Anthropologist Jane Goodall, the world’s expert on chimpanzees, opened her presentation to a lively CEMEX Auditorium on April 7 with a series of primate calls, later translating them as greetings.
“I would grow up; I would go to Africa, I would live with animals; and I would write books about them,” Goodall said to introduce her life’s work. Starting in the fall of 1971, she taught human biology and psychiatry here at Stanford.
In her return to the Farm, Goodall recounted her childhood growing up in England and the factors that led her to becoming a leading activist for endangered species and against climate change.
Goodall’s mother was a defining thread in her story, inspiring her to pursue her dream despite financial pressures, War World II gender stereotypes and not having a college degree.
“If I had a different kind of mother, [my] curiosity might’ve been squashed. I might not be standing here now and the study of Gombe chimpanzees might never have happened,” Goodall said while urging Stanford students to work together and seize opportunities.
Goodall also emphasized the support she received from colleagues and superiors, citing Lewis Leakey – whose discoveries at the Olduvai Gorge are seminal to our understanding of human evolution — as someone who took Goodall under his wing when she was just 23 years old.
“I think he was surprised that a young girl straight from England knew so much about Africa. So he gave me a job,” she laughed. “A job as his secretary.”
Later, Leakey would give Goodall an opportunity to study chimpanzees in what is now Tanzania.
“[Leakey] reckoned that if somebody would go and study chimpanzees and find behavior that were similar or identical to chimpanzees and humans… that behavior could have been present in the common ancestor,” she recalled.
Over 43 years living with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Goodall has developed personal relationships with the apes she studies. She once observed a chimpanzee reach out, pick up a piece of grass and use it as a tool to fish termites from their nest, finally collecting evidence that Leakey had been looking for: chimpanzees were capable of intellectual performance as demonstrated by their ability to make and use tools. Until Goodall’s discovery, this was a trait thought to be exclusive to humans.
Goodall’s fascination with humans and apes gained an activist dimension after attending a researchers’ conference that underlined chimpanzees’ declining numbers, captivity conditions and the growing bushmeat trade.
“How is it that the most intellectual being is destroying our only hope?” Goodall asked of the human race.
Addressing Stanford students to “roll up their sleeves and get out there,” Goodall introduced Roots and Shoots, an organization dedicated to connecting young people around the world in order to positively effect the environment, the animals and people. Roots and Shoots was started by Goodall with 12 local Tanzanian teenagers and now spans 130 countries with more than tens of thousands of people involved.
“It’s your future, your children,” Goodall said, concluding her presentation with a plea to the Stanford community.“Together we can make a difference. Help us grow this community. And don’t let anyone tell you it’s too late.”