Getting to Know the Real Dr. Jane Goodall
May I introduce you to my dear friend Jane Goodall?
Posted September 23, 2011
Most of you already know the legend. She is the blonde with the ponytail, the young woman who in 1960 went with verve and total courage where big and very tough men were afraid to go--into the African forest where the wild chimpanzees lived.
Yes, she did something that seemed from the very first like breakthrough science. It was breakthrough science. She pioneered a kind of animal research that showed a new style, a new method, a new approach, and that presented new parameters and new dimensions to the developing sciences of ethology and primatology.
Fifty years later, Jane Goodall continues to support ongoing field research on the behavior of wild chimpanzees and other animals living in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, East Africa.
I first met Jane more than two decades ago. She and I wrote a book together, and that experience began our friendship and long-term collaboration. Here is the Jane Goodall I came to know:
>One of the world's foremost experts on wild chimpanzees.
>A great scientist who has done revolutionary work.
>Someone who is small and seems frail but is tough as nails.
>A person who is funny and fun-loving and takes a childlike pleasure in simple things.
>A brilliant raconteur.
>An unassuming woman who is very open with people, who, to an amazing degree, does not prejudge others.
>Someone who hates the sight and smell of undercooked, runny eggs at the breakfast table.
At same time that I was getting to know the real Jane Goodall, I was becoming aware of the Jane Goodall icon. Here is my impression of the icon:
>Ponytail on legs.
>Jane of the Apes--Tarzan's counterpart.
>Beauty with the Beasts.
>Fragile female in far-off forest.
>Dreamy practioner of feminine science at war against the grouchy old males of traditional masculine science.
Those aspects of the icon may not be entirely wrong. She is a feminist hero, and maybe there is something to the idea of a feminine approach to science.
Still, I considered the effects of that Jane Goodall icon--that powerful collection of memorable images by which she has been represented to the world, the reality of her for most people--and I thought that it had the unfortunate side effect of exoticizing her. The icon also, I thought, to some degree devalued her real accomplishments as a scientist and a conservation activist who continues to inspire people around the world.
The main reason I spent 10 years researching and writing the single full biography of Jane Goodall was to replace the icon with a more complex and a truer story of a real person who did real science, and who deserves her status today as the world's most famous woman scientist.
The best medicine that can cure your general unhappiness, your unease, your pain or despair, dear reader, is only too close at hand. That medicine is to find something (or someone) outside yourself that (or whom) you recognize to be more important than you, with a need bigger than yours. Then dedicate yourself to alleviating that bigger need, and your own needs will, over time, diminish and even disappear. The truly unhappy people of this world can find hope in this idea, and in the life model provided by my dear friend Jane Goodall.