Jane Goodall

Sam and Jane Goodall

Before hearing Dr. Jane Goodall talk, I just had the vague notion that she did something with gorillas. Well, even that wasn't right: it was chimpanzees.

Her talk was, broadly, split into three sections: history, chimpanzees, and activism. A strong theme when she was talking about her history was the importance of her mother. She grew up poor and in a time when most women didn't receive professional respect, but Goodall's mother continually inspired her to work hard and ignore obstacles.

Part of that was always being encouraging. Rather than criticize Jane when she brought earthworms into her bed or when she wandered off into a hay loft to observe chickens, her mother engaged her in what she was learning and encouraged her patience and interest in the world around her. This continued even when Jane was defying all cultural norms by going to Africa. And when Jane wasn't allowed to do field research in Tanganyika alone, her mother volunteered to drop what she was doing and go there with her.

I was interested to learn that she did her research on chimpanzees before going to college. She just read a lot and hung out at the natural history museum, so she knew enough to impress Louis Leakey to fund her to research chimpanzees. She got her PhD (without ever getting a bachelor's degree or master's degree) because Leakey told her that she would have to do that to secure funding for herself eventually.

The research on chimpanzees was groundbreaking. Humans used to define themselves as the only beings that could use tools. Then, Jane Goodall found that chimpanzees were using tools. Leakey wrote her: "Now, we must either change the definition of human, change the definition of tool, or accept chimpanzees as human."

In fact, it seems like chimpanzees do virtually everything that humans do -- except for speak using a highly symbolic and abstract language that allows for things like making computers. They have emotions. They wage war. They have families. They learn from their parents. They have complex social structures. And, yes, they use tools in innovative ways.

How's that as a case for vegetarianism, eh?

Dr. Goodall's activism started when she met with other chimpanzee researchers and found that habitats and populations were declining all across Africa. Then, she started traveling and advocating on behalf of the chimps, and because she was traveling around to so many places, she started seeing that people were being exploited and disenfranchised, too.

As a result, she started Roots and Shoots to get more people involved in helping their communities, the world, and the environment. She is hopeful because people are energetic about making the world a better place, because our intellect has developed explosively, because nature is resilient, and because of the indomitable human spirit.