Laureation address: Dr Jane Goodall

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity
Laureation by Professor Andrew Whiten, School of Psychology and Neuroscience

Friday 13 September 2013

Jane Goodall has earned a unique place in the history of scientific progress through her early, ground-breaking discoveries about the nature of our closest sister species, the chimpanzee. In more recent times, she has led an unprecedented mission to save these special creatures from the extinction that increasingly threatens them. She has created and encouraged the development of impressive international networks of young people who are extending this conservation work to other species and to whole ecosystems and communities. Hers is an extraordinary life story, from humble beginnings to the well-earned status of a living legend who has inspired a generation of life scientists eager to follow in her footsteps.

Her childhood experiences encouraged a fascination with animals and their behaviour, and she developed a particular ambition to travel in Africa and experience its wildlife first hand. That ambition was fulfilled in 1956 when, at the age of 23, she was able to accept the invitation of a family friend to visit their farm in Kenya. Jane’s family circumstances at that time were extremely modest: a university education was beyond them and Jane determinedly scrimped together her own savings through secretarial and waitressing work to earn the fare to sail to Mombasa – a voyage of three weeks. In these days of easy gap years overseas, it is difficult for us to appreciate how much this first step to Africa already signalled the adventurousness and indefatigable determination that were to make Jane Goodall the extraordinary figure she has become.

In Kenya Jane met the eminent palaeontologist and human fossil hunter, Dr Louis Leakey, and was appointed his administrative assistant. Soon she had progressed to helping in his scientific expeditions to excavate early hominid fossils in Olduvai Gorge. A momentous event followed. Leakey wanted to support the first studies of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas of Africa, and he chose Jane to pioneer the chimpanzee study. This was an unconventional gambit, perhaps even a risky one; here was a young woman with no degrees in biology or anthropology and indeed scant education in science. But of course it turned out to be an enormously astute choice. Leakey recognised the unique cluster of talents that would combine to make the project, and Jane, ultimately world famous and would change our image of chimpanzees, and also of ourselves, forever.

Given the richness of what is now known about wild chimpanzees it seems incredible that viewed against the backdrop of millennia of human history, just 60 years ago we still knew next to nothing about the private life of our closest living relative in the animal kingdom – the primate with whom we last shared a common evolutionary ancestor, about six million years ago. Jane Goodall was the pioneer who changed that, after she set up her first camp in the Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania, in 1960. Her first major discovery was that chimpanzees not only use tools but fashion them for different purposes. This had been thought to be a defining feature of ‘man the tool-maker’, leading Louis Leakey famously to announce that, “Now, we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans”. This was followed by a host of further revelations over the years: that chimpanzees are not vegetarians but collaborate in hunts, especially for monkeys; that they are cultural beings with their own rich traditions; that their family relationships can remain intimate across multiple generations; yet like us also, they have their dark side expressed in lethal warfare with neighbouring chimpanzee communities. As these scientific discoveries proliferated, it became important that Jane gain a more solid scientific training, which she did under the wise scrutiny of Britain’s foremost ethologist, Professor Robert Hinde at the University of Cambridge. From a ‘standing start’ of no first degree, Jane persevered, sometimes locking horns with the scientific establishment, in her determination to address contentious matters like the reality of animal personalities and emotions, and she gained her PhD in 1966.

National Geographic and its readers found her discoveries enthralling, intertwined as they were with Jane’s inspiring personal life history and her own evident passionate engagement with the lives of her chosen subjects. Popular books followed the scientific articles, and soon there were films too; as Jane ensured that all that was being learned about chimpanzees was not restricted to the narrow confines of scientific literature, but broadcast for a fascinated public to embrace. One result is that Jane Goodall is famous across the globe: but for her, the important consequence is that the chimpanzees – like ‘Flo’ and ‘Fifi’– are famous too. After millennia of ignorance, we have finally got to know our sister species.

The tragedy is – and this is what the ‘second act’ of Jane’s impressive career has so vigorously grappled with – is that ironically, just as we got to know chimpanzees, our species is exterminating theirs. Their plight became graphic to Jane at the time her scientific magnum opus The Chimpanzees of Gombe was published in 1986. Flying over Gombe in a small plane she saw that what was once an extensive forest was now a diminishing island of vegetation increasingly hemmed in by human encroachment. Elsewhere in Africa the situation was even more dire, as chimpanzees became the victims of a bushmeat trade exacerbated by logging roads opening up forests. Jane decided she must leave the Gombe studies largely in the hands of her research team, and herself focus on saving chimpanzees. For decades now she has travelled the world in this endeavour, lecturing, fundraising and lobbying governments and others who can help the cause. In recent years, she has continued with a schedule that has her ‘on the road’ for over 300 days a year. That is an extraordinary commitment and achievement.

In 1991 Jane set up the ‘Roots & Shoots’ global youth programme, which helps young people to learn about problems in their communities and in the world, and then take real actions toward solving those problems. Roots and Shoots now involves hundreds of thousands of youngsters in over 120 countries worldwide.

In 2002 Secretary-General Kofi Annan named Jane a UN Messenger of Peace. Carrying the highest honour bestowed by the Secretary-General on a global citizen for an initial period of two years, UN Messengers of Peace volunteer their time, talent and passion to raise awareness about the United Nations’ efforts to improve the lives of people everywhere. Jane has used this distinguished appointment to reciprocally support the achievements of the Roots and Shoots campaign. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed Dr Goodall’s appointment as a UN Messenger of Peace when he took office in 2007.

Through her ground breaking scientific achievements and her mushrooming conservation programmes, Jane Goodall is an inspiration to us all. Her achievements have been recognised through countless awards, including the National Geographic Hubble Medal, the Zoological Society of London Silver Medal, The Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and the Legion d’Honneur presented by the French Prime Minister. She was appointed DBE in 2004.