“I see hope as a thing requiring action.” Jane Goodall on changing perceptions, pandemic lessons – and the search for her successors

As a prestigious new grant is announced in her honour, the groundbreaking ethologist, activist and Templeton Prize laureate looks back on her career, and to the future.

By Simon Ingram
Published 5 May 2022, 22:48 BST
An image of conservationist Jane Goodall

“She transformed the way we understand ourselves.” Dr Jane Goodall, D.B.E., photographed for National Geographic in 2010.

Photograph by Martin Schoeller National Geographic Image Collection

WHEN JANE GOODALL closes her eyes, she sees a lost world. We can see it, too: those 1960s Kodachrome-and-khaki photographs of an elfin young woman, incongruous but at ease amongst the muscular landscapes of tree-clad hills in Tanzania's Gombe Stream. There's Jane, binoculars in hand. Or beneath a lamp-lit mosquito net, compiling notes. Locking eyes – and souls – with a chimpanzee. Images that immortalised a connection between our species, bored into the public consciousness and rewrote the map of what it meant to be a human, or an animal. Or – as was indeed the point – both. 

“I’m just overwhelmed by nostalgia because those days will never come again,” the 88-year old ethologist, primatologist and activist tells National Geographic (UK).

When I first went to Tanzania in 1957, there was no talk of conservation. Forests stretched right across Africa. Nobody could have predicted climate change, the terrifying loss of biodiversity... perhaps a few very bright people were worrying. But the challenges confronting people today who are setting out to make a difference, or to find out more about the natural world, are very, very, very, different.”

A young chimp named Flint reaches for ethologist Jane Goodall. Flint was the first infant born in Gombe after Jane’s arrival.

Jane Goodall tends a campfire at Gombe Stream, 1962. Her writing for National Geographic magazine that year would be an instantly iconic account of a new frontier in immersive ethology.

Photograph by Baron Hugo van Lawick National Geographic

Jane Goodall lectures before members of the National Academy of Sciences on her studies in Africa of chimps, 1964.

Photograph by George F. Mobley Nat Geo Image Collection

A life’s legacy

In 2021 Goodall became the recipient of the annual Templeton Prize, an award notable for its multi-disciplinary scope – a quality clear from a glance at those that have received it since its inception in 1972.

The British scientist joined an eclectic list of Laureates, including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Mother Teresa – and many others, spanning disciplines from theology to philosophy, mathematics, genetics and cosmology. 

Conceived by and named for the late financier-philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it states its claim as 'The World's Most Interesting Prize'. At £1.1 million, it is also considered the biggest annual award given to an individual – cheekily surpassing that of the Nobel Prize to underscore Templeton's belief that “advances in the spiritual domain are no less important than those in other areas of human endeavour.”

It's in this spirit that on May 5, 2022, Goodall stood in the vaulted environs of London's Natural History Museum's Hintze Hall to announce a new grant in partnership with The National Geographic Society and Templeton World Charity Foundation: $2.7 million (£2.1 million) in research grant money to fund three researchers who, in the words of Templeton World Charity Foundation President Andrew Serazin, will “work away from the comforts and contrivances of the laboratory, in the natural world, to shed light on its secrets.” In other words, to fund the next Jane Goodall.  

(Read about 26 changemakers fighting for the planet.)

“There's a tendency to see nature with a capital 'N',” says Serazin. “Impersonal, just a bunch of geochemistry, carbon cycles, sea temperature rises. In that quantification I think sometimes you can lose what's really happening in nature... why it's worth saving.”  

The National Geographic Society, which as a global non-profit has awarded over 15,000 of its own grants to date, has been tasked to identify and support the work of three scientists working with wild creatures on land or sea for at least a four year period. The Society's CEO is Jill Tiefenthaler

“These are very big shoes to fill,” she says. "We're looking for the kind of person Jane is: unconventional, passionate about research – and with a really strong desire to connect with diverse audiences globally, as Jane has done.”

Tiefenthaler recalls meeting Goodall, who the National Geographic Society began funding in 1961. “Jane talked about how her mother gave her some great advice: that she needed to always work hard, and take advantage of every opportunity that was given to her. Because of the opportunity that she grabbed – and her persistence, resilience and curiosity – she transformed the way we understand ourselves.”  

Left: Top:

Perched 1,500 feet above a precipitous valley, 29-year-old Jane Goodall sights chimpanzees afar, then moves in among them. Equipped with blanket, flashlight, tinned beans, and coffee, she often stays out alone all night to observe primate sleeping habits. She took her own picture by using a delayed exposure.

Photograph by Jane Goodall, National Geographic
Right: Bottom:

Jane Goodall, pictured here in 1991, was amongst the first naturalists to study primates in their natural environment.

Photograph by Michael 'Nick' Nichols Nat Geo Image Collection

Out of the shadow of man

However different the conservation landscape may be today, Goodall has faced her own challenges during her novel ascendance to scientific icon. Born in London in 1934, the bookish child with a toy chimp became absorbed in tales of adventure, before travelling to Africa to work as a secretary on a Kenyan farm.

Curiosity led her to seek out renowned palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey – and a secretarial secondment soon led to a research role, with Leakey sending the gifted Goodall first to Gombe Stream National Park for her groundbreaking observation work with chimpanzees, then to Cambridge University to study ethology (the science of animal behaviour) where her experiences clashed with the constraints of conventional scientific doctrine.

(Jane Goodall's original tale of chimps still astonishes today.)

“Although I’d never been to college I was doing a PhD,” recalls Goodall. “I was told that I couldn’t talk about chimps having personalities, minds or emotions, as those were unique to us. I shouldn’t have given [the chimps] names, they should have had numbers – that was more scientific.”

Those names – David Greybeard, Humphrey, Flo, Goliath and Mr MacGregor amongst others – were eponymous with Goodall’s challenging of accepted perceptions. That, along with her own charisma and groundbreaking writing in titles such as National Geographic, and books like In the Shadow of Man – would make her a household name. It would also change our understanding of Homo sapiens place in the animal kingdom – and the sentience of those many simply considered ‘things’. 

“I think we can turn things around. We have the knowledge. The skill. We know how to do it. But will we?”

Jane Goodall

“It was actually in the textbooks that the difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom was one of ‘kind.’” She says. “[Humans] were totally isolated, separated by an unbridgeable gap from the rest of the animals – ignoring Darwin, of course. You can’t share your life in a meaningful way with an animal and not realise that was rubbish. I learned that from my dog.”

Goodall describes the de-sentience of animals by some scientists as ‘convenient... it allowed them to do nasty things to them.’ Her empathy amongst species and between humans and nature became a hallmark of her work, as she used the springboard of fame to launch a lifetime of activism – fighting for animal rights, an end to cruelty, and a raising of awareness as to the interconnectivity of the natural and human worlds.   

“Empathy means you understand that the natural world is in danger, that it’s in a delicate state,” she says. “When it comes to animals empathy means that you understand what you do to them matters.”

Goodall cites loss of biodiversity, deforestation and factory farming but also human overpopulation and poverty as critical issues facing our world – all of which have been touched by her own work, particularly through the international education initiative Roots and Shoots and the Jane Goodall Institute, which in 2022 marks its 45th anniversary. 

“It was when I flew over Gombe Stream in the late 1980s, I saw what had been part of this great forest belt [had become] this little island of forest, surrounded by bare hills. It was truly shocking, and just woke me up with a big jump,” she says. “I knew there was deforestation... I had no idea that it would be like that.” 

Jane Goodall writes a letter beneath a mosquito net at her home in Dar Es Salaam, 1991.

Photograph by Michael 'Nick' Nichols Nat Geo Image Collection

Jane Goodall tends to a wildfire in the grounds of Tchimpounga Sanctuary, Congo, 1991.

 

Photograph by Michael 'Nick' Nichols National Geographic Image Collection

Despite the horror, she realised that the devastation was mostly down to poverty, not greed. “It hit me. These people are struggling to survive.” Goodall recalls. “The population’s grown, there’s too many for the land to support and they’re cutting down the the trees in desperation to make more land, to grow food for their families. Or to make money out of charcoal or timber or something like that.”

The next generation

Jane Goodall cites her work helping science understand animal sentience as one of two legacies she is most proud of. “You can now do a degree in animal personality. I couldn’t,” she says. “I was told there was no such thing. When I think how we still treat animals, we’ve got a long way to go... but nevertheless science has changed. Science is now putting money into studying these attributes that animals were not supposed to have.”

The other is international education program Roots and Shoots, which since its inception in 1991, Goodall says, has armed a rising generation with values that are having impact in every branch of society. “People are definitely beginning to care more, and action is growing as they come to understand the problems,” she says. “Children need to be empowered. We need to listen to them and we need to give them a helping hand to undertake the projects they devise. That’s why Roots and Shoots is so special – because it requires young people themselves to make choices. What do you want to do for animals? What do you want to do for the environment? For your community?”

She adds: “Some of those Roots and Shoots kids are now adults, and they’ve taken that respect with them. Some of them are parents, teachers, they’re politicians, they’re lawyers... I’ve had hundreds of letters saying, ‘that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s why I understand.’”

(Read: to prevent pandemics, stop disrespecting nature.)

A frequent speaker on the world and corporate stage – she is a U.N. messenger of peace, amongst many other things – Goodall has first hand experience of how influence from those who will inherit the world can have power over its future even now. 

“I was talking to a whole group of CEOs at a conference in Singapore. And one man told me afterwards, and said, ‘you know Jane, I’ve been really working to get ethics into my corporation, in the country where we source our supplies, along the supply chain, working with the communities involved, making sure that we have ethical practices in our work places, and ethical dealings with our customers.’”

Goodall says he went on to describe his reasons as being consumer pressure, to the finite resources, but that “‘what tipped the balance for me, what really made me determined, was my little girl came home and said: “Daddy – they’re telling me at school that what you’re doing is hurting the environment. That’s not true, is it?’” 

Jane Goodall, 2022. 

Photograph by Tim Cole

The challenge – and the hope

As the search begins for her spiritual successors, Goodall is pragmatic – but ever-hopeful – about the progress of the world they will be seeking to influence, despite the formidable challenges amidst bleak predictions around red lights such as climate change, biodiversity loss and species decline. “I think we can turn things around. We have the knowledge. The skill. We know how to do it. But will we? Because this is the big thing.”

She expresses disappointment that the lessons of the likely zoonotic COVID-19 have had little impact on the human behaviour that may have ultimately caused it. “I hoped people would learn from the pandemic,” she says. “But you know, seeing how people are bouncing back, and immediately back to the old ways... so many seem to have forgotten about it.”

But, “there’s something about human nature. The pandemic brought out the best, and the worst. And I think every major disaster has the potential to bring out the best. If we all believe that it’s hopeless, well then it certainly is." She adds. “If you don’t have hope, why bother? ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die?’ But I see hope as a thing requiring action,” she says.

“We are at the mouth of a very long, dark tunnel. And right at the end of that tunnel is a big, shining star. That’s hope. But it’s no good just sitting at the mouth of the tunnel and hoping that star will somehow come to us. We’ve got to crawl under, climb over, work our way around these obstacles. And we’ve got to encourage people to come with us. More and more of them will gather, talk with each other, realise all [the obstacles] are actually interconnected, and then we might reach that star. And we can.”

As for the likely torch bearers along that tunnel – specifically the recipients of the new grant in her honour – Goodall has some stipulations, and a few words of advice.

“I would certainly hope these ‘next Jane Goodalls’ have empathy. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be getting any money from anyone, according to me,” she says. Should she meet them, “I would try to get some feeling for who they were. And I'd ask them to tell me a story about something, about why they want to do this.”

“If you want to make an impact, you need to be able to tell stories,” Goodall adds. “Telling the right story is really powerful.”

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