Guaranteeing Our Future

Dr. Goodall brings message of conservation to UB



Some people wear charms around their necks as symbols of faith, remembrance or security.

Jane Goodall wears a pendant in the shape of the African continent.

The internationally recognized animal ethologist and conservationist delivered a message of hope to the audience which nearly filled Alumni Arena's main gym Wednesday night. Goodall's speech kicked off of the 15th annual Distinguished Speakers Series.

Goodall, who described herself as a better companion for Tarzan than the weak character Jane, acquired fame worldwide for her 42 years of research on chimpanzees and their social behavior. Her observations, centered in Tanzania's Gombe preserve, are the longest unbroken study of animals ever undertaken.

Goodall shocked the predominantly male scientific community when she burst onto the Cambridge University scene in 1961 and gave chimpanzees names rather than the impersonal numbers that typically tag research subjects.

When she looks into the eyes of a chimpanzee, Goodall said, "I know that I'm looking into the mind of a thinking, feeling being."

Her Oxford colleagues considered it "heresy" to speak of chimps as possessing unique personalities, complex emotions and minds capable of rational thought.

As Goodall shared anecdotes about the primates she has worked with, it was easy to forget she was speaking about animals, not humans. Her tales about chimpanzees were infused with the happiness, sadness, jealousy, envy, anger and humor typically associated with human beings.

"Chimpanzees share with us feelings of compassion and altruism," Goodall said. She cited the example of a 12-year old adolescent chimp - analogous to a 15-year old human boy - who adopted an unrelated, orphaned chimp and proceeded to protect and care for the sickly infant.

Like humans, however, chimpanzees also possess a dark side and are capable of extreme brutality, Goodall said. They hate strangers. They are highly territorial animals. And chimpanzees can be violent, with adult females often the victims of aggressive attacks.

Goodall was criticized in the 1960s for these findings, in part by scientists who feared it would be taken as evidence that aggression is innate in humans - hence, war and violence are inevitable.

While she agreed that we have inherited aggressive tendencies from our ancient primate heritage, she said, "I believe that because of the very sophisticated brain the human has developed during the course of evolution that we are capable of controlling our aggressive impulses."

The blurry line distinguishing humans from chimpanzees has been a cause of discomfort for many people, noted Goodall.

"We want to maintain our unique position in the animal kingdom. ... If you think of all the ways in which we use and abuse so many animals in our daily lives, it's much more comfortable to think that we are separate, that we are completely different, that we are separated by this sharp line from other animals."

Goodall's beloved animals are currently on the brink of extinction. A century ago, two billion human beings and two million chimpanzees inhabited the planet. Today, the earth is home to 6.1 billion people and fewer than 200,000 chimpanzees - a combined result of overpopulation and the erosion of natural habitats.

Goodall also directed her comments to those who might view the plight of animals or the environment as shallow concerns in light of the events of Sept. 11.

"If we were passionate about something before, some environmental issue, some issue of human rights; if we were passionate about drilling oil in the Alaskan wilderness or some endangered species; if we were passionate about the low frequency sonar naval experiments that are so damaging to whales, dolphins and other marine life ... these issues are just as important now as they ever were before."

Goodall said we must persist with our eye on the future and preserve nature for coming generations, despite the horrors of terrorism now occupying the public psyche.

"If we feel it's not right to be concerned about the environment or animals in view of this terrible human suffering, then when the terrorist threat is over, as it will be, there will be no planet left," she said.

Goodall ended by reaffirming the potential of human beings and the resilience of nature and the human spirit.

She shared her "symbols of hope" with the Alumni audience: limestone from the jail in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned; a surgical glove from a man whose hands were disfigured in an accident, but went on to become a renowned surgeon; feathers from a whooping crane and a California condor, bird species resurging after nearing extinction; and a leaf from a tree in Nagasaki, the site of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan in World War II.

"One of the saplings didn't even die, and it's a big tree today, it's a shrine. And every spring it puts out new leaves and that's a symbol of hope," Goodall said. "No matter how badly we treat nature, she can come back."