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Opinion | Jane Goodall on Chimps, Presidents and Other Alpha Males

[MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

So how would you like to be addressed? Professor, or doctor, or how? Dr. Goodall?

jane goodall

You can either call me just Jane. Or you can call me Dr. Jane, if you wish for the first time.

kara swisher

All right.

jane goodall

Anything but Dame Jane.

kara swisher

If there’s one person who can wrangle an alpha male, it’s Jane Goodall. She’s been studying them and other chimpanzees since the 1960s. Her early research with famed archaeologist Louis Leakey made Goodall a star. That resulted in a decades long career, which has focused the world on environmental activism and has inspired generations.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry are fans. Greta Thunberg calls her a “true hero.” Goodall normally travels about 300 days a year. But when I spoke to her, it was from her home in England. She was in lockdown and had some time to tell me about how it all began.

jane goodall

Well, the reason I got to Kenya was because I’d always wanted to go and live with wild animals and write books about them, ever since I was 10 reading Tarzan. So I saved up money when I was invited by a school friend to Kenya. And when I was staying with her, somebody said, if you want to learn about animals, you should meet Luis Leakey. So although I was very shy, that’s what I’d come for. So I called him up. And this is kind of weird, but two days before I met him, his secretary had suddenly quit. He needed a secretary, and there I was. And he gave me a job. And I think he was impressed because I’d read everything I could about African animals. I think it was then that Leakey decided, well, she hasn’t been to college, she’s new from England, but she’s the person I’ve been looking for to go and study chimpanzees.

kara swisher

So when you went there, you went in as his secretary. Did sexism persist then at the time, where women couldn’t be doing these jobs, or did you perceive it at all? Or were you just, this is the skill you had and you went in?

jane goodall

Well, you know, back then, it was so different. I mean, the times were different. And the feminist movement hadn’t really started or impacted us. And so, yeah, I was his secretary. Almost all, but not quite, of the staff were men. But it was fine. And luckily, Leakey had decided that women might be more patient in the field and make better observers. So, you see, the fact that I was a woman helped.

kara swisher

So let’s talk a little bit about the observational skills that you had, because your whole job was to be present with the chimpanzees. Go back to then.

jane goodall

Well, I mean, I came out with my mother because the authorities wouldn’t allow me to go alone. That’s why she came. But I went into the field with a pencil, often a pencil because it was raining, and a little notebook that fitted in my pocket, and a little piece of polythene that I put over my head if it rained, and a pair of binoculars, which weren’t very good. They weren’t good enough because we had so little money. I mean, we had one secondhand army tent. We had a few pots and pans and tins of food. And that was it. I started just climbing up and down the hills and looking for the chimps and writing everything with my pen, writing it up at night. And you know, at first, the chimps took one look at this peculiar white ape and ran away. It was really awful. I was really glad of my mother, because she helped to boost my morale, because the chimps just went on running away. And I knew if I didn’t see something exciting before that money ran out, it was only for six months.

kara swisher

When you look back at that, you’ve talked about it as the best times of your life. How would it have been different if you were doing it today?

jane goodall

Well, the trouble is that we’ve now learned that animals can catch diseases from us and we can catch diseases from them and that our presence can interfere with behavior. So to do things with camera traps and so on is the way to go. But the reason I say they’re the best days of my life, today, we wouldn’t do a study like that. We wouldn’t hand out bananas. It’s not the thing to do. But back then, it was the accepted thing to have a feeding station. That’s what people did. And because we’d started the banana feeding, it meant that I could follow their development almost daily. And I don’t think today anybody can learn them exactly the way I did.

kara swisher

Can you talk about that connection? How do you remember it now, 60 years later?

jane goodall

Well, I remember that when I was out there in Gombe, and I spent, of course, a lot of time out in the forest with the chimpanzees. But they accepted me. So I could sit there. I never considered myself part of a group, but I was just somebody who was there observing them, and they weren’t afraid. And because they accepted me so totally, I had the freedom of seeing how they really interacted with each other. And so the criticism has been, well, maybe the banana feeding affected their behavior. And I’m sure it did to some extent. But it affected them all equally. And right from the beginning, my emphasis was on differences between individuals, which wasn’t accepted back then. And it’s the same today. People don’t like to think of animals as individuals, but as species.

kara swisher

And you gave them names, which was resisted by people at the time. When Leakey wrote we must redefine man because of the observations you made and brought back. What do you think was the most important about redefining?

jane goodall

Well, I know how this began. One chimp, I named him David Graybeard. He had a beautiful white beard, and he was very handsome. And on this one day, when he’s begun to lose his fear before the others — I wasn’t that close to him. And I still had to use my binoculars. But he didn’t run away. And I saw him breaking off and using grass stems to fish for termites. I saw him picking up leafy twigs, carefully removing the leaves to make a tool. And that brought in The National Geographic Society to give money when the first six months ran out. That brought in my husband, Hugo van Lawick to film. Geographic sent him. And that was the turning point of the entire — you know, but for that, maybe after six months, everything would have ended.

kara swisher

Explain to people who don’t understand why that’s a big deal. People have seen chimpanzees manipulate various things. Why is that so important?

jane goodall

Well, because of how science defined us. Up to that time, we had been defined by Western science — and I repeat Western science, because other parts of the world were so different in their relationship to animals, but anyway — as man, the toolmaker. It was when Leakey heard about this tool using and tool making, he wrote to me and said now we must redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as humans. And actually, if you want to know now what I believe is the biggest difference between us and chimps — I mean, we know so much about animal intelligence now — but, you know, the main difference, I believe, is that at some point in our evolution, we developed language, spoken language.

Chimps communicate. They have gestures. They have calls. Whales communicate. Birds do, too. Chimps can learn a human language. So can parrots. But chimps and parrots haven’t learned a spoken language, not that we know of. And so once we developed this spoken language, we were, for the first time, able to bring people together to discuss a problem. We could teach about things that weren’t present with language. And I think that triggered this explosive development about intellect that’s taken us to the moon, to Mars. That’s helped people understand the place of planet in the galaxy, in the solar system.

kara swisher

If you had to go back, what is the thing that stayed with you? And perhaps, what is the sound you remember and the sight, if you had to remember all this many years later, decades later?

jane goodall

Oh, my goodness. Well, the sight? Climbing up onto my peak, which I discovered, and looking out over the valleys to Lake Tanganyika, looking behind me to the peaks of the Rift Valley. So beautiful, so untouched in those days. The sound would be the calling of chimpanzees on the other side of the valley. Those chimpanzees you’d been searching for and hoping to hear and hoping to find. And you hear them on the other side of the Valley. And you think, yes, there they are! So the pant-hoot, the distance call, which is something like [IMITATES PANT-HOOT].

And that, to me, it does something to me. It comes deep into me.

kara swisher

When you were there, there were two million chimps, I think and then it went down to 150,000. Where are we today?

jane goodall

Oh, the whole of Africa, you mean?

kara swisher

Yeah.

jane goodall

Well, nobody knows exactly how many chimpanzees there are. But they are in danger. And they’re more endangered in some areas than others. And it’s that sort of picture across Africa.

kara swisher

So you’ve been a leader, trying to keep things from getting worse. And your main approach has been to fight for land conservation. When did that start?

jane goodall

Well, I went to a conference, which I helped to start, in America in 1986. And one of the sessions was on conservation. It was shocking. I mean, I guess we all knew there was deforestation and so on. But the extent of it hadn’t penetrated — well, it certainly hadn’t penetrated me. And there was also a session on conditions in places like medical research labs, which I won’t go into. But it was horrible, horrible, horrible. And learning about the bushmeat trade.

I left the conference as an activist. I went as a scientist, planning to carry on with this wonderful life, out in the rainforest, learning about the chimps, having students. And I left knowing I had to do something, but I didn’t know what to do.

kara swisher

So talk about that, sort of the brass tacks of that moment. What pushed you so hard? You were at this conference, which was where? It was —

jane goodall

Chicago.

kara swisher

Chicago. What was the thing that struck you that you were like, no?

jane goodall

Well, remember that to start off with, I wasn’t a scientist. I never dreamt of being a scientist. I wanted to be a naturalist. I wanted to live with animals and write books about them. And then Leakey pushed me into getting a PhD which, actually, I’m really glad I did, because It taught me to think objectively, which I love. But I refused to believe that scientists had to be cold and shouldn’t have empathy with their subjects. I rebelled against that. So the shock was seeing what was happening to the environment in Africa, and the shock of seeing how chimpanzees, our closest relatives, who can have feelings and emotions like ours, who have very astute intelligence, the way that they were treated in medical research, circus entertainment, and so on. I think it was seeing secretly filmed footage of chimpanzees in 5 foot by 5 foot cages, maybe for 20 years, just bare cages alone, these very social beings alone with nothing to do, boredom, it was horrible. And I knew that they’d done so much for me, I had to try and do something for them. So I didn’t make the decision. People say was it hard? I didn’t make it. I always say it was a bit like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Something happened, and he started one person and ended up another. And that’s what happened to me. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with couples therapist, Esther Perel, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Jane Goodall after the break.

When you have this much fame, because since the National Geographic stuff came out and all the movies, you were a well-known person. You obviously had moral authority. You had a sense of power. How did you use that power?

jane goodall

Well, you know, when I began, I didn’t have those feelings. I didn’t really understand what had happened to me. I mean, I didn’t have power. I didn’t have any of that. To me, I was and I still am just me. I’m just Jane. I’m here where I grew up. And then, this kind of iconic status was thrust upon me. And I was at first very — I hated it. I wanted to hide from it.

kara swisher

Why?

jane goodall

Because I didn’t like — I mean, I didn’t feel I deserved it. But then, at a certain point, I realized that this could help the cause that I was so passionate about, which basically, from the beginning, was to help people understand that animals are not just things. That they’re sentient beings, they have feelings. And that, you know, that is a passionate ruling of my life. But equally, protecting the environment. We’re poisoning the land with our conventional agriculture. We’re putting chemical poisons down. We are polluting the ocean. We’re destroying the forest, which along with the ocean are the great lungs of the world, absorbing CO2 and giving us oxygen.

kara swisher

One of the things you talked about years ago was the increasing incursions from China, taking forests, taking minerals, all kinds of things. Has that improved at all, or do you feel it’s still a threat?

jane goodall

Well, you know, China is a large country with a growing economy. And yes, they are causing havoc in many developing countries, taking their resources. They’ve learned about conservation within China. It’s a huge change from when I first went back in the mid-‘90s, and animal protection, all these things. But they are taking resources from other countries for their own development. But, is that any different from European colonialism? Is it any different from the big multinational corporations today? No, it’s not. And so it’s a whole area that we need to address, not pointing fingers, but working out ways ahead.

kara swisher

So a lot of these things are about education, about, again, moral authority. There is more — a different confrontational style of activism growing here in this country and around the world, like Greta Thunberg and others. Is it possible these days to be Jane Goodall? Do you really still believe in that?

jane goodall

I totally believe in it because, really because of the young people. I mean, everywhere I go — well, I’m not going now, but I see it on these kind of Zoom things — I see young people with shining eyes, wanting to tell Dr. Jane what they are doing to make the world a better place. I want to help all animals. I can’t. You know, I can’t do it. But out there, in this huge group of young people, hundreds of thousands of them, there’s always somebody who wants to help a turtle. There’s another group that wants to help moon bears. You know, all of it, it’s out there.

kara swisher

When passion moves to anger, because you’re seeing that with a lot of groups, that they’ve had enough. They want the system to change completely and not cooperatively.

jane goodall

Well, I don’t blame them if they have had enough. But I will never, ever believe that the way for change is confrontation and aggression, because people change when you reach the heart. And so, you know, when people ask me, what do you do when you meet somebody who’s behaving in a way that you really dislike or something? Try and find a connection. Maybe they have a dog or a cat or a horse or a child or something. Just for one minute, if you have a short time to talk to them. And then, stories. Tell stories. So when I went into the labs that I accused of treating the chimps badly, which they were, I showed pictures of Gombe and how the chimps are and how they’re lying around and grooming each other and playing. It got to the people’s hearts. And I got this lesson early on, don’t make high up people lose face, because it doesn’t work.

kara swisher

Mhm. When you look at the protests, though, especially environment, do you think that helps, too, or not at all?

jane goodall

Oh, I think it helps. It raises awareness, no question about it. I mean, Greta’s raised awareness in many, many people, without any question about it.

kara swisher

So let me put that to you. If you were standing in front of President Trump, how would you tell him a story? He is one of the more partisan figures, creates a lot of thumping, like chest thumping. What would you say? You have five minutes, or two minutes, or one minute.

jane goodall

Yeah, apparently, the attention span is less than that. But anyway, I would actually refuse this opportunity, because I don’t think he’d listen. I truly don’t. And it’s a waste of time when people won’t listen. But one of the very few people I would talk to President Xi. I definitely would. It probably wouldn’t do any good. But I would be fascinated to talk to him. I mean —

kara swisher

What would you say?

jane goodall

What would I say? Well, I would congratulate him on all the amazing improvements he’s made for people’s livelihood. I would not talk about his treatment of the Muslim community, because you want people to be on your side and change. And I would talk about the amazing things like banning ivory trade, and now putting pangolins up at top level protection, and all the things he’s done for the environment. And you know, hopefully, if you approach people like that, then they want to do more. That’s the case. That maybe stupid. It may be naive. But with many, many people in high positions, it’s worked.

kara swisher

It works for them. But Trump is a chimpanzee too far, I guess. [LAUGHS] How do you look at it?

jane goodall

Well, don’t compare Trump with a chimpanzee, because it’s terribly rude to the chimpanzee.

kara swisher

So you’re not put off by this partisan time we’re in? You feel like it’s overcomeable?

jane goodall

You know, the Trump administration has repealed so many environmental protections, and this is my main passion. I am shocked, horrified. Opening up the oil reservoirs in Alaska, shocking. Drilling in various parts of the ocean. It’s shocking. And if this goes on, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, it’s not just America that’s going to suffer. The whole flipping world — and then there’s Bolsonaro. And so many, you know, the swing to the far right, and it’s got to be the bottom line, and it’s unlimited economic development. And how do we move from this pandemic into this new green economy, which everybody is saying we need to do? We do need to do it. I don’t know how to do it. But we do need to do it.

kara swisher

So who are your environmental heroes?

jane goodall

Well, I mean, it started off with Rachel Carson, actually, when she wrote “Silent Spring.” And then I went and stayed with Margaret Owings, who helped to save the sea otters from extinction. And then I wrote this book, “Hope For Animals And Their World,” and I met so many amazing, incredible people. My last reason for hope: the indomitable human spirit, the people who tackle what seems impossible, won’t give up, and succeed. And it’s so inspiring to see that an animal, or an environment on the brink of extinction or destruction can be saved. And has been. There’s many examples. And my big problem with the media today is this concentration on the bad. There’s so much bad, yes. But there’s so much good that doesn’t get reported. And I think, today, I would say that more people are aware of what we’re doing to the planet than ever before, and the reason they’re not taking action is they feel helpless, don’t know what to do. My job is to give people hope by telling them that every one of us makes a difference every single day.

kara swisher

So talk about your legacy. You’re 86 years old. You look like you’re going to last well beyond me. What do you want to do with the rest of your life?

jane goodall

I want to go on doing what I’m doing. I want to get to this tipping point. I also want to create an endowment. Because people are relying on me. I go to a different country and help them raise money for their programs, et cetera, et cetera. So a big concentration now on raising an endowment. It’s all set up. We’re ready to go. Of course, the pandemic comes, maybe, at a very bad time for that. But it’s still there, and I will do it, because I’m determined that I want some money to make sure that these programs that I’m so passionate about — that work. I’m passionate about them because they’ve been proven to work. And I want them not to disappear, slowly fade away when I’m gone.

kara swisher

So when you look back on your life, where would you like to be if there wasn’t COVID? Where would you like to be sitting, on Lake Tanganyika, drinking a whiskey? I’ve heard you like to drink whiskey by the lake.

jane goodall

Well, one reason I have to have whiskey, it actually does help your voice when you’ve overused your voice.

kara swisher

I heard apples work the same. But whiskey is fun.

jane goodall

I know four opera singers who swear by it. And one pop singer, so it’s not just me. Where would I like to be?

kara swisher

Right now, close your eyes, where would you like to be?

jane goodall

Close my eyes. I would love to be sitting on the beach at Gombe without tourists, with the people who are working there now, throughout the COVID experience, looking out over Lake Tanganyika, looking at the mountains on the other side, and knowing that up behind me, the chimps are making their nests, and the baboons are climbing up into their trees. It’s a beautiful place to be. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

Dr. Goodall, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking time to do this.

jane goodall

Well, I loved talking to you.

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Paula Szuchman. With music and sound design by Isaac Jones. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Renan Borelli, Liriel Higa, and Kathy Tu. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast. So subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, with a glass of whiskey, download a podcast app like Stitcher or Google Podcasts, then search for Sway and hit subscribe. You’ll get episodes every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

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