Krista Tippett and Jane Goodall are two pioneering women in their fields. Krista is perhaps best known for her work with On Being, a public radio show and podcast that explores the human experience through spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, community, poetry, and the arts. At twenty-six years old, Jane embarked on a revolutionary sixty-year study of the complex social and family life of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. By immersing herself in the chimpanzees’ habitat and lives, she not only discovered that they use tools, but also came to understand them as unique individuals. When the two women agreed to let Orion record them in conversation, we were thrilled.
The meeting was initially set at a hotel in New York City, about halfway between Minneapolis, where Krista lives, and London, where Jane lives. When COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented both parties from leaving home, we arranged for a remote interview. Less ideal, of course—we’d lost our lightning in a bottle—but it was still an amazing opportunity, still a fascinating pair of formidable figures in concentrated discussion. Lightning in a milk jug, maybe.
The interview occupied two very different moments on the calendar, occurring during the sixtieth anniversary of Jane’s first visit to what is now Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, and also two days after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, a couple miles from Krista’s office. The tension between these legacies—one woman’s efforts to afford dignity across species lines, and centuries of behavior patterns that strip some within our species of any dignity—hung as a fog over the conversation. “The challenges are great,” Krista says at one point, “the existential challenge of what it means to be human in this century.”
KT: If I ask you about the spiritual background of your childhood, of your earliest life, however you understand that word now, where does that take you?
JG: My first serious observation of animals was four and a half, when I waited four hours to see a hen lay an egg. I was hiding in a henhouse, waiting, because nobody would tell me where the hole was where the egg came out.
KT: And it wasn’t logical, was it? It was a logical observation, that it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t obvious.
JG: Not really. So I saw a hen go into a henhouse, where they slept at night, and the nest boxes were round the edge, and I thought, She must be going to lay an egg. So I crawled after her, which was a big mistake. She flew out with squawks of fear, and so, in my little four-and-a-half-year-old mind, I must have thought, No hen will lay an egg here. There were, I think, five other henhouses. And so I went into an empty one and waited. And apparently, I waited about four hours. And they’d even called the police; they were all searching for me. We’d gone up for a holiday, onto this farm. And my mother must’ve been really nervous. You can imagine, your little four-year-old girl is gone. But when she saw me rushing toward the house, she saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear the wonderful story of how a hen lays an egg.
And the reason I love that story is, isn’t that the making of a little scientist? The curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up, learning patience. A different mother—“How dare you go off without telling us!”—might have crushed that early scientific curiosity. And I might not have done what I’ve done.
KT: We’re speaking in 2020, sixty years after you first went to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika, which is now Tanzania, July 1960. I was born in that year, 1960, a few months after you went to Gombe. And I’m so aware that what you began to see and study and turn into scientific observation there really transformed the world I grew up learning about. In the Shadow of Man changed people’s understanding, not just of chimpanzees, but of animals and of themselves. And that formed what felt true to me, scientifically true.
There’s a story that struck me when I was reading In the Shadow of Man. Your mother was with you for a while in the early part of the study; she went back to England; you were alone, and you were walking around, naming the aspects of the forest: “Good morning, Peak. Hello, Stream. Oh, Wind, for heaven’s sake, calm down.” And, of course, that echoes stories that are so alive in our culture, even the ones that influenced you: The Dolittles, Tarzan, The Wind in the Willows.
Children—and adults in the presence of children—see aspects of the natural world as animate and alive, and they give things names. The human imagination has always inclined this way. So, as I read the sweep of your story, I understand that one thing you did is, you helped substantiate an intuitive understanding and bond that human beings have. You put data to the truth such stories carried.
JG: Well, when I first went to Gombe, nobody else had studied chimpanzees in the wild—uncharted territory. And, of course, the first problem was that the chimps ran away as soon as they saw me. They’d never seen anything like this white ape before. And it was very wonderful at that time that my mother was there. The reason she was there is because Tanganyika was the last outpost of the crumbling British Empire back then, and the British authorities wouldn’t take responsibility for me coming on my own. They said I’d have to bring someone with me. So she volunteered. And she was there to boost my morale in those early days, because I’d get back, dejected the chimps had run away again, and she was pointing out, “You’re learning how the chimpanzees make beds at night, bending the branches over. You’re learning how they sometimes travel alone and sometimes in small groups and sometimes in big gatherings. You’re learning the foods that they eat and the calls that they make. You’re learning more than you think.” And I was really sad that she left just two weeks before that breakthrough observation, when I saw David Greybeard, the one chimp who had just begun to lose his fear, using and making tools to fish for termites.
That was the turning point. That was what enabled my mentor, Louis Leakey, to go to the National Geographic Society, and they agreed to fund the research when the six months’ money ran out. They sent Hugo van Lawick to take photographs and make film; he became my first husband. And it was his photographs and film in the Geographic magazines and documentaries that forced science to believe what I was saying, because before that, many of them had said, “Why should we believe what she says? She hasn’t been to college. She’s just a girl.” But when they saw Hugo’s film, then they had to believe.
KT: It’s worth underlining, because it’s so hard for people now to imagine, that as late as the latter half of the twentieth century, human beings thought that we were the only creatures who made tools.
JG: That’s what was, from science, believed. If somebody at that time had gone to the Pygmies in the rainforest in Congo, they could’ve told you.
When I finally was made to go to Cambridge University, by Louis Leakey—he said I needed a degree to get money—
KT: And, also, you were the eighth person in the history of Cambridge to come in to do graduate work without an undergraduate degree, which was almost unheard of.
JG: I was greeted by scientists who said, “You’ve done your study wrong. You can’t talk about personality, problem solving, or emotions,” because those were thought to be unique to us. I was actually taught, and it’s in the textbooks, that the difference between us and all other animals is one of kind. But my dog Rusty taught me when I was a child that that certainly wasn’t true: we’re not the only beings on the planet with personalities, minds, and emotions. We are part of, not separate from, the animal kingdom.
Arrogant Western science. I think it probably stems from religion. God made man, God made man different, God made man to have dominion over the birds and the animals and the fish and so on. But that is a wrong translation. The original Hebrew word is more like “steward,” not dominion.
KT: There’s social and emotional continuity with the natural world. We’re creatures, rather than just all the other creatures being creatures.
JG: It’s just very arrogant to think that way. I was told at Cambridge that you have to be absolutely objective, you must not have empathy with your subject. “You shouldn’t have named the chimpanzees,” they told me, “they should’ve had numbers.” To me, that was so wrong. When I was watching a chimpanzee family, for example, and one of the young ones did something a little strange, it’s because I was empathetic toward them that I thought, They do it because of . . . whatever. That gives you a platform, and you can stand on that platform and then analyze what you’ve seen in a scientific way. But it’s the empathy that gives that aha moment.
By 1986, I had my PhD, I’d built up a research station, and, best of all, I could spend hours alone in the rainforest. That’s where I felt that deep, spiritual connection to the natural world and, also, came to understand the interconnectedness of all living things in this tapestry of life, where each species, no matter how insignificant, plays a vital role in the whole pattern. And I imagined continuing in that way, well, for the rest of my life. Why not?
And it was when I published that big book, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior, and it had all my scientific observations, but it also had all the stories. Science is apt to scoff at a story; they are apt to scoff at anecdotes. But an anecdote can be a very carefully recorded observation. It’s an anecdote because you only see it once, but those anecdotes are sometimes the key to unlocking a puzzle. They’re terribly important. And a collection of anecdotes, stories, has been very, very important in my research.
So anyway, we organized a conference with the then-director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Heltne—I think there were six other study sites back then, and we invited scientists from each and, also, a few from noninvasive, captive research, like big zoo groups, for example. The main object was to see how chimp behavior differed from environment to environment.
We had one session on conservation and one session on conditions in some captive situations, and both were utterly shocking. I knew there was deforestation going on, but I was totally unaware of the extent of it. Chimpanzee numbers decreasing, the rise of the bush meat trade, shooting mothers so that you can sell their babies as pets. That was a huge shock. And the captivity situation was even worse, seeing our closest relatives in five-foot-by-five-foot medical research labs, surrounded by iron bars, totally alone, nothing to do. I didn’t make a decision, I just knew I’d gained so much from the chimpanzees, I had to try and do something to help. I went as a scientist, and I left as a—I suppose you’d call me an activist, or something like that.
KT: I believe that the title of your book, In the Shadow of Man, in 1971, was that chimpanzees live in the shadow of man, as we had evolved to overshadow them with our powers of thought and speech. But what you also then picked up was how we had evolved and become a threat to the natural world from which we emerged and with which we remained in kinship.
JG: The biggest difference between us, chimps, and other animals is the explosive development of our intellect. Because science is now acknowledging that animals are not the machines they once thought, there’s a huge flurry of information about animal intelligence. It ranges from chimpanzees using computers in clever ways, elephants with their very close social bonds and strong relationships between herd members, and crows, who turn out to be able to actually use and make tools. And pigs—we can come back to factory farms later, perhaps— pigs are as intelligent as dogs, more intelligent than some. And now we know the octopus is highly intelligent. We know trees communicate with each other.
So here we are, with this intellect that’s enabled us to do something very different from all the animal successes, and that’s design a rocket, for example, that went up to Mars. Bizarre, isn’t it, that the most intellectual creature that’s ever lived on the planet is destroying its only home? There’s a disconnect between that clever, clever brain and human heart, love, and compassion. Only when head and heart work in harmony can we attain our true human potential.
KT: This reality is so condemning of how we use our capacities, our intelligence, our potential, our power. But there’s also a story a few years after that conference. You’d seen human conditions on the perimeter of the park, but when you flew over Gombe in a small plane, that was another moment that shaped the approach you took to doing your part with our species.
Children—and adults in the presence of children—see aspects of the natural world as animate and alive.
JG: You have to realize that in 1960, and even in 1970, Gombe was part of this forest belt that stretched right across Equatorial Africa to the west coast, chimp habitat all the way across. By 1990, I flew over, to my horror, a tiny island of forest, surrounded by completely bare trees, hillsides eroding because it’s very steep valleys—Gombe’s along the shore of Lake Tanganyika, and it’s a whole lot, from the Rift escarpment, the valleys coming down, there’s very thick forest in the valleys. And there were more people living there, clearly, than the land could afford to support. And they were cutting down trees in these steep valleys, all except the very steepest ones, because the land had become infertile and overused, and they were struggling to grow food to feed their families, and they were too poor to buy it from somewhere else. So that’s when it hit me: if we don’t help the people, if we don’t try and find ways that they can make a living without destroying their environment, we can’t even try to save the chimpanzees. So that began TACARE, our method of community-based conservation. It’s very holistic, everything from restoring fertility to the overused land, permaculture, agroforestry, reforestation—
KT: You do microcredit, and keep girls in school . . .
JG: Microcredit for, mainly, women, scholarships to keep girls in school, and workshops to teach about family planning. We don’t go into the villages to talk about family planning; the local people go in. Not just women, men too. And the women are so thrilled, and the men, now. They used to have big families to support them and do the work on the farm. The farms are so small now, because the population has expanded so much. The young people go off to try and make money in the towns; they usually fail and come back. And so you have a situation where people can no longer afford to educate their children. And they desperately want to. So being able to plan your family through family planning information has made a huge difference.
KT: It’s like you looked at the ecosystem that gave rise to poverty and that gave rise to this distorted relationship to the land, which had these ripple effects on the chimpanzees and the other great apes, and you started stitching an ecosystem back together again.
JG: Well, they did. That’s the point.
KT: So they were your partners. You listened to them and let them lead.
JG: They have become our partners. The first approach was not a group of arrogant white people going into these poor villages; it was local Tanzanians who worked for NGOs in agriculture and forestry and education and health. They went in and asked the people what they thought we could do to make their lives better. So that’s how it began. And now that they’ve understood and realized—they probably did, before, but they’re now articulating it—that they depend on the forest, protecting it isn’t just for the wildlife; it’s for their own future. They need it.
KT: So they now participate in the work?
JG: Yes, they go into their forest reserves—each village has a forest reserve. We’re now at 104 villages throughout the whole of the chimpanzee range in Tanzania and, in all of them, there are one or two volunteers who learn to be forest monitors, and they chose what they would record, between them—they had a meeting—like an illegally cut tree or an animal trap, or on the other side, sighting a chimp or a nest or leopard paw print. And so they have tools for their own conservation.
KT: Did Roots & Shoots emerge out of TACARE?
JG: No, Roots & Shoots emerged because TACARE was expensive to operate. We were already starting in some other African countries. I got roped in when I made that first trip around seven African chimpanzee-range states. I was going around the world, gradually farther and farther around the world, talking to people about the problems in Africa and the reasons for them, and hoping to raise, certainly awareness, but maybe some money. And I kept meeting young people who seemed to have lost hope, university students, some high school. They were mostly just apathetic, but some were depressed, really depressed, and some were angry. And when I asked them why they felt that way, they all said more or less the same. And that’s in Asia, in North and South America, in Europe—by then I hadn’t gone to the Middle East, but I know they say the same there now—“You’ve compromised our future,” they said, “and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
You’ve heard that saying, “We haven’t inherited this planet from our ancestors, we’ve borrowed it from our children”? But we haven’t borrowed, we’ve stolen. And we’re still stealing, today.
KT: These themes are as alive now, more alive.
JG: When they said there’s nothing they could do about it, I thought, No, no. There’s a window of time, bigger then than now, but get together. So we had a meeting. The nine students who came to me with their problems in Dar es Salaam were concerned about dynamiting, which was destroying the coral reefs in the ocean. They were concerned about street children with no homes. The mistreatment of stray dogs. The poaching of animals in their national parks. And so we had a big meeting with all their friends, and Roots & Shoots was born in February 1991, with the message that every single one of us makes an impact on the planet every single day. And those of us who are lucky enough to have the means can make ethical choices in the kind of difference we make. And then we decided, because of the interconnection of everything, that each group, between them, would themselves choose projects to help people, projects to help animals, projects to help the environment. They would discuss it, plan it, roll up their sleeves, and take action—actually do something about it.
KT: The nuance of the name, Roots & Shoots, also speaks to that philosophy. Would you describe that?
JG: I’ve already said how I love trees. I think, probably, my very favorite individual tree has to be a beech, in my garden. When this beech began to grow, over a hundred years ago, it was from a pretty tiny seed. If I had picked it up at that time, it would’ve seemed so small and weak, a little growing shoot and a few little roots. And yet, there is what I call magic. It’s a life force in that little seed, so powerful that, to reach the water that the tree will need, those little roots can work through rocks and eventually push them aside. And that little shoot, to reach the sunlight which the tree will need for photosynthesis, can work its way through cracks in a brick wall and eventually knock it down. We see the rocks and the bricks as all the problems, social and environmental, that we have inflicted on the planet. So it’s a message of hope: hundreds and thousands of young people around the world can break through and can make this a better world. We’re now in eighty-five countries and growing, and we’ve got members in kindergarten, university, and everything in between. And it’s my greatest reason for hope, because everywhere I go, these young people are telling me, showing me what they’re doing, what they plan to do, to make the world better.
KT: It feels to me like there’s a through line from your early science to this, seeing and naming the dignity and possibility of an individual, which you did with the chimpanzees, just naming them. But something in human life—something we didn’t speak about—is how your childhood was also the background of the world, and your childhood was war and the Holocaust, which was something that you saw at the age at which you were coming into ethical life as an adolescent. And when human beings only see other human beings as collections of people, that has a dehumanizing effect and shifts the way it becomes possible for them to be treated. And that’s true of animals, as well, as you’ve said. We think of wildlife species, but every individual life, including the life of an animal, matters. And then the flip side of this is what you just said, about action and organizing and approaching the challenges in our world with an absolute conviction in the power of the individual, the force that one life can have.
JG: You look at a child and you think, This child might be the next Winston Churchill or Donald Trump. This child might become a Hitler or a Dalai Lama. You just don’t know. There is that individuality. When I was at Cambridge, I was told that the individual wasn’t important. Individuality was not talked about. And I was again reprimanded for talking about the difference between individuals, not the general behavior of chimpanzees, which is what I was supposed to be doing. Isn’t it lucky that I never wanted to be a scientist? I wanted to be a naturalist. Women weren’t scientists back then, when I was ten.
KT: You have named this—we suffer from “just me-ism.” I think that what you’re also bringing home in Roots & Shoots, to young people in all your work now, is the importance of ordinary acts in any life. You said this a minute ago, that the way we eat, the way we buy, the way we live—and it is such simple math, but it’s hard for human beings to internalize—that if enough of us do those things in the ordinary fabric of our days, all at the same time, that has power.
JG: It has power. Definitely has power. We so often hear, “Think globally, act locally.” But if you think globally, you can’t help but be depressed. Twist it around—act locally—see the difference you make, see how you clean up the stream. See how you raise money to help a homeless person off the street. See how you’ve lobbied the government to protect a piece of woodland from another shopping mall. And then realize that other people are doing the same, making the same difference around the world. Then you dare think globally.
KT: Something you said a minute ago, about how you were discouraged from using anecdotes in your science—you said, anecdotes often stand for something so much bigger than themselves, and you said, any anecdote can become a key to unlocking a puzzle— which is also a wonderful way to think about individual agency.
JG: You’ve mentioned In the Shadow of Man. Well, because it’s the sixtieth anniversary of my work in Gombe, we’re illustrating it with some never-before-seen photographs. And I’ve now finished reading all but one chapter, and I’ve spent the last week sorting through, I don’t know, four hundred black-and-white photographs that the Geographic handed over to me when they finished supporting the work. And trying to amalgamate from two Geographic articles and three books has been chaos.
KT: Is this the first time you’ve read through your work in this sustained way?
KT: What did you learn?
JG: I’m enjoying it. All these stories—I’m back there. The details that I was able to record about the personalities and the characters and the fun things, it’s just all come back to me, making me very nostalgic.
KT: You spent your eighty-sixth birthday with your sister—who has the same birthday—six feet apart . . .
JG: Four years apart we are.
KT: Four years apart, and, I guess, in lockdown, back in your grandmother Danny’s home?
JG: That’s right, at the family home, and I’m here with Judy, the sister, and her daughter, daughter’s fiancé, and her two, virtually grown-up grandsons, and, for a while, my son, because he got stuck here. He came over from Tanzania to get a visa, a work visa, and then the lockdown came and he couldn’t leave. So he’s stuck here. He can’t really go back to Tanzania now, anyway.
KT: I’m curious if this has also struck you. For all that we’ve known, in recent decades, that we were connected to each other—that we are embodied creatures and that we’re connected to each other and to the natural world—this virus has brought that home in a way that markets never did.
JG: The tragedy is that we brought it on ourselves. It’s been predicted for so long, that there would be more epidemics and pandemics, zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to people. And it’s because of our disrespect of nature, our disrespect of animals, that this has happened, like cutting down forests, forcing animals closer together, forcing some animals into contact with people, making opportunity for a virus to jump over—spillover, as they call it.
But then, even worse, we hunt, kill, eat animals. We sell them as bush meat, we sell them off to the wildlife markets, where they’re in horrible, unsanitary, crowded conditions of terrible cruelty. And they may be killed on the spot, and then the buyer and the seller can be contaminated with blood, urine, feces—perfect for a virus to jump ship, to jump from the animal to the human and create a new disease, which is what this COVID-19 is.
People point fingers at China and all the wet markets. Actually, most wet markets do not sell wildlife at all; they’re just like farmers’ markets. But think of our factory farms. Think what we do to the pigs and the cattle and the ducks and the hens and the geese. And think of how crowded and unsanitary their conditions are. And, indeed, epidemics have started under those conditions. It’s actually happening all the time, but usually it’s just an epidemic, and it’s stopped. But this time, it’s gone all around the world. And just imagine, the next one, if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t stop this disrespect, the next one could be as infectious as COVID-19—because it’s very infectious, but the death rate is relatively low—but imagine if the death rate was like that of Ebola, another zoonotic disease. And HIV began from the African bush meat markets, chopping up chimps and eating them.
KT: I was reading your early books when the lockdown began, and I’m curious about this whole phenomenon of social distancing. We were heading into social distancing, and I’m reading you describing that social grooming “is the most peaceful, most relaxing, most friendly form of physical contact for the chimpanzee, and for many other animals, too.” There’s been a lot of— and I’m sure there will continue to be—a lot of thinking about what we lose when we lose physical contact, even as we’re being very inventive and finding new ways to stay in touch. But we don’t have that physical touch. And I realized, in your work in the animal kingdom—of which we are a part—that plays such an important role. And I think it explains some of the dislocation we feel. So I’m just curious how you have thought about social distancing and what it means for us.
JG: It’s very clear that some people get deeply depressed. But the other side of it is, imagine being told you’ve got to lock down in an inner city, or a township in South Africa. Just imagine, twelve people in one tiny house. It’s terrible. Some people are lucky. I’m lucky. This is a big house, and it’s got a garden, and we’ve always been allowed to walk, because it’s out near the sea and there’s lots of fresh air.
But it’s affecting people very deeply, this lack of physical contact. It’s the most important thing, I think. It stems from the contact we have with our mothers in the womb, the mothers cradling their child.
KT: In your book Reason for Hope, you use the language of moral evolution and even spiritual evolution as your hope for our species. And I wonder what that means for you, and how you think about the contours of that challenge twenty years on, in a changed place and in a strange, strange time.
JG: During this time, we’ve seen a very big move toward more moral behavior, greater understanding. And you can just trace it very clearly in our attitude to animals around the world, the growth of these organizations that are protecting animals from cruelty; and then, on the other hand, you’ve got proliferation of organizations trying to help human victims of domestic violence, and orphans, and refugees, and migrants. So we’re getting there, but some people are much further advanced than others, I think, spiritually.
KT: That’s something that you became aware of in your study of chimpanzees over time and that you’ve always been aware of in the human condition—our capacity for great empathy and play and creativity and intelligence and, also, cruelty and atrocity.
JG: I was shocked to find chimpanzees have this dark, aggressive side, like us. It made them more like us than I thought they were, which is a pretty sad statement to have to make. But I think only humans are capable of true evil. A chimpanzee will kill, but it is a spur-of-the-moment. It’s an emotional response to a situation. We can sit down, far away from an intended victim, and in cold blood plan out the most brutal forms of torture. That’s the difference. And that’s our intellect that has enabled us to think in those terms.
KT: Another moment that you’ve written about in your life was in Notre-Dame Cathedral—I believe this was after the loss of your second husband to cancer, so it was a very difficult time in your life—but this experience you had of awe. And it also strikes me that when you speak of our potential for moral evolution, or even the greatest capacities, even the spiritual capacities that you saw in chimpanzees, like in the waterfall dance, that somehow that is connected with awe.
I was greeted by scientists who said, “You’ve done your study wrong. You can’t talk about personality.”
JG: I don’t know how you would describe awe. Certainly, when I was in the cathedral, it just struck me. The sun was shining through the great rose window, it was very early in the morning, and, for some reason, there was a wedding, or maybe it was a rehearsal, I don’t know. But the organ came out into this virtually empty space, playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in G Minor. And it just hit me then, here in this amazing building, which was built with the labor of hundreds and thousands of people, probably, because it was none of the machinery or equipment or technology that we have today, and yet, that cathedral rose up; and the music, Bach, who wrote it; and me, standing there, listening and seeing and feeling, that there couldn’t just be Jonas’s gyrations of matter, but there had to be some kind of reason behind it, and that we’re here for a purpose.
I very strongly feel I’m here for a reason. And I’m trying to live up to what I believe I’m supposed to be doing.
KT: There’s irony, that you have spent these years, these decades now, since you realized that you became not just a scientist, but an activist, and you needed to be working with human beings in changing our relationship to the natural world—there’s almost this dreamlike quality to the fact that you, this young Englishwoman without a college degree, and who had always wanted to go to Africa and always loved animals, that you were able to go work with Louis Leakey and become a scientist and be in this extraordinary place where you were so at home. And then you have ended up, as part of the calling to that same purpose, spending most of your time outside that forest, in airplanes and on the road. You’ve asked this question in writing: “What if I had known that my efforts would keep me more or less permanently on the road? Would I have been strong enough, committed enough, to start out along such a hard road?”
But I sense that you still feel that the answer to that is yes.
JG: I think so. I look back over my life and see all these turning points, when I could have done this or I needn’t have done it—I think I’ve made the right decisions. But I never wanted to be a scientist. I never wanted a PhD. And I think that was such a big help. Luckily, Louis Leakey felt the same. He didn’t tell me that, but he said afterward, “I wanted a mind uncluttered by the reductionist thinking of animal behaviorism at the time.” And he also felt women made better observers and were perhaps more patient. So there were all these different, little things that happened: meeting Louis Leakey, and him taking me to Olduvai and seeing how I reacted to rhinos and lions, and deciding I was the person he’d been looking for.
But it all goes back to having this amazing mother. When I first went to Africa, invited by my school friend, it was 1957, and I was twenty-three. And twenty-three, back then, it was about like a sixteen-year-old today, I suppose. But Mum let me go, alone on a boat, to Africa. I think most mothers wouldn’t have, because it wasn’t done in those days. Yes, young men did the world tour. But it wasn’t like students today going off and having experiences, backpacking. It was totally different.
And the other thing she did, which I think helped to make me who I am—you can imagine that during the war, the sound of a German voice sent chills up one’s spine. We hated the Nazis and we hated Hitler. And yet, after the war, when my uncle went out to Germany—it was the English sector, he headed it up— and he found a German couple with three children who wanted
somebody to come and teach the children good English, and Mum let me go. Afterward she told me, just because of Hit ler and the Nazis doesn’t mean Germans are bad people. She wanted me to see for myself that we are, beyond all else, human beings. Circumstances and culture and nationality change the way we behave. But inside it all, we’re human. I think that was a very good lesson for me to learn.
KT: I think it’s such an important lesson to put in front of our species now, because the challenges are great, the existential challenge of what it means to be human in this century.
JG: Amazingly, although I don’t think I imagined it to start with, Roots & Shoots has developed a very strong ethical set of moral values. And I’ve found, increasingly, that those I call the alumni, who were part of Roots & Shoots at school or college, they hang on to those values. Like, people come up to me and say, “Of course I care about the environment. I was in Roots & Shoots in primary school.”
What’s differentiated us is this intellect. But we’re not really a very intelligent species, are we, when we destroy our home?
KT: And again, it’s so important to hear that story, which is a story of things that are happening, but it contrasts with big, sweeping generalizations that get made.
JG: People are too fond of generalizing. You can’t generalize. Each person, they have their own life and their personality and their background and their dreams. And they’re not going to react all in the same way, just because they’re in the same class or they’ve got the same colored skin or wear the same clothes.
KT: Especially in a moment where people are so fearful in their bodies, we turn these great challenges before us into big fights. How do we completely rearrange our relationship with the natural world? How do we remake the world around what has surfaced in this pandemic? And I think of you in Gombe, going in to be present to mysterious kin of humanity and observing, and what you learned about approaching the other. And here’s something you wrote in Reason for Hope: “It is my task to try to change”—and you weren’t talking about chimpanzees, you were talking about human beings—“It is my task to try to change their attitudes in this matter. They will not listen, if I raise my voice and point an accusing finger. Instead they will become angry and hostile. And that will be the end of the dialogue. Real change will only come from within; laws and regulations are useful, but, sadly, easy to flout. So I keep the anger—which of course I feel—as hidden and controlled as possible. I try to reach gently into their hearts.”
There’s that heart word again.
JG: Well, it’s lucky, isn’t it? I always wanted to write.
KT: You’ve often quoted this line that your grandmother Danny conveyed to you, a biblical mantra: “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” Is that something that’s with you now?
JG: Absolutely, definitely. I made my grandmother what we call a Bible box: six little matchboxes glued together, like a little chest with drawers that pulled out with a paper clip. I read every single chapter of the Bible. It took about three months, I think, and it was a secret; it was for her Christmas present. And I wrote out the text on one side and where it came from in the Bible on the other. And so I was setting off on one of my endless tours, and Judy, my sister, was seeing me off. And she said, “Oh, have a text before you go.” So I pulled out a text, which read, “He who has once set his hand to the ploughshare and turneth back is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.” So Judy said, “OK, off you go.”
Do you know, I’ve had that before two other tours? I got exactly the same? And, just last week, when I was moaning about how busy I am, she said, “Oh, have a text,” and it came up. We both were speechless. Nobody else in the house has ever had that one. So, you see? My duty lies clear before me.
KT: I think that we all owe you a debt of gratitude for accepting the adventures, and the sacrifices, and the hard work that comes with them.
I’m curious how your sense of what it means to be human keeps evolving.
JG: What it means to be human—I am prosaic. I know that we’re part of a natural progression of life-forms—in many ways, we are so much a part of the animal kingdom. And then, what’s differentiated us is this intellect. But we’re not really a very intelligent species, are we, when we destroy our home?
Not everyone agrees with me, but I believe that a trick of this development of the intellect was the fact that we developed this way of communicating—speaking. So I can tell you things you don’t know, you can tell me things I don’t know. We can teach children about things that aren’t present. And all that has enabled us to ask questions, like, Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of it all? Is there a purpose? Is there a spiritual guiding force out there? And I believe, part of being human is a questioning, a curiosity, a trying to find answers—but also an understanding that there are some answers that, at least on this planet, we will not be able to answer.
I get kind of peeved when scientists say, “But we know how the universe started. It started with the big bang.” Oh. Yes. But, sorry, what led to the big bang, please?
You know what’s fascinating? More and more highly intellectual people—philosophers of science, physicists, and so on— all of these great brains have said, There is no way that what’s happened is just chance. So what that intelligence behind the universe is, what it is, who it is—probably, what it is—I haven’t the faintest idea, but I’m absolutely sure that there is something.
And seeking for that something is part of being human. O