Huw Spanner
Thoughts into words,
ideas into action
Curriculum Vitae



Family Matters

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 science.

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 it’s 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 chimp.

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 wouldn’t surprise me if we were wrong). If you anaesthetise a chimpanzee who’s familiar with mirrors and you put little blobs of paint on his face where he can’t 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 he’ll 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 can’t 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 that’s 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 it’s totally smooth before he uses it. Or she, actually – she is better at it.

You often observed chimpanzees solving problems like that, but did you see them communicating the solutions to other chimpanzees?

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. It’s 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 don’t accept that definition.

Why do you think we are so jealous of our status as something unique?

I think there are different reasons. In some cases, the huge resistance I met from the scientific community was because it’s 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 except us —

Absolutely. It does not make sense.

But is the explanation merely that pragmatic reason – albeit, perhaps, unacknowledged?

No, I think it’s 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, doesn’t 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, it’s 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 Darwin’s 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 didn’t make him any more liable to be kind to them, because he wasn’t 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?

I’ve had surprisingly little opposition from them. In the Bible Belt in the States I expect almost to be heckled, but I’m not and I don’t know why. I do believe it’s stupid to wave a red rag, so I don’t talk about ‘evolution’ as such, because you can make the point without using that word.

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?

Isn’t it amazing? I expected to, but I haven’t. And I don’t 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?

It’s 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 haven’t – as far as we can possibly tell – developed anything like that in the wild. So, they can’t teach their children about things that aren’t present. They can’t discuss the distant past or make plans for the distant future and – I think, most important of all – they can’t discuss an idea, they can’t 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 wasn’t 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 don’t think their minds are quite capable of that. I’m not saying they wouldn’t 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 it’s genetically programmed, a heritage from our ancient primate past. That’s what they were afraid people would say. And I think it’s true – nobody can really deny that humans are innately aggressive. But that doesn’t mean that war is inevitable, because we can control our genetic behaviour far more than any other creature.

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 another’s, 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 baboons?

Well, no, you see, I wouldn’t. 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, they’re not; but nor are dogs, nor are pigs, nor are cows. There’s a continuum: it’s 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 don’t look so much like us and they live in such a different world that it’s hard to bring them into the discussion.

Do you believe that chimpanzees have souls?

Ah, there’s a good one! You know, it’s 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 we’re not as different as we used to think, the questions I’m 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 there’s 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 isn’t clear whether you regard it as personal.

I don’t 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 names?

Oh yes. Every hyena is different and unique. Actually, they are incredible.

Mind you, my son’s guinea pigs have names but I’m 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 have.

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 don’t know, I haven’t 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 mother’s 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 weren’t 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 don’t know but what I do know is that you don’t just get little preprogrammed machines that don’t 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 avoid it?

Well, I don’t think anthropomorphism is necessarily a bad thing. Anthropomorphism is attributing humanlike characteristics to non-human beings, but once you’ve studied chimps closely you realise they do have humanlike characteristics… Are we animal-like or are they humanlike? It comes to the same thing.

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 you’re researching in a physically demanding environment and when there isn’t 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 can’t talk and they’ve traditionally had to keep the peace in the family, so they’ve 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 of things.

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 they’ve 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, ‘I’d 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 it?

Well, I don’t know. That gets so deep, doesn’t 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 lives.

It has always seemed to me that the universe is a deliberate design. But I know a lot of it doesn’t 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 you’re inclined to believe in reincarnation. It seems to me a curious mix in one person.

Well, I didn’t start as a scientist and I don’t feel like one now. I’ve 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 don’t feel any conflict inside.

You quote the Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: ‘There’s 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 evolutionary mistake.

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 there’s 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 I’m afraid we won’t 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. I’m just not absolutely sure we can pull it off in time.

© Third Way 2001

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