Monday, 10 June 2013

Who are We?

In this exclusive interview, we speak with Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE (Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace). We discuss her lifelong work with chimpanzees and great apes, and explore how her observations have shaped our understanding of the fundamental nature of humanity, and our definition of mankind.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, June 2013

"For the first time since life began," writes Mark Lynas, "...a single animal is utterly dominant: the ape species Homo sapiens. Evolution has equipped us with huge brains, stunning adaptability and brilliantly successful technical prowess." He adds that "...humans are now more numerous than any large land animal ever to walk the Earth, and the combined weight of our fleshy biomass outstrips that of most other larger animals put together, with the single exception of our own livestock.... In sum, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the entire planetary ‘net primary productivity’ (everything produced by plants using the power of the sun) is today devoted to sustaining this one species- us...."

As if these achievements were (in some way) underselling our species, Lyons also notes how, " May 2010, for only the second time in 3.7 billion years, a life-form was created on planet Earth with no biological parent. Out of a collection of inanimate chemicals an animate being was forged. This transformation from non-living to living took place not in some primordial soup, still less the biblical Garden of Eden, but in a Californian laboratory …this creator and his colleagues announced to the world that they had made a self-replicating life-form out of the memory of a computer. A bacterial genome had been sequenced, digitised, modified, printed out and booted up inside an empty cell to create the first human organism." (The God Instinct, 2011)

It is perhaps these astonishing capacities that have captivated humanity in its own image, separating our species (in our own minds) from the rest of the animal kingdom. We feel, perhaps inevitably, that with our faculties and capabilities - that we must be 'something more', that we cannot just be a highly adapted and evolved bald-ape.

As Prof. Robin Dunbar notes however, appearances can be deceiving. "...As the genetic revolution unfolded through the 1980s, it became increasingly obvious that, no matter how different we might appear from the other apes, our genetic make-up was rather similar. In fact, more than just similar: it was all but identical. By the end of the decade, our whole understanding of ape evolutionary history had been turned on its head. So far from being a separate evolutionary lineage with deep roots, we humans were in fact embedded within the great ape family. Indeed we were not just embedded within the great ape family, we were kith and kin to the chimpanzees... The universally accepted position is now that the big split in the great ape family is not between humans and other great apes, but between the Asian orang-utan and the four (or should it be five?) species of African great apes (one of which is us humans). Humans are now, strictly speaking, firmly ensconced within the chimpanzee family." (What Makes us Human - Pasternak, 2007)

With every advance in modern understanding comes a form of creative destruction as humanity ceases to be able to define itself. A fact that has led many to muse that "Monkeys are superior to men in this: When a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey. " (Malcolm de Chazal). So what is the true nature of humanity?

In this exclusive interview, we speak with Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE (Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute
and UN Messenger of Peace). We discuss her lifelong work with chimpanzees and great apes, and explore how her observations have shaped our understanding of the fundamental nature of humanity, and our definition of mankind.

Dame Jane Morris Goodall, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. She is considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, Goodall is best known for her 45-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania

In July 1960, Jane Goodall began her landmark study of chimpanzee behavior in what is now Tanzania. Her work at Gombe Stream would become the foundation of future primatological research and redefine the relationship between humans and animals.

In 1977, Dr. Goodall established the Jane Goodall Institute, which continues the Gombe research and is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats. The Institute is widely recognized for innovative, community-centred conservation and development programs in Africa, and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, the global environmental and humanitarian youth program.

Dr. Goodall founded Roots & Shoots with a group of Tanzanian students in 1991. Today, Roots & Shoots connects hundreds of thousands of youth in more than 120 countries who take action to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment.

Dr. Goodall travels an average 300 days per year, speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees, other environmental crises, and her reasons for hope that humankind will solve the problems it has imposed on the earth.

Dr. Goodall’s honours include the French Legion of Honour, the Medal of Tanzania and Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize. In 2002, Dr. Goodall was appointed to serve as a United Nations Messenger of Peace and in 2003, she was named a Dame of the British Empire.

Q: What were your observations about social hierarchies in chimpanzee and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] The structures of their hierarchies may- I suppose- mirror some of what we see in human culture but the method of attaining the hierarchy resembles very closely what we see as humans attempt to get up the social ladder.

Chimp society is very male dominated, and when you have a strong top ranking or alpha male- there seems to be order in the rest of the community. When he is reaching the end of his reign and a young individual (or coalition) challenge him- then there’s a lot more fighting and aggression as those beneath him vie to see who will take over. The stronger ones may do this alone, and the intelligent males have a strategy of forming alliances.

One thing that’s been really fascinating over the years is that very often the male who takes over may do so as a result of some quite fierce fighting. He will go on doing that until the former alpha is really subdued and fearful. Then he will reach out and they will become friends. The one who’s been deposed will then support the new leader- it’s very obvious this is a good tactic because the new alpha knows that the previous has been so scared by him- that he’ll never do anything bad. Getting support from the new alpha is also very beneficial to the previous alpha.

Q: What did you observe about the role (and treatment) of children, young adults and adolescents in chimp and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] First of all, we only recently have known who the fathers are. There are no long-term pair bonds between adult males and females unless it’s a mother and her son (in which case there’s no mating). In a way, all males act in a paternal way to all infants in their community and will- for example- go to their aid if they are in trouble. From the collection of faecal samples, we have been able to identify who the father’s of young are- and a new field of study is emerging about whether any special relationship exists between father and biological child and- of course- whether any of them even know there’s a relationship as females in these communities are promiscuous.

One of the things I have been fascinated with for a very long time is the fact that in chimp society- as in human society- there are good and bad mothers. It’s also very clear that good mothers in chimp communities are attentive, protective (not overly protective), playful and- perhaps most importantly- supportive. They will give a degree of freedom, but also impose discipline where needed. For example, even if you know you’re going to get attacked by a higher ranking female who is the mother of your child’s playmate… if the children are squabbling you will nevertheless go in- and even rescue your child if they’re in a meddle with one of the bigger males.

That element of support really seems to make a big difference. The offspring of good mothers tend to be more assertive with males reaching a higher position. The offspring of the less-good mothers have a more difficult time in their society and don’t do as well.

Q: Did you observe any familiar social structures in the chimp and great-ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There are siblings- brothers and sisters, who know they are their mother’s offspring (as they don’t know who their fathers are). The offspring of one female can form strong relationships- particularly brothers- for their entire lives (which can last 60 years or so). This also applies to mothers and their offspring.

The only thing that breaks these bonds is when a female emigrates to a neighbouring community as an adolescent. That’s the only time- as far as we know- that a chimp can move from one community to another. The relationship between neighbouring communities is otherwise extremely hostile- with males patrolling the boundary, taking any opportunity they can to enlarge their territory. There are also patrols where chimps may come across strangers- maybe hunters- and treat them like prey animals, leaving them to die of their wounds.

Within the community, it’s usually family and sibling bonds. There are temporary bonds between mothers and infants up-to a certain age. They sit and groom each other and just do nothing… and the young ones- instead of pestering their mothers, play with each other.

Q: Did you see examples of “love”, “compassion”, “respect” and “altruism”?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] Absolutely! True altruism occurs where an unrelated male will adopt an infant who’s mother has died. Usually it’s an older brother or sister who will adopt an infant, but if the infant is more than 3 years old- it will have a chance of survival independently. Usually between 3 and 5 years of age, infants are very gradually weaned off their mothers. Until this age (or until the next baby is born) they will not leave her nest, and may ride on her back when they are scared.

Between brothers and sisters we see very strong bonds, and even a male will be an excellent care-giver to an orphan who’s often his brother or sister. Unrelated males may do the same.

It is very clear that we see compassion in these communities- that’s very clear. When a mother was lying there dying of her wounds, her younger daughter came and groomed her, comforted her and did her best to keep her comfortable.

With regards love… There are so many ways you can describe love. In our language, love can mean many things! Copulation in chimps does not take long, it’s ever so short. Sometimes it can be quite a rash courtship where the male swaggers about swaying branches. He doesn’t force the female- it’s not rape- but nevertheless he does intimidate her, which is likely to make her accept his advances. The bond chimp’s share between mother and child, and even brother and sister… I guess you could call that love!

Q: What did you see with regards the ‘sex life’ of chimps and great apes?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] It’s a normal thing between males and females in just about every species. The male courts the female when she’s sexually receptive and not in between. During this period, the males will sometimes line-up to mate with her… sometimes one after another… sometimes they fight. Sometimes they even sneak off for a little secret mating behind a bush!

Q: What did you observe in terms of individual personalities and sense of self in the chimp and great ape community?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There are extremely distinct personalities. You could identify individuals by reading their behaviour. Sense of self has been shown in captivity, although I don’t know how you could demonstrate this in the wild. In captivity, we know chimps (along with one or two other animals) can identify themselves in mirrors and respond to a mirror image.

In the past, some chimps were raised as human! A practice which- thankfully- is not done any more. Little Viki is the famous case. She grew up in a house, and was raised in the same way as a human infant. She loved sorting things. They gave her a pile of photographs of people from different cultures all over the world and different animals (ones she knew and ones she didn’t). She put them all perfectly in the right pile ‘animal’ or ‘person’ except for her own picture- that went to people! A picture of her father (who she never met) went to animal.

Q: What were your observations of communication in the chimp and great ape community?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There was no ‘verbal’ communication, that is- perhaps- what separates us from them. They communicate with touch, gesture and a whole series of calls (usually related to the emotion of the moment… so for example ‘here’s good food’, ‘I’m frightened’, ‘I’m hurting, please come and help me…’). In captivity they even learn sign language, allowing us to learn more about how their minds are working.

Q: What were your observations of war and conflict within the chimp and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] We have read an account of some people who went into an isolated forest in Uganda, where people and chimps came into contact in an aggressive way. The people were actually nearly as frightened as the chimps- who very obviously came at them with hair bristling and ready to chase them away. They [chimps] are so much stronger than us!

In the more natural situation and surroundings, you have a territory and a community of around 50 individuals. Within this, you have 6-10 adult males who patrol the territory and strangers will be attacked. If you meet a group that’s bigger than yours, you’d better retreat otherwise you will be attacked.

You also see a lot of conflict for dominance within the community between males, with losers often ostracised.

Q: Do chimp and great ape communities recognise any sense of mourning or loss for the dead?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There’s an element of fear if they find a dead body, and a sense of urgency to try and find out what the cause of death was. They sniff the vegetation, and even high up in the trees….

Grief is often shown by a mother who loses her child. In this case you see her becoming very listless and apathetic. She may wander off somewhere, seem to forget why she went there and come back. When a mother dies, the offspring are devastated. They groom her, and sometimes there are unexplained observations. We once saw an adolescent daughter who lifted up her mother’s arm and appeared to put her ear to the chest. Whether she was listening to a heartbeat or not would be difficult to say…

Q: Did you note the existence of any cultural artefacts or behaviours?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] Chimps tend to do wild displays near falling water, such as waterfalls. They are very rhythmic and very different to a normal displays. You see them swaying from foot to foot, getting into the spray in the vines, and just watching the water. There are also times when they sit in the trees and appear to be observing a sunset- whether they are or not of course, we have no idea.

Q: How do chimps relate to other species (including man) and their natural environment?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] When I arrived, the chimps were initially frightened. They had never seen a white-ape before and they ran away. When the fear began to subside, they became belligerent and treated me as they would a predator- shaking branches, screaming and trying to make me go away. When I didn’t, they gradually moved on into a position of acceptance and- eventually- trust. It was a gradual change.

With other animals they may ignore them… the young ones may even try to play. The fact is, though, that those animals may eventually become prey- chimps are hunters after all.

They are very protective over their resources. They may attack if you try to take the fruit out of a fruit tree, but then you see sharing during times of abundance.

Q: Have your experiences of chimps in captivity yielded any surprising insights about their intelligence?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] In captivity, you can design tests to understand their intelligence. There is a 3 year old chimpanzee called ‘Ai’ in Japan who works with Professor Matsuzawa's institute. She can do things with her touchpad, remembering the position of numbers on a screen in the most extraordinary way. Her son (who has never been taught by a human) has people coming from all over to try and defeat him! He can take one look at a screen of randomly arranged numbers from 0-9, and start to replicate it before you’ve even noticed where one of the numbers is! He has a total photographic memory! An enfant savant!

Chimpanzees love our technology- touchpads, computer screens and so on. They can also learn more than 400 signs of American sign-language. The Bonobo have quite long exchanges with their keepers! Things like asking to be let out…. (and when they’re told no), asking for food… (and when they’re told no), asking for a tickle! It’s extraordinary

Q: How has your work with chimpanzees and great apes changed your view of humanity?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] Louis Leakey wanted me to go and study chimps because he believed that 6 million years ago, we had a human-like common ancestor. He was interested in stone-age man, their skeletons, tools and so on- not behaviour. He felt that if there was similar behaviour exhibited between humans and chimps today, that perhaps that behaviour would also have been present in the common ancestor and- arguably- in stone-age men and women.

From my perspective, it was a bit of a shock to find that chimps can be brutal and violent and even have a lot of warfare. I had expected them to be like us but nicer. Because we send this tendency toward violence in certain situations, one can probably assume this trait [to be violent] has been with us in the long course of our evolution. Violence, at least some of it, is probably genetically based. You don’t have to think much about humankind to realise that we are a very violent species.

The difference between us and chimpanzees (with whom we share 98% or more of our DNA) is not a sharp line. It’s a blurry line. We are part of the continuum of evolution, and are not the only beings on the Earth with personalities, minds, thoughts and feelings. That observation has had a profound impact on science, as- when went to get my PhD, I was taught none of that was true.

We now realise how alike we are… kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting on the back, family bonds, war… but at the same time, we understand we are different. But what is it that’s made us different? If you’ve got something that is as like us as chimps, you have somewhere to stand and observe the biggest differences. For me, our sophisticated way of communicating- with words- is that crucial difference. It meant that for the first time, we could teach another about something that wasn’t present… whereas young chimps just learn by observing. We can read books about the distant past, and plan the distant future. Chimps can only plan the immediate future. As far as we know, they don’t have any concept of a distant future to plan for. Finally… we can bring together people from different walks of life, and backgrounds… bringing them together to discuss problems that may otherwise be difficult to solve.

For a long time, humanity thought there was a sharp line, with us on one side and the animals on the other… a line which is still used by radicals who believe it to be true- often to justify doing not-very-nice things to animals

Q: What were your observations about social hierarchies in chimpanzee and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] In addition to the long-term study of chimps- which is exciting and on-going, we realised (back in the 1980’s) that the only way to protect chimpanzees (who were disappearing very fast due to loss of habitat) was to improve the lives of people who were living in abject poverty around these last wilderness areas.

Gombe was isolated, and when I flew over in 1991 I was utterly shocked to see bare hills around this national park… areas that had once been forest. Even in 1970 it was forest…. After around 6 years, and following the introduction of programmes such as microcredit and agricultural support, we sat down with local people and mapped out patches of land in such a way that they acted as a buffer to the Gombe. The Gombe chimps now have 3-4 times more forest than they had 10 years ago… it grows very fast. We have also created a corridor linking Gombe to another group, and in fact- 2 weeks ago- the first chimpanzee came from the outside into the Gombe community, very exciting!

We’re replicating this in Uganda, DRC, Congo, Senegal and elsewhere. The method is working… people are coming out of abject poverty, their children are getting better educated… family sizes have dropped… women are empowered and farming methods have restored fertility to farmland without the use of chemicals… So no GMOs!

There wouldn’t be much point doing any of this if we weren’t educating future generations to be better stewards than we’ve been. Our Roots & Shoots programme is now in about 130 countries. Young people from pre-school through to university are all choosing projects to make the world better for people and for the environment.

Every one of us makes a difference, every single day.


"The implications of any investigation into what it means to be human are potentially immense." writes Joanna Bourke "...after all, two of the most distinguished traditions of modern times- theology and humanism- were founded on espousing hierarchies of humanity. According to ‘the great Chain of Being’, everything in the universe was ranked from the highest to the lowest- from Divine to human, then to the rest of the animal kingdom and finally incorporating inanimate objects… my point is not simply that there is a porous boundary between the human and the animal (although there certainly is), but that the distinction is both contested and policed with demonic precision. In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life. Perhaps the very concept of ‘culture’ is an attempt to differentiate ourselves from our ‘creatureliness’... the compulsive inclination to demarcate the territory of human from that of the non-human, is one of the great driving forces of history." (What it Means to be Human, 2011).

We have even seen such attitudes pervade within our species. If we look back at the first encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, you observe the viewpoint of the Europeans (exploring new worlds filled with valuable resources and exotic peoples) and the indigenous people (who see these encounters as deeply unsettling, and of apparent cosmological origin).

"These were encounters not between individuals, but between cultural systems- embodied in culturally organised groups of people." write Schieffelin and Crittenden. They go on to describe the moment of first-contact "...the raw shock of Otherness- a dimension of experiences that is present to some extent in all encounters with other people (Sartre 1966) but is especially poignant in first contact situations. Here one is confronted with a paradoxical familiarity of the alien: a being who appears human but is at the same time so radically unfamiliar that one is thrown into doubt- or senses that the ordinary categories for understanding human behaviour may be inadequate to the task of grasping the nature of this one. Such an encounter throws one's own conception of humanity and hence of oneself into question... we momentarily glimpse the epistemological edges of our own social understanding, leaving us in dread and fascination." (Like People You See in a Dream: First Contact in Six Papuan Societies, 1991)

Even in more contemporary versions of society, these essentialist attitudes have pervaded.

"Industrialising America needed to explain the calamities created by unbridled westward, overseas, and industrial expansion...." wrote Lee D. Baker , "Although expansion created wealth and prosperity for some, it contributed to conditions that fostered rampant child labour, infectious disease, and desperate poverty. The daily experience of squalid conditions and sheer terror made many Americans realise the contradictions between industrial capitalism and the democratic ideals of equality, freedom, and justice for all. Legislators, university boards, and magazine moguls found it useful to explain this ideological crisis in terms of a natural hierarchy of class and race caused by a struggle for existence wherein the fittest individuals or races advanced while the inferior became eclipsed." Baker continues by describing how this hierarchy became a science. "Professional anthropology emerged in the midst of this crisis, and the people who used anthropology to justify racism, in turn, provided the institutional foundations for the field. The study of 'primitive races of mankind' became comparable to geology and physics. These institutional apparatuses, along with powerful representatives in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), prestigious universities, and the Smithsonian Institution, gave anthropology its academic credentials as a discipline in the United States. In January 1896, Daniel G. Brinton, the president of the AAAS and the first professor of anthropology in the United States, wrote in Popular Science Monthly that 'the black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white... that even with equal cerebral capacity they could never rival its results by equal efforts'."

We are not an ancient species. If you were to condense the history of the Earth (around 4.54 billion years) into one year, modern humans have only been here for around 1400 seconds. Our nearest ancestors (chimpanzee's) have been around for almost a day and a half.

We are the youngest explorers of an ancient and unblinking environment that we do not fully understand. As Charles Pasternak notes, "we seek scientific explanations for natural phenomena, we search to create works of art. There is no need to find the source of the Nile or journey to the Moon, to comprehend the nature of fundamental particles or the structure of proteins, to compose The Trout Quintet or to paint The Girl with the Pearl Earring, to write Hamlet or Madame Bovary.. "

Being young and naive, we selected arbitrary criteria to differentiate ourselves from the rest of existence , but our actions mean that we have to now grow up. Humanity is more than partially culpable- for example- in creating what is now being described as the Earth's sixth mass extinction, "The worst since the ecological calamity that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago".

Primatologist Roger Fouts writes that maybe the time has now come for us to “accept the reality that our species is not outside of nature and that we are not gods. We might lose the illusory heights of being demiurges, but this new perspective would offer us something greater, the full realization of our place in this great orchestra we call nature." (The God Instinct, 2011)

For us to grow up, the first step is to gain a true understanding of where we come from- our heritage. And for that we must look back down the tree of life towards the wonderful extended family whom we have treated so badly in our short time with them.

When it comes to the role of humanity in nature, we are the only species arrogant enough to suppose that we are elevated above natural order, by virtue of being blind to it.

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