more assertive, tend to reach a higher position in the hierarchy, and probably sire more offspring, and the females make better mothers themselves. I believe that support for our own children during their first few years is equally important, and I took many lessons from one of the very best Gombe mothers, Flo, as I raised my own son.

Chimpanzees have interesting sex lives. What have they taught you about marriages and unions between people?
Well, chimps aren’t monogamous, so I don’t think you’d find any great lessons on marriage from them. But I will say that we can learn a lot about demeanor and how to properly carry one’s self in a community. Although many times the alpha male will rule (along with an alpha female in the community), other chimps have rose through the ranks of their community by acting egalitarian and helping others. It was initially believed that animals would never act or protect one another when not in the interest of the individual, but we’ve witnessed cases of chimp to chimp adoption and feats of altruism never before thought possible, so I think a lot of people could learn how to treat others better by studying chimp behavior.

You’re a vegetarian and have talked about the perils of factory farming. What’s the best argument against eating meat?
This is a topic I lecture about. Billions of animals in “factory farms” are kept in horrendously cruel conditions. Also, these farms clear huge areas to grow the grain to feed them, removing millions of acres of old-growth forest in the process. Massive amounts of fossil fuel are then used to take the food to the animals, animals to slaughter, and meat to tables. All of these animals produce methane gas during digestion, one of the most virulent greenhouse gases. So, if you care about the wellbeing of animals, the preservation of forests, and/or limiting greenhouse gas emissions, then cutting down on eating meat can help with all of these issues.

What can your research on chimpanzees tell us about the climate crisis?
One of the most important lessons learned from studying the chimpanzees is how every single living creature is connected in the great tapestry of life. Even the removal of the smallest organism from an ecosystem can have disastrous effects. This is, in part, why I started our TACARE [Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education] approach, or “Take Care.” It was started, in part, after I flew over Gombe forest in the early Nineties and witnessed the sheer destruction and removal of the majority of the forest that I had grown to love. It was then that I realized that we would never be able to save the chimpanzees’ habitat if we were not able to first help the local communities surrounding the forest.

Are you hopeful we can reverse the climate crisis?
Obviously, I am far more concerned with our current state of affairs than I was 60 years ago, but I am also hopeful that more and more nations are taking the threat of climate change more seriously than ever before. I am also hopeful that the younger generations realize the threat facing them. I find inspiration in the youth that I meet around the globe that feel the need to take issues into their own hands. In fact, it seems to me that the younger generations are the ones taking climate change the most seriously out of everyone.

We lost an estimated billion animals in the Australian brush fires. How do you stay optimistic about the animal kingdom?
You must stay optimistic for the future, because if we lose hope and let apathy guide us, then we are a lost cause already. Wherever I travel, I try to spread a sense of hope. We still have a very limited time to turn this all around, but we must convince the entire globe and, as Dylan Thomas said so eloquently, not allow ourselves to go gentle into that good night.