Monday, April 15, 2013

Jane Goodall, Through a Window

Scientific knowledge of animal behavior is so woven into our culture that it is hard to remember how recent it all is. When Louis Leakey recruited Jane Goodall to start her observations of chimpanzees at Gombe, in 1960, nobody knew that chimps have dominant alpha males, or that chimp mothers form close bonds with their children, or that chimps have no idea who any child’s father is. Nobody knew that chimps hunt and share the meat, or that sometimes males trade it to females for sex. Nobody knew they make tools. All of that and almost everything else we know about chimps comes from fifty years of research at Gombe and other sites in Africa.

Jane Goodall’s books are a rarity, famous works of science that are also a delight to read. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe was published in 1990, and it was reissued in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of Goodall’s first foray into the jungle. This edition, the one I got out of my library, includes a new preface and afterword bringing things up to date. It is a wonder, and I give it my highest recommendation.

I wrote that this book is science, and I believe that it is science of the highest order. Yet it is devoid of the usual apparatus of field biology: no charts of feeding times or maps of movements or measurements of stress hormone levels. That sort of work has been done at Gombe in great quantity. But the real glory of the Gombe research is the fifty-year chronicle of life in one chimpanzee community. This chronicle, built up by decades of observation, records the rise and fall of a succession of alpha males and powerful matriarchs; the births of hundreds of babies, and their course through childhood to maturity or early death; the inheritance of status from generation to generation; the horror of epidemics; the struggle for territory; in short, it tells us what chimpanzees do and how they live.

Chimps are fascinating because they are sort of like us, but not. Some of the things they do seem eerily human, as when a group of males goes off to patrol the borders of their territory, attacking any strangers they find on what they regard as their own land. They divide the chimpanzee world into us and the others, and the fights they have within the troop are quite different from the violence they display toward outsiders. When a mother chimp holds her baby on her lap and tickles its belly, making it laugh, the scene looks uncannily human. It's also fun to equate other not quite identical human and chimpanzee behaviors. Male chimps compete for status mainly by "displaying", which involves charging around making a lot of noise, looking as scary and impressive as possible, brandishing branches or throwing stones. When human politicians give speeches full of buzzwords but otherwise devoid of content I think, "they're shaking the branches again."

But in many ways, of course, humans and chimpanzees are very different. Goodall focuses on the most obvious, our possession of language. Now that Goodall has written it down, people for centuries will be able to learn the history of the Kasakela troop, from the arrival of white observers through the great war and the polio epidemic and so on on down to the present. But what do the chimps themselves know? Unless they have some means of communicating that we have missed, they have no way of exchanging information or passing on stories. They can learn actions from their parents, like how to strip a leaf for termite fishing, but not memories. Do they have a worldview, an understanding of the universe, of life or death? If so, it seems that each chimp must have his or her own, because they have no way of sharing such musings. They live in each within his or her own lifetime, their experience limited to what they can see and smell and touch. It is a powerful reminder of how greatly language has opened up the world for us. Like the way Goodall's book does, bringing the extraordinary world of Gombe's chimpanzees to us in our living rooms. What an amazing, eye-opening story she tells.

1 comment:

Miri boheme said...

Great post! I love Jane.