This interview, done for Third Way on the
26th March 2001, is the only one I have conducted over
the phone which was a pity, as I very much wanted
to meet her. As the researcher who established that
chimpanzees use tools and (arguably) have culture, Dr
(now Dame) Jane Goodall has been cited as the scientist
still living who has most totally revolutionised her
A lot of people see chimpanzees primarily as figures
of fun, because they are so like us but yet are not
us. How would you characterise them?
For one thing, they are surprisingly like us in their behaviour
which should not be surprising because physiologically
they are so like us. We differ in the structure of our DNA
(for what its worth) by only 1.6 per cent. The structure
of their brain and central nervous system is amazingly like
ours. Biologically, they are more like us than they are like
gorillas you could have a blood transfusion from a
I think the main difference between us is that, while they
have a very, very rich repertoire of communication
calls, postures and gestures they have not developed
a sophisticated spoken language, or even a sophisticated sign
language. Though the cognitive part of their brain is able
to cope with that they can learn three hundred or more
of the signs of American Sign Language as used by the deaf.
Scientists have been very ready to pick on the physiological
similarities because they want to use chimps in medical research;
but they have been very reluctant to admit similarities in
social behaviour and, especially, in cognitive abilities and
emotions that they can reason, they can solve simple
problems, they can feel happy, sad, fearful, they can feel
despair, they have a sense of humour and they can show, on
the one hand, brutality like us and, on the other, compassion,
caring and genuine altruism.
And they have a sense of self. They can recognise themselves
in mirrors, as the other great apes can which other
animals, as far as we know, cannot (although it wouldnt
surprise me if we were wrong). If you anaesthetise a chimpanzee
whos familiar with mirrors and you put little blobs
of paint on his face where he cant see them except in
the mirror, he will look in the mirror when he wakes up from
his sleep and with great interest investigate these spots.
And hell use the mirror to look in his mouth
things like that. He can even use a TV monitor to reach a
piece of food which he cant see directly. All these
experiments have been done many times.
I am intrigued that you often use the word amazing
about the abilities of chimpanzees. Surely they are remarkable
only if one assumes that no other species ought to be capable
of doing what we can do?
Before I went out to Africa, nobody knew anything except
about chimps in captivity, so it was always assumed that only
humans used and made tools and when I saw a chimpanzee
using a piece of grass to fish for termites, people were astonished.
Actually, we were described not as Man the tool user
but as Man the tool maker, so at first people
said, Oh well, chimpanzees just use twigs.
But of course thats not true. They modify them, and
they do so in quite complex ways. When they use a long stick
to feed on vicious biting ants, they push it down into the
nest and leave it for a moment: the ants come swarming out
in a great mass, and what the chimp must do is to sweep the
stick through his free hand and get the ants into his mouth
as fast as possible and chew them before they can run away.
And the secret is to peel the stick so its totally smooth
before he uses it. Or she, actually she is better at
You often observed chimpanzees solving problems like that,
but did you see them communicating the solutions to other
The point about chimpanzees is that they are really, really
curious about things going on in the world around them, and
they have a terrific attention span. Its this fascination
and ability to concentrate that enables young ones to learn
from the adults which is rather different from saying
the adults teach them. So, through observation a new tool-using
behaviour can be passed from one generation to the next
and that is a definition of culture. So, the tool-using traditions
shown by different chimpanzee populations across Africa can
be described as primitive cultures. Though some scientists
dont accept that definition.
Why do you think we are so jealous of our status as something
I think there are different reasons. In some cases, the huge
resistance I met from the scientific community was because
its not so comfortable to experiment on highly intelligent,
sensitive, thinking, feeling beings.
Also, once you realise that there is no sharp line between
us and the rest of the animal kingdom, it leads to a new respect,
a new feeling of empathy for the other amazing creatures with
whom we share the planet. Once you admit that there is no
sharp line between human and ape, you can hardly draw such
a line between ape and monkey or between monkey and dog or
between dog and pig.
There seems to me to be a peculiar ambivalence in the scientific
community. They tell us that humans are animals, yet they
still use the term animals to mean everything
Absolutely. It does not make sense.
But is the explanation merely that pragmatic reason
albeit, perhaps, unacknowledged?
No, I think its one of the reasons, but the underlying
reason is the Judaeo-Christian religion, which for so long
has formed a backbone of Western science.
In large part, that prejudice comes from Aristotle, doesnt
it? He made an absolute distinction between rational Man and
the brute beasts.
But are you saying that you have not encountered a similar
prejudice in the East?
No, its different there. Buddhists, Hindus and Jains
respect all living things and indigenous people all
over the world think of the four-footed ones and the finned
ones and the winged ones as cousins or as brothers
and sisters, usually.
Is it not true that there is more routine cruelty to other
creatures in the East than in Christian countries?
Yes and to humans, too. After all, in Darwins
day the man in the street here did not feel totally superior
to animals, did think of them as having minds and emotions,
but that didnt make him any more liable to be kind to
them, because he wasnt kind to children or women or
slaves or anything else.
Obviously, Jews and Christians have an ideological reason,
if you like, to police the border between humans and other
apes. How did the religious community react to your discoveries?
Ive had surprisingly little opposition from them. In
the Bible Belt in the States I expect almost to be heckled,
but Im not and I dont know why. I do believe its
stupid to wave a red rag, so I dont talk about evolution as such, because you can make the point without using that
But when, for example, you say that chimpanzees display
altruism you are crossing a heavily guarded border. Have you
not had any reaction from theologians?
Isnt it amazing? I expected to, but I havent.
And I dont know why.
Do you yourself think that ultimately there is some absolute
difference between our species and others, or is it all just
a matter of degree?
Its just a matter of degree. You know, coming back
to language, chimps can be taught a sign language, they can
be taught a computer language, they can be taught to use lexigrams,
they understand abstraction and symbolic meanings, but they
havent as far as we can possibly tell
developed anything like that in the wild. So, they cant
teach their children about things that arent present.
They cant discuss the distant past or make plans for
the distant future and I think, most important of all
they cant discuss an idea, they cant discuss
their feelings. Whereas we, for some reason, developed a sophisticated
verbal language and this, I believe, triggered an explosive
development of our brain.
But in your autobiography, Reason for Hope, discussing
your observation of chimpanzees waging a primitive form of
war, you made a distinction between our capacity for wickedness
and theirs, and you seemed to imply that it wasnt just
a question of degree.
Well, it comes down to this capacity of the brain to understand
things. I think they are aware to some extent of the effect
of their brutal actions on others; but actually to plan to
be brutal, to deliberately inflict pain just for the sake
of it I dont think their minds are quite capable
of that. Im not saying they wouldnt if they could
Why was there so much hostility amongst scientists when
you announced your observations of warfare?
Oh, because this might imply that aggression is inevitable
in humans, because its genetically programmed, a heritage
from our ancient primate past. Thats what they were
afraid people would say. And I think its true
nobody can really deny that humans are innately aggressive.
But that doesnt mean that war is inevitable, because
we can control our genetic behaviour far more than any other
How far would you go along with this statement by the research
scientist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh?
It is possible, if one looks beyond the slightly
differently shaped face, to read the emotions of apes as
easily and as accurately as one reads the emotions and feelings
of other human beings. There are few feelings that apes
do not share with us, except perhaps self-hatred. They certainly
experience and express exuberance, joy, guilt, remorse,
disdain, disbelief, awe, sadness, wonder, tenderness, loyalty,
anger, distrust and love
Only those who live and
interact with apes as closely as they do with members of
their own species will be able to understand the immense
depth of the behavioral similarities between ape and man
[Ape Language: From Conditioned Response
to Symbol (Columbia University Press, 1986), p25]
I would have to contemplate some of those categories a little.
Most of them I was ticking off mentally. Of course, the chimpanzees
she was talking about are ones that have had a lot of time
with people, and I suspect that their emotions may have been
sort of shaped to some extent by their human experience.
If you continually punish a dog for doing something which
you find bad, they are likely to act in a guilty
way whenever they do it mostly because the dog is expecting
punishment. Human guilt can be like that, too. But we know
another kind of guilt, when we have failed to live up to anothers,
or our own, expectations. This sort of guilt can sometimes
be equated with self-loathing, and is not, I am sure, within
the mental capacity of a chimpanzee.
Would you describe chimps as people, as, I
think, another field researcher, Shirley Strum, has described
Well, no, you see, I wouldnt. We are great apes, but
we are not chimpanzees and they are not people.
I suppose what she meant is that baboons are somebodies.
They are not merely organic machines.
Well, no, theyre not; but nor are dogs, nor are pigs,
nor are cows. Theres a continuum: its all to do
with the degree of sophistication of the brain which,
of course, is very, very high in the whales and dolphins,
only they dont look so much like us and they live in
such a different world that its hard to bring them into
Do you believe that chimpanzees have souls?
Ah, theres a good one! You know, its strange:
as the barriers between us and other animals are being broken
down by science and more and more people are coming to realise
that were not as different as we used to think, the
questions Im asked change, and now people ask: Do animals
have souls? Do chimps show the beginnings of religious behaviour?
And what is your answer?
I believe theres a great spiritual power around us,
in which we live and move and have our being,
which Christians call God. I believe that
in every one of us there is a spark of that power that we
can draw strength from, and, if we will, we can nurture it
so that it becomes a more and more important part of our lives.
We, with our sophisticated intellect, have called this spark the soul. I think that if I have a soul, then
animals have souls. But of course even chimpanzees cannot
ask questions about such things. I doubt that they are concerned
whether or not they have them.
You write a lot about this great spiritual power, but it
isnt clear whether you regard it as personal.
I dont know what he/she/it/they is. But clearly the
spark can be so developed in someone like Jesus, he is so
desperately aware of what it is, that he describes himself
as the son of God. But he repeatedly says that
we, too, are sons and daughters of God.
But, unlike the Buddha, he perceived God as a person.
Well, yes, but he did talk in parables all the time.
At Gombe you also did research on spotted hyenas.
Did you find you had the same impulse to give them individual
Oh yes. Every hyena is different and unique. Actually, they
Mind you, my sons guinea pigs have names but Im
not sure I would say I could recognise any distinct character
in the two of them.
I bet you could. One of our educational projects got kids
to spend at least an hour watching their pet at least three
times a week, and they all came back saying, I had two
of this and two of that and I never realised how different
they were. They have personalities and that was
one of the things I was told at Cambridge that only humans
You write that it is dangerous to reduce the idea of altruism
in humans to an evolutionary survival strategy, and you say
that the same applies to chimpanzees. How far down the scale
would you take that?
I dont know, I havent really thought about it.
Certainly dogs can be altruistic. There are such amazing stories
of how they can help their human friends.
But when a hyena fights to protect her cubs, do you see
that as a mothers love in action or is that just something
her genes have programmed her to do?
Well, I think a lot of stuff is programmed, including in
us. I had this blind surge of anger when someone threatened
my baby it was totally irrational: they werent
trying to harm him at all.
But then when you watch individual animals and get to know
them and their behaviour very well, you see the departure
from the instinctive pattern, the generalised behaviour. Some
mothers are very much better than others.
Which suggests some kind of deliberate choice?
Yes. How far down the line you go, I dont know but
what I do know is that you dont just get little preprogrammed
machines that dont think at all. I think animals think
way down the line, and they feel further down it still.
You have often been accused of anthropomorphism, which
for ethologists was always the unforgivable sin. How do you
Well, I dont think anthropomorphism is necessarily
a bad thing. Anthropomorphism is attributing humanlike characteristics
to non-human beings, but once youve studied chimps closely
you realise they do have humanlike characteristics
we animal-like or are they humanlike? It comes to the same
Though just because you feel that an animal has a humanlike
characteristic you cannot assume that is the case. You have
to make repeated, careful observations, to record the same
behaviour in the same situation many times, before you can
make a scientific case. Intuition alone is not enough but it is a wonderful basis for further questioning, testing,
and ultimately proving yourself right or wrong. But an open
mind is very important.
Why is it that so many of certainly the most celebrated
researchers who have studied the great apes have been women?
And then there is Shirley Strum also, and Cynthia Moss, who
spent years observing African elephants
There are some jolly good male researchers, too. But I think
women do have this tendency to stick to it for a very long
time. Louis Leakey chose women in particular because he thought
they were more patient and made better observers and were
more intuitive. [Dr Leakey was the maverick palaeontologist
who discovered the remains of Homo habilis in Olduvai
Gorge in Tanzania. He sent Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute
Galdikas to study chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans respectively
in the wild in the hope that their behaviour would shed some
light on how our Neolithic ancestors lived.]
I think women definitely are more intuitive. They are more
liable to feel and certainly to admit to empathy
with their subjects, and that is conducive to long-term commitment
which is especially important when youre researching
in a physically demanding environment and when there isnt
much money. If Dian and Birute and I had thought that our
subjects were just little machines with no personalities
well, it would have been a bit boring!
In evolutionary terms, women have had to be patient to raise
their children, they have had to be very quick to understand
the wants of a being who cant talk and theyve
traditionally had to keep the peace in the family, so theyve
had to be quick to see signs that Uncle So-and-so is in a
bad mood, to keep little Joey out of the way. All these kind
Science seems to be pulling in two different directions
now, with the ascendancy of reductionists such as Richard
Dawkins but also the emergence of a more intuitive, even mystical
approach to things. Do you have any feel for which side is
going to prevail?
Oh, I think definitely the non-reductionists are going to
win. I sense a real, fundamental change, in that there are
fewer hardline scientists than there were. There are more
scientists prepared to admit that there is something out there.
If you look at all the really great scientists, the handful
whose names leap out Einstein, Darwin none of
them have been reductionists, ever.
In recent years there has been a collapse in public confidence
that science is impartial and trustworthy. Do you think that
feeling is justified?
Yes, I do. I think scientists have been bought by industry
and theyve been bought by politicians.
In 1974, when I went to a Unesco conference in Paris where
nurture versus nature was a hot topic, I asked a professor
I so respected, Do you really think that aggression
is learnt? and he said, Id rather not talk
about what I really believe. That was so shocking to
me. The good scientist tries to say only what he or she feels
to be the truth.
David Attenborough has said that the more he studies nature,
and witnesses its violence and suffering, the more convinced
he is that there is no God. Do you think, perhaps, that what
the Church Fathers called the Book of Nature tells us neither
one thing nor the other, but we project our own beliefs onto
Well, I dont know. That gets so deep, doesnt
it? If you look around the world at the beliefs of humans
through the ages and now I find it strange that all
our amazing brains, by and large, should have projected the
same picture onto it. To me, the wonder of nature and its
complexity convince me more and more that there is this great
spiritual power moving behind it and giving reason for our
It has always seemed to me that the universe is a deliberate
design. But I know a lot of it doesnt fit in.
You have made your name as a meticulous observer of empirical
facts, but you also write quite mystically and talk about
the psychic experiences of people you know and say youre
inclined to believe in reincarnation. It seems to me a curious
mix in one person.
Well, I didnt start as a scientist and I dont
feel like one now. Ive always thought of myself as a
naturalist. But science is a self-discipline that teaches
you how to order your thoughts: it teaches you logical thinking
(or it should do, though a lot of scientists are not very
logical). I dont feel any conflict inside.
You quote the Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin: Theres something afoot in the universe:
something that looks like gestation and birth.
Do you have any inkling of what is waiting to be born?
I think that humanity is moving towards a new level of both
morality and spirituality. I do believe there is a purpose
to our life on earth, but sometimes that is hard to believe we are so very strange, with our warring tendencies
of good and evil, it almost seems we could be some kind of
But when I think of the lives of the saints not just
the great figures of the church but all the ordinary people
around us living extraordinary lives it proves that
a world very different from this one is indeed possible. And
I do think we are moving towards that state of being. I truly
believe that theres a huge dissatisfaction with this
terrible materialistic life, and the greed and the selfishness
and the destruction of the natural world.
The trouble is, there are so many of us, and we are so destructive,
sometimes Im afraid we wont reach a new state
of beingness in time, before life on earth as we know it has
been destroyed. But I am an optimist. More and more
people now realise the mistakes we are making and, provided
we all make the changes we must in our own lives, I think
we can heal the world. Im just not absolutely sure we
can pull it off in time.
© Third Way 2001
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