A Trip Back In Time With Jane Goodall

17:28 minutes

an older woman and man smiling together in a radio studio
Ira with Jane Goodall in studio on September 27, 2002. Credit: Ira Flatow

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On September 27, 2002, Ira sat down for his first interview with the pioneering conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, to hear about her life, work, and vision for our relationship with our environment. Goodall is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work with animals and her contributions to humanity.

When this interview originally aired, Goodall was already 40 years distant from her initial breakthrough discovery of tool use in chimpanzees, was the subject of a newly released IMAX movie, and had just been named a UN Ambassador for Peace.

Learn more about her in the latest Science Friday Rewind, a series exploring historic interviews and scientific discoveries captured in our audio archives.

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Segment Guests

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall, DBE, is a founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and is a UN Messenger of Peace.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. More than 60 years ago, a young scientist named Jane Goodall first set foot in what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She’d go on to make groundbreaking observations of chimpanzee behavior, including tool use, personality traits, and even their darker, more aggressive side.

Since then, she’s gone on to advocate for environmental conservation and for a view of nature that places us within the animal kingdom. Late last week, it was announced that she was this year’s winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work changing our view on animal and human society. So we thought it was a good time for a SciFri rewind.

Ira interviewed Dr. Goodall for the first time in September of 2002. They talked about her first entry into the world of chimps, her many discoveries, and her hopes for a better future. It was, I must say, a lovely interview. Take a listen.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much for coming in to join us today, Dr. Goodall.

JANE GOODALL: Well, thanks for inviting me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a little bit about your background. Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society, once wrote about you in one of your books, “She was hardly the image one would project to become an old African hand. Her bush experiences were honed in the genteel English countryside.”

JANE GOODALL: Well, it wasn’t exactly genteel. I wouldn’t have described it like that. But you know, animals were my passion from even before I could speak, apparently. So I was watching earthworms in my bed when I was 1 and 1/2, and I hid for five hours in a hen house when we had the opportunity to go into the country, because we lived in the town, because I was collecting the eggs.

And you know, there was the egg. Where was the hole big enough for the egg to come out? Nobody told me. So I hid.

IRA FLATOW: You wanted to watch it.

JANE GOODALL: And I watched it. And it was my first, you know, wonderful experiment. And then when I was about 10, 11, I found the books about Tarzan of the apes. Fell in love with Tarzan. He’s got that wife Jane, you know, so I was terribly jealous of her.

And that was when my dream started. When I grew up, I would go to Africa, live with animals, and write books about them. That’s how it all began.

IRA FLATOW: And how did you fulfill that dream?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I got the opportunity when a school friend invited me to go and stay on their farm in Kenya. And I was working at the time with a documentary film studio in London, which was a great job. Didn’t pay very much. So I quit that, went home, and worked as a waitress, and served people their breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner till I’d saved up enough money to buy my return fare by boat, because it was cheapest in those days.

So you know, I was 23, and I sort of said bye-bye to family, friends, and country, and off I went. But we had arranged a job for me in Nairobi– a boring job, a secretarial job, but at least I would be independent. And that was when I heard about the late Louis Leakey. And somebody said, Jane, if you’re interested in animals, you must meet Louis. So I picked up the telephone, cheeky me, and made an appointment to go and see Louis Leakey. He was then curator of the Natural History Museum in Nairobi.

IRA FLATOW: And were you around, then, when he made that famous discovery?

JANE GOODALL: No, I was the year before.

IRA FLATOW: It was the year before. Oh, just missed out.

JANE GOODALL: Which was so lucky.

IRA FLATOW: It was lucky?

JANE GOODALL: Yes, because it was absolutely unknown. We just spent all day chipping away in the rock. And then Gillian and I were allowed out on the plains. And all the animals were there. The antelopes, the zebra, the giraffes. And then one evening, there was a rhino, which was a little bit scary.

And one evening, a young male lion, two years old. Totally curious. Never seen anything like me and Gillian before. And he followed us for at least, well, a couple of football pitches. It was like being at home.

IRA FLATOW: And so then how did you find your way toward working with the chimps?

JANE GOODALL: Well, it was during that Olduvai time that Louis realized that I was the sort of person he said he’d been looking for for about 10 years. So he made the suggestion to me. Took him a year to get the money. I mean, who was going to give money to a young girl, a female, who didn’t have a degree of any sort, straight out from England? I mean, what a ridiculous idea.

So I was in England waiting, learning what I could about chimpanzees, while he searched for money and eventually found a wealthy American businessman that said, OK, Louis, here you are. Here’s enough money for six months. We’ll see how she does.

IRA FLATOW: And you did pretty well.

JANE GOODALL: Well, it was a very, very worrying time, because I got to Gombe. Again, I felt I was at home. But the chimpanzees ran away as soon as they saw me. They’re very conservative. They’d not seen a white ape before.

And I knew if that six months’ money ran out before I’d seen something really exciting, you know, I would have let Louis down. Well, we told you so. This is ridiculous.

But fortunately, just before that time came, I saw the first observations of using and making tools. And that was the saving observation, the breakthrough. Of course, at that time, we were defined as man the toolmaker. That was supposed to differentiate us more than anything else in the rest of the animal kingdom.

David Greybeard, bless his heart– I saw him crouched over a termite mound. Couldn’t really see properly. They were still not very relaxed in my presence, so I was hiding. But I knew he was using a piece of grass.

And a few days later, he and one of the other chimps, I could see them much better– the whole thing, putting in the grass, picking the termites off, picking a leafy twig and stripping off the leaves, which is the beginning of tool making. So that was it.

IRA FLATOW: Exciting?

JANE GOODALL: It was– I couldn’t actually believe it. I had to see it about four times before I let Louis Leakey know. And then I sent a telegram, and he sent back his famous comment, “Haha, now we must redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

IRA FLATOW: Well, I know you do wonderful chimp calls. So I’m going to try to get my engineer ready for this, because Jane tells me it’s pretty loud. So tell us what call you’re going to be giving.

JANE GOODALL: Well, I’m going to do the greeting. And it’s the kind of sound you’d hear if you went to Gombe and you climbed up onto the ridge in the morning and you listened. And if you’re lucky, you hear the chimpanzee who’s calling out, saying, here I am, it’s a wonderful day, where are you? And– [VOCALIZING]


JANE GOODALL: Each one has his or her own individual voice, so you know exactly who’s calling.

IRA FLATOW: So like we can tell on the phone who the chimp is, you can also tell.

JANE GOODALL: Yes. Correct.

IRA FLATOW: I want to pick up on you having to get a PhD when you went back. And they were just aghast at you.

JANE GOODALL: Yeah, they were.

IRA FLATOW: Whippersnapper. Upstart.

JANE GOODALL: Yeah, I was even accused of teaching the chimps how to fish for termites, which, I mean, that would have been such a brilliant coup.

IRA FLATOW: Besides your initial discovery, what has been most surprising to you?

JANE GOODALL: Well, the most surprising and shocking, really, was when, in 1970– that’s after 10 years of research– we realized that chimpanzees have a dark side just like we. I’d thought they were so like us, but rather nicer. And then to find that they are capable of brutality, that they may even have a series of events not unlike primitive warfare, that they can attack members of another social group so severely that those individuals die as a result of their wounds, and that infants can be killed. And that was very, very shocking.

IRA FLATOW: Any– why it took 10 years, about 10 years, to discover that?

JANE GOODALL: Well, because the boundary patrols are right out at the far end of their range, and I suppose we just weren’t following them far enough. But also, the war-like– we called it the four-year war– that was a rather specific circumstance. And it was when our main study community divided. And when those two groups had sort of completely separated, then the males of the larger group began to systematically annihilate the split-off individuals. It was almost like a civil war. And it was very, very shocking.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Sharif in Philadelphia. Hi.

SHARIF: How are you doing? I wanted to know if you believe there are any undiscovered large ape species, and if you believe that the bonobo chimpanzee is a subspecies of the chimp or a separate species?

JANE GOODALL: OK, well, I’ll do the second one first, because that’s easy. It’s definitely another species. I mean, it’s known. It’s described as another species. It’s a bonobo, not a pygmy chimpanzee. Different in many, many ways.

IRA FLATOW: What a wild species that is. I mean, just incredible.


IRA FLATOW: Rich species. The things that they do that we never thought–

JANE GOODALL: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: –that chimps do.

JANE GOODALL: Yes. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, genetically, are equidistant. As for the other, you’re talking about Yeti or Bigfoot or Sasquatch–

IRA FLATOW: Is that what he’s talking about?

JANE GOODALL: Yes. Yes, he is.

IRA FLATOW: Is that the message I’m missing here?

JANE GOODALL: I think that’s the message you’re missing.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right, Sharif?

SHARIF: Pretty much.

JANE GOODALL: Well, now, you’ll be amazed when I tell you that I’m sure that they exist.

IRA FLATOW: You are?

JANE GOODALL: Yeah. I’ve talked to so many Native Americans who’ve all described the same sounds, two who’ve seen them. I’ve probably got about 30 books that have come from different parts of the world, from all over the place. And there was a little tiny snippet in the newspaper just last week, which says that British scientists have found what they believe to be a Yeti hair, and that the scientists in the Natural History Museum in London couldn’t identify it as any known animal. Now, that was just a wee bit in the newspaper, and obviously we have to hear a little bit more about that.

IRA FLATOW: Well, in this age of DNA, if you find a hair, there might be some cells on it.

JANE GOODALL: Well, there will be. And I’m sure that’s what they’ve examined. My little tiny snippet said they don’t match up with DNA cells from known animals, so– apes.

IRA FLATOW: Did you always have this belief that they existed?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I’m a romantic, so I always wanted them to exist.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Sharif.

SHARIF: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling. How do you go looking for them? I mean, people have been looking. Or has this just been– since we don’t really believe they could exist, we really haven’t really made a serious search for them.

JANE GOODALL: Well, there are people looking. There’s very ardent groups in Russia. And they have published a whole lot of stuff about what they’ve seen.

Of course, the big criticism of all this is, where is the body? You know, why isn’t there a body? And I can’t answer that. And maybe they don’t exist. But I want them to. And so I–

IRA FLATOW: What needs to be researched out there? I mean, what is missing from the picture?

JANE GOODALL: Well, one of the most fascinating areas for research is cultural differences between different populations across Africa, or even different neighboring communities. And of course, it’s still controversial as to whether chimpanzees can have culture, but I define it very simply as behavior that’s passed from one generation to the next through observation, imitation, and practice.

And tool-using behaviors differ quite markedly across the species range in Africa. Now, we’ve just begun to skim the surface of these differences. But even as you and I are speaking, chimpanzees along with their cultures are being wiped out right across Africa. So from about two million 100 years ago to at the very maximum 200,000 today, and that’s more likely to be 150,000, mostly in tiny, isolated fragments where there’s no possibility for long-term survival, because the gene pools aren’t big enough.

IRA FLATOW: And they’re dying why?

JANE GOODALL: They’re dying because of habitat destruction as human populations grow. They’re caught in wire snares set for other animals, but they catch the chimps– and gorillas, for that matter. And they either die of gangrene or lose a hand or foot and can’t compete very well reproductively.

But the worst threat for chimps today is the commercial bushmeat trade, and that is the hunting of animals for sale in the big towns. Not subsistence hunting, which has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years. But this has happened because the logging companies have made roads into the heart of the last great forests of the Congo basin.

Hunters go along the trail. They now have transport. They shoot everything. They load it on the truck. They take it to the towns, where the elite will pay more for it than chicken or goat.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s Ira Flatow in conversation with conservationist Jane Goodall. I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re listening to a 2002 interview with Ira Flatow and conservationist Jane Goodall in recognition of her recently winning the prestigious Templeton Prize.

IRA FLATOW: Do you see yourself as an effective spokesperson for the environment now? There are so few people.

JANE GOODALL: One of the remarks that’s so often said to me after a lecture– people come up and they say, you have re-inspired me to do my bit. You have made me feel that my own life is more worthwhile.

IRA FLATOW: But do you think that people who might be tougher to reach with that message might be more inclined to invite a Jane Goodall to speak, or listen to you as someone who is, quote, unquote, a “political environmentalist”?

JANE GOODALL: Well, I do know that when talking to people who perhaps think very differently, the only chance you have of getting them to think in a different way is to touch the heart. And if are strident, if you start accusing people, if you point fingers, then you immediately see the eyes glaze over, and you know that you’re not getting across. And you know, I have to go around and think that so much of what goes on that, in my view, anyway, is a mistake is due not to any kind of criminal intent, but simply because people honestly haven’t understood.

So I feel that that’s my job. My job is to help people understand and to think about the future. I mean, just imagine what this world would be like if we went back to the old tradition of the Native Americans who said every major decision has to be made with the question, how will this affect our people seven generations on? Even if we could just say two generations on, even one generation on, it would be helpful.

IRA FLATOW: Do you miss, though, the forest?

JANE GOODALL: I try and keep the forest in me. That’s what I have to do to remain sane. But when I do go back to Gombe, you know, it’s to be out in the forest, even without a chimpanzee, to be in that timeless world where it’s soft and where life is entwined and you actually see the pattern of nature, and I always feel this great spiritual power which I believe is around.

IRA FLATOW: And it must rejuvenate you.

JANE GOODALL: It does, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: What do you want to be remembered for?

JANE GOODALL: I think I’d like to be remembered as someone who really helped people to have a little humility and realize that we are part of the animal kingdom, not separated from it. The various results from chimpanzee research has done a lot to soften scientific attitude. And then about my work for the environment, let’s wait till I’m dead and see what sort of impact I’ve had. Then I can tell you.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re going to continue to travel.

JANE GOODALL: I have to. Well, as long as I can.

IRA FLATOW: Because?

JANE GOODALL: Because it’s making a difference. Because I can see the result of a visit, like, to mainland China. The minister of the environment said, Dr. Goodall, I would like your programs in our schools. And it’s changing the attitude of children to animals.

IRA FLATOW: So in your quiet way, I mean, you’re sort of in the background until an IMAX movie or something comes out, but you’re still working very hard.

JANE GOODALL: I’m working harder now than I ever worked. This is much harder work than crawling through the forest after the chimps. That was just bliss. Exhausting physically. Bliss. This is every day, and you take it, you live it, day by day. That’s the only way to get through it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, good luck to you.

JANE GOODALL: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: That was Ira Flatow interviewing chimp conservationist Jane Goodall back in 2002. Dr. Goodall is this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize, which was announced late last week. If you want to spend more time with Jane Goodall, you can dip into our new archive series, Science Friday Rewind, brought to you by digital producer Lauren Young. You can see photos of Dr. Goodall in the 1960s observing chimps in the field. You can listen to more highlights of past interviews, including my talk with her just at the start of the pandemic last year. And you can sign up for more archival stories at ScienceFriday.com/chimps.

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