Antarctica is melting and permafrost is thawing and storm after storm has been ravaging millions of people’s homes while powerful people deny that any change in our planet’s climate is occurring. I fear it will get so bad that I’ll look back with nostalgia on this anxiety, yearning for a time when all of this doom was in the abstract while I slowly die of thirst. It may sound trite, then, to respond so readily to a benevolent message of hope, but if legendary primatologist Jane Goodall thinks there’s still a “window of time” in which “nature can win if we give her a chance,” then damn it, I’m inclined to cling to that hope like a chimp on his mom’s back.
Goodall shared her message of hope with me last week at the Whitby Hotel, where she was promoting her new MasterClass, for which people can pay $90 to watch six hours of lectures about conservation, as well as chimpanzees, the animals that Goodall, 83, made her name studying.
Goodall is a soothing presence, with a polite British accent that gently trills high enough when she’s being particularly emphatic to sound falsetto. You can feel her whisking away whenever she discusses her groundbreaking work studying chimps at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, starting in 1960. “I miss the forest, I miss the life. They were the best days,” she told me with such yearning that I could almost feel a flashback sequence starting. At the MasterClass premiere event, she told a few stories about the chimps she studied—the chimps whose personalities were so apparent to her, she simply couldn’t pretend that she wasn’t in the presence of sentient individuals, even though science at the time forbade such interpretation of animals and their behavior.
At the event, Goodall referred to David Greybeard, the chimp whose use of a stick to fish for termites led to Goodall’s first breakthrough that humans were not not the only animals who used tools (a former supposedly distinguishing quality), as “my beloved David Greybeard, that handsome chimpanzee.” She also told a story about Flo, a chimp who was at least 50 when Goodall started observing her. She referred to Flo as “the sexiest female [chimp] in all the years that we’ve ever known” and described documenting 52 matings one day when Flo was in estrus. “The young ones would find it difficult to get in with the others, so they would go behind a bush and shake a little twig, and if she noticed and the other males were occupied by hunting or something, then she would sneak off for another little illicit mate,” Goodall explained. “She was just amazing!”
Goodall is so sharp that she will often answer questions before they can be fully asked. She projects at once a serenity and an unwillingness to suffer foolishness. I found her mesmerizing. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: You’re both a dame and a doctor. Which do you prefer to be addressed as?
Just doctor. Not dame. Dame to me is a man dressed up as a woman in pantomime.
What are your goals with this MasterClass?
The goal is to spread a message that I’m spreading anyway, but to spread it where I [can’t be]. I can’t be more places than I am. I’m 300 days a year on the road, and so being able to share the ideas that I’ve developed during 80 years on this planet with people in many different countries, and especially this one is obviously a good thing to do.
You say in the trailer that the three main problems in terms of conversation being poverty, human population growth, and waste.
No, I didn’t.
You didn’t say that? Did I misquote you? [Note: She did say that, per the trailer’s editing.]
Well, waste is a problem, but I always say the main problems—I’m sure I said it somewhere—are human population growth, poverty because when you’re really poor you’re going to cut down the last tree because you have to grow food or make charcoal, and the unsustainable lifestyle of the rest of us. Just using up the finite resources as though they’re infinite, which they’re not.
What is there to do about that?
That’s why I’m working on our youth program, Roots & Shoots, which is helping young people understand that they do make a difference. And then in Africa, working with the local people around conservation areas. Particularly, we do women’s programs, so education for girls, to keep them in school beyond puberty. They get a bit of higher education. It’s been shown that women’s education rises, family size tends to drop.
It seems like wrestling people out of the unsustainable lifestyle you mentioned is a huge hurdle.
It’s a huge problem. That’s why we have to start young. Kids are beginning to educate their parents. They really are. It seems impossible, but you just haven’t to give up. We do have Roots & Shoots in 100 countries. We are preschool through university.
Do you think there’s undue anxiety about the future of the planet? I read stuff all the time that makes me think we’re beyond the point of no return.
Yeah, well, so many scientists are saying that. If you tell a young person that we’ve reached the point of no return, why bother to do anything? If everybody stops trying then indeed it’s too late. I don’t think it’s definite that it’s too late. I personally think we have a window of time. We’re not going to reverse climate change to where it was before, but we can slow it down. Of course we need to be concerned about certain politicians and presidents.
Isn’t it horrifying how many people in power deny climate change, as these major storms are hitting the U.S., one after another?
In the U.S. it’s worse than anywhere else, I think.
Why do you think that is? Capitalism?
Money, yes. Yes, of course. And corruption. But wasn’t it encouraging that so many big companies said, “Your president may pull us out of the Paris Accord, but we’re going to live up to what we said”? That’s encouraging. The big problem is that so often the media puts out all the gloomy, bad stuff, which is true, but we should give at least equal space to everything positive that’s going on. I travel around the world all the time and I meet so many incredible people doing amazing things, blazing trails, working with the poor, working on environmental issues, working on solar, and seeing areas that were totally destroyed, but given time, given a bit of help, are once again supporting life and biodiversity beginning to come back. We’ve seen it in our own project.
I guess the thing about hope is that finite investment in it potentially yields infinite reward.
And the kids see what they’re doing, they know it’s making a difference. We have projects planting mangrove seeds back again, and the mangrove forests are coming back and it’s helping to protect the wetlands.
What do you think there is for humans to learn from chimps? What have we not yet absorbed?
Chimps really have helped science to understand that there is not, as once was thought, a difference of kind between us and the rest of the animals. There’s really a difference in degree. When I went to Cambridge in the early ‘60s, I was told I couldn’t talk about chimp personality, intellect, or emotion, because those were unique to us. I don’t believe they believed that, but that’s what was taught. Partially because of religion, too. I learned from my dog that of course that wasn’t true, that of course animals have personalities and minds and emotions. And because chimps are biologically so like us, that really did help to push science into [understanding] all the behavioral similarities between us and chimps to realizing that yes after all we are part of and not separated from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Do you think any of the dismissal you experienced came from the fact that you were a woman who was proposing these ideas?
No. Everybody was told that. But when I went to Cambridge I hadn’t been to college at all, so there I was doing a PhD. Fortunately, when I went out to be with the chimps, no one had told me they didn’t have personalities, minds, and emotions.
We have a long way to go but that view of animals is more and more the accepted norm. You had an enormous impact on our perception of animals.
Or ourselves. Because you can trace us back to a common ancestor, and that includes aggressive behavior on the one hand and compassionate and loving behavior on the other. What makes us really different is the explosive development of our intellect. So isn’t it weird that the most intellectual creature is destroying its only home?
Speaking of presidents, does Trump ever remind you of an aggressive chimp?
Oh go on, you read that, didn’t you in Atlantic magazine?
I don’t think I read that. Did you say it?
Yes, I did say it. It’s certainly true. When chimps are competing for dominance, they do a lot of blustering, swaggering, and intimidation. They fall short of coming to blows, usually. The chimps who are smart, they use their brain and they get to the top by forming clever alliances, like with their brothers. So you don’t challenge the top guy without a lot of support. They last longer, the ones with the brain. The ones who do the swaggering don’t last as long.
We’re all hoping.
When’s the last time you spent quality time with a chimp?
Nineteen-eighty-six. That was when I went to this conference and I realized the forests were going, chimps were tortured in medical research labs.
The Hollywood Reporter review of the new documentary about you that premiered a few days ago in Toronto said you show a “refreshing absence of ego” in it.
Well, I don’t know, you have to say. Do you think I have an ego?
Not that I can tell right here, but I can’t see how you don’t considering the impact that you’ve had.
Well, we’ve all got an ego. It depends how you define it. I think the reason is, there are two Janes. The one talking to you. And the one people have read about in Geographic, sort of idealized, that’s become an icon. That’s not me. That’s what’s been made out of my career, so now I have to make use of that Jane to try and help this Jane to do what needs to be done as much as I can.