Fresh from winning the Leakey Prize, for scientists who have “transcended their disciplines, the now-legendary Jane Goodall spoke to Salon about her life, her philosophy, and about the great apes with which she spent so much of her life. Asked why Louis Leakey had chosen, in the 1960’s, three women to conduct the great primate studies, Goodall gives one meta-reason and one quite specific to that time:
If you look at women in an evolutionary perspective — and I compare chimp mothers with human mothers — you find that a mother needs to be patient. Otherwise her children won’t do very well. A woman needed to understand the needs of a nonverbal creature, or our children before they can speak. And women, even if they’ve been subjugated, have been quick to recognize the little communication signals in a household to prevent arguments before they blow up — all to keep children out of the way of irritable men. So all those characteristics would be useful.
And when I began, most women didn’t have careers. So you could afford to go sit in a forest and expect that a white knight would come along with shining armor and gather you up and look after you for the rest of your life. Whereas men, they were the breadwinners. They had to finish their field research, get a PhD and get a job.
Goodall also talks about the parenting lessons she learned from the ape “Flo,” how she felt when her friend the chimpanzee Flo died, and the profound experiences in both the African jungle and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. “I went there early in the morning, just as the sun was coming in the great rose window. And it was Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor from the organ that suddenly filled the cathedral,” she said, and she couldn’t accept that such beauty had come about by chance. “It was anti-chance, which means something like God.” To Goodall, that translates to a life of activism on behalf of animal rights and the environment (see below).
To young people who want to follow in her footsteps as an explorer, she says simply: “Don’t just learn from your TV screen. Go out and watch. Even if you’re in the middle of an inner city, you can grow things and watch how they grow.”