Jane Goodall advocates for young people to come together and solve problems

Jane Goodall advocates for young people to come together and solve problems

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Jane Goodall is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzees, and she said her love of nature began very early in life.

In a talk April 15 at T.C. Williams High School, Goodall recalled how at just 1-and-a-half years old, she collected a handful of earthworms and soil and took them with her to bed. In an indication of her mother’s support that would last throughout her life, Goodall said she was not disciplined at all.

“Instead of getting mad at me, she said, ‘Jane, I think they’ll die; they need to go back into the garden,’” Goodall said. “So we carried them carefully back.”

Goodall spoke at an auditorium packed with students, staff and administrators after being invited by students involved in the Roots and Shoots program at T.C. The program, which was started by her charitable organization the Jane Goodall Institute, is youth-led and looks to involve young people in projects that help the environment and change the world.

She met with students who have led projects and added her signature to a pledge promising to use only sustainable bottles rather than disposable plastic ones and to recycle where possible.

In the auditorium, she shared how at the age of 4, she stayed with her grandmother for a time and tried to observe hens laying eggs to understand where they came from. For four hours, she sat silently and watched, having learned that disturbing the hens would scare them away.

“Isn’t that the making of a little scientist?” she asked. “Curiosity, asking questions, not getting a right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up and learning patience. It was all there in that little 4-and-a-half-year-old child, and a different kind of mother might have crushed that scientific curiosity and I might not be standing here now.”

After reading the novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” Goodall said she decided that she wanted to travel to Africa and study chimpanzees, but that was easier said than done in the years during and right after World War II. After saving money and working as a waitress, she was able to afford a trip to Kenya in the mid-1950s to visit a friend, and then got a job as the assistant to Lewis Leakey, who helped establish human evolutionary development in Africa.

After securing enough funding, Goodall discovered that chimpanzees made and worked with tools, going against the belief that humans were the only animals to do so. The chimpanzee she first saw working with tools — known by Goodall as David Greybeard — became a great friend of hers who helped the other chimpanzees overcome their fear of humans. That tool-working discovery was crucial, Goodall said.

“That was exciting back then in 1960, because it was thought we humans were the only tool-using, tool-making animal,” she said. “We were defined as man the toolmaker… The other chimps would look with amazement from me to him and back again. I suppose they thought, ‘Well, she doesn’t seem too dangerous after all.’”

After 55 years of unbroken research, Goodall said she learned just how alike humans and chimpanzees are, from their behavior to their differing personalities. She noted that the DNA makeup of the two species differs by only just over 1 percent, and that chimpanzee social structure shares many similarities with human society.

“It’s very clear today that the chimp mothers who are patient and above all supportive, just like my mother, their offspring tend to grow up to be more successful,” she said. “So the males will rise higher in the dominance hierarchy and the females will be better mothers.”

The 1986 convention of the American Institute for Conservation was held in Chicago, and Goodall said it changed her entire outlook on the environment and fueled a desire to effect change.

“I went to that conference as a scientist planning to carry on,” she said. “It was such a good life. I left as an activist.”

Now, she travels the world 300 days a year advocating for more environmentally friendly living, while the Jane Goodall Institute helped improve the lives of villagers near where chimpanzees live in Tanzania and elsewhere. She noted the role of humans in damaging the planet, and noted the irony in the world’s most intelligent inhabitants also being its most destructive.

“Don’t you find it peculiar that the creature with the greatest intellect is destroying its own home?” she asked. “There’s only one planet, and we have this crazy idea that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources.”

But Goodall emphasized that there is still time to make the world better and to break down what she sees as apparent apathy, especially among young people. She mentioned Roots and Shoots as one of numerous programs that look to do just that, and that human beings have much more in common than people realize.

“No matter what country, what nationality, what culture, what religion we are, nevertheless within us all beats the same human heart,” Goodall said. “The anatomy is identical… We are one family, and the most important thing is to realize the connection, the connectivity between people of all these different creeds and nations.”