On April 3, one week from today, Dr. Jane Goodall, the world-renowned chimpanzee expert and conservationist, will turn 80.
In advance of this milestone birthday, we all have a chance to thank Goodall for her lifelong work on behalf of chimpanzees and other wildlife.
As a scientist, I have found Goodall's long-term data from Gombe, Tanzania, on chimpanzee social ties, intelligence and felt emotion to be incredibly significant to my understanding of what it means to be human. That these other apes solve problems with tools they create, feel deeply connected to each other and can express a range of emotions — from kind compassion to violent brutality — tells us how much we share with these closest of all (along with bonobos) living relatives.
Of all the videos Goodall and her associates have created from Gombe over the decades, my favorite remains the waterfall video. In this two-and-a-half minute clip, we see the chimpanzees' "rhythmic dance" in and around water, and hear Goodall argue for their sense of "wonder and awe."
We diverge from chimpanzees too, of course. Prime examples include our expressions of wonder and awe through elaborated language, as well as through the complex processes associated with highly developed science and/or organized religion.
Yet it is the similarities between our two species that move me profoundly and underscore an urgent need to protect our next of kin wherever they may live.
On a personal note, I would add that the best part for me of talking with Goodall — three times over the years, once each in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and here at the College of William and Mary — was sharing in her knowledge of, and compassion for, animals of all shapes and sizes. Listen, for instance, to Goodall explain why she is a vegetarian in a video on her website.
By no means am I a close friend of Goodall's. I do believe, though, that I can successfully deliver this post to her attention.
So, with that in mind, have you been inspired by hearing Goodall speak? By reading her books? Or watching her documentary videos? How about through participation in her Roots and Shoots program for children? However she may have inspired you, please consider recounting your experience below in the comments section.
That way, together we may thank Dr. Goodall for her innovative science and outreach and wish her a very happy, healthy 80th birthday.