The woman who talked with chimps

Jane Goodall is a hero to many. This admiring biography reminds us why.

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About a decade ago, I was invited to hear Jane Goodall speak. I was eager to hear her, but also a little impatient. The ceremony was being held over breakfast and my main concern was getting to work on time.

But as Dr. Goodall took the stage, impatience fell away. She spoke of her amazing work over the years, then described the desperate condition of many chimpanzees today and the protection she yearned to procure for them. Suddenly getting to my desk on time didn't seem important in the slightest.

Goodall is probably one of the most admired women living in the world today. And if you are one of the many who regard her as a hero, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, Dale Peterson's comprehensive new biography, will do nothing to change your mind. Peterson, who has written and edited works with Goodall in the past, is an admirer who has written a very friendly authorized account of Goodall's life and work.

Recommended: Default

But if the book is laudatory (and it tends to be – opening with Goodall stepping into "a halo of light" on a speaking tour and concluding by describing her as a "distinguished scientist," activist, "renowned authority on human spirituality and psychological well-being," "eminent world citizen," and spokesperson for peace), that doesn't mean it isn't good.

Peterson's book is a thorough, intelligent, and highly readable look at an unusual life. The book is long (almost 700 pages) but for the most part the details are delightful. From the story of Goodall as a tiny girl hiding in a hen house to discover how hens lay eggs, to the description of her – young, blond, ponytailed – sitting quietly on the shore of an east African lake and letting wild chimpanzees approach, to details about her daily life as a wife and mother on the shores of that same lake, everything about Goodall's story is fascinating And Peterson does a nice job of setting Goodall's achievements in a context comprehensible to general readers.

Different from the start

Goodall was born to Britain's privileged classes. Her father was heir to the somewhat uncertain fortunes of a greeting-card company but chose to work as a racing car driver instead. Her parents were glamorous, a bit detached, but supportive.

From the start, Goodall was an unusual child. Although sociable and bright, she loved solitude and from quite a young age enjoyed observing animals in their natural habitats.

"I can remember she was quite different from everyone else," recalls the head of Goodall's first school. The young girl would disappear for disconcerting lengths of time, only to return nursing "a frog with a broken toe."

Goodall trained to be a secretary and was presented to the Queen as a debutante, but when Rusty, her childhood dog, was killed (she would never have left England while he lived – as she told Peterson, "I was afraid he would think I had abandoned him"), she accepted a friend's invitation to visit her father's farm in Kenya.

There, in 1957, Goodall met eminent scientist Louis Leakey who recognized in the young, untrained, but bright and enthusiastic woman the traits that would make her an ideal animal researcher. Using his connections, Leakey arranged for her to become the recipient of a grant enabling her to spend a year observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania.

An aging (and married) womanizer, Leakey was not without suspect motives (Goodall firmly rejected his overtures), but his instincts were nonetheless excellent. Using the methods she had developed as an animal-loving child in the English countryside, Goodall learned to commune with chimpanzees simply by sitting still and silently gaining their trust.

The few Western researchers who had previously studied monkeys in the wild hid themselves and discouraged contact. They also utterly scorned Goodall's habit of naming her subjects and considering them as individuals. (Previous studies identified monkeys only by number.)

What she discovered

But relying on her methods, Goodall made groundbreaking discoveries: that chimps eat meat, use tools, and have far more complex social interactions than had previously been suspected.

She eventually (with Leakey's help) was accepted for graduate studies at Cambridge University. With time, her astonishing expertise was recognized by the scientific community and eventually she became the world-renowned figure and animal activist she is today.

It's almost hard to remember now how narrow scientific views of animals were before Goodall. It's also fascinating to be reminded of the depth of her encounters with her subjects. The stories scattered throughout this book – of the chimp who seized leadership through technology (banging together water pails pilfered from Goodall's camp), of the adult male who died of a broken heart when he lost his mother, and of the chimp personalities Goodall came to know and often love are fascinating, heart wrenching, and illuminating.

Peterson's subtitle ("The Woman Who Redefined Man") overreaches just a bit. The case more emphatically made by this book is that Goodall redefined the way we think about animals. But that is no small accomplishment. For anyone interested in the record of human achievement – and the way common sense and intuition can shatter entrenched errors of thought – this is a story not to be missed.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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