Our Socially Gifted Cousins

Egyptian vultures, Galapagos woodpecker finches, sea otters, some gorillas, and above all chimpanzees resemble human beings in their ability to use tools. But for much of the twentieth century, the ability to make tools was thought to be a skill unique to man and distinctively a product of human intelligence. In 1960, a young British primatologist named Jane Goodall pushed humanity off this self-congratulatory pedestal. Through arduous field studies in the forests of East Africa, she observed chimpanzees stripping twigs to make rods for termite-fishing.

Goodall owed the chance to make this seminal discovery to Louis Leakey, the white Kenyan paleoanthropologist who between the 1920s and his death in 1972 unearthed significant fossil clues to human ancestry. Beginning in the late 1950s, he also promoted the study of primates by others—Goodall with chimpanzees; Dian Fossey, the gorilla specialist; and (in Borneo) Biruté Galdikas, who studied orangutans—which he did by encouraging them, raising money for their work, and arranging official permission for it from various East African governments. (He thought that women would be best suited to studying primates in the wild, because they had greater patience—needed for the hard task of finding, tracking, and watching great apes live their leaf-obscured and distance-shrouded lives—and greater sensitivity to social nuance.)

Leakey hoped this primate research would throw light on the nature of mankind’s ancestors, whose bones, tools, and dinner leftovers he had been excavating at places like Olduvai Gorge—a thirty-mile-long ravine in the Serengeti Plains of northern Tanzania. When Goodall sent a report to him of her observations of tool-making activities by chimpanzees, he cabled back, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” It is the third option that has, in effect, since been taken.

Goodall’s remarkable career is the joint outcome of luck and determination. Born in 1934 to parents who divorced when she was young, Goodall was brought up in a modest seaside town in England. When she arrived in Kenya at age twenty-three in 1957, she had not a shred of qualification apart from secretarial training and an interest in animals. But she was hired by Leakey as his secretary, worked closely with him, and in 1960 Leakey sent her to the Gombe Stream nature reserve in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to study the area’s chimpanzee population.

Following the discoveries about tool-making, Leakey arranged for Goodall to return to England to pursue a Ph.D. in ethology, despite her lack of previous academic credentials. After finishing her degree, she returned to Gombe, where her research was sponsored by the National Geographic Society. In 1967, National Geographic published Goodall’s My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees, a popular illustrated book that went some way to repaying the society for its support. She has since published a dozen more books, of which easily the most famous is In the Shadow of Man (1971), which encouraged its many readers to think of chimpanzees as far more closely related to themselves than they had imagined. By 1977, Goodall had established the Jane…

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