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Jane Goodall: on humans, animals and the indomitable spirit

Saturday, 1 July 2017  | Jack Mathieson

Jane Goodall June Australia Tour, NYLC Macquarie University Live Talk

Hope to Action: Empowering Young People to build a Sustainable Future

- JGIA slogan

Dr Jane Goodall, renowned humanitarian and conservationist, ‘the chimp lady’, and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, is in Australia to share her dream of a world where people, animals and the environment all coexist in a sustainable future.

I had the privilege of hearing Dr Goodall share her vision with the youth at Macquarie University. While her story and message were undeniably the evening’s highlight (face it, it is hard to beat a lecture that begins with an imitation of a chimp’s long-distance greeting call), Dr Goodall also took the opportunity to introduce Macquarie University students to a new initiative, ‘Roots & Shoots’, a youth-run program aimed at bottom-up conservation efforts. The goal of this initiative is twofold: to help individuals find ways to make a difference in conserving our world in their daily lives; and to shape leaders who will create a sustainable future. Its current leaders are the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), young people typically studying at university who organise Roots & Shoots events that promote practical ways for young people to participate in conservation in their communities and inspire them to become leaders in this mission. In the lead-up to Dr Goodall’s talk, NSW members of the NYLC took the stage, raising the issue of plastic waste damaging our oceans, and using the threatened hawksbill turtle as a mascot. (A life-size carving dubbed ‘Binging’ was wheeled out and the audience was encouraged to place a painted thumbprint on the shell to show support.)

Jane’s Story

Dr Goodall recounted her childhood love of animals and exploration, her ambition to travel to Africa and the odds she faced as a young woman on a budget aspiring to visit ‘the Dark Continent’, so named because much of Africa was unknown and unexplored by the West at the time. While her dream was her own, she claimed that it was only the support of her mother and would-be husband that gave her the drive to make her dream a reality. Her mother, she explained, was one of the few people who did not laugh at the idea of a nearly impossible dream, teaching her the rewards of patience and encouraging her to keep asking questions. Jane attributes her identity as a scientist to her mother.

Jane’s legacy of close contact with African chimps in the Gombe Stream National Park has been the longest continuous wildlife project ever attempted, but interestingly her experience, and the story she drew from it, spoke just as much about humans as about our anthropoid cousins.

Jane’s discoveries threw into light the remarkable similarities between humans and chimps, despite academic scepticism that challenged those similarities. The consensus at her time was that humans were distinct from the rest of nature in a number of ways, such as our capacity for emotions, our use of tools and our inherited culture. Dr Goodall’s interaction with chimps challenged this view: chimps visibly express emotions, even virtuous-like behaviour towards each other at times; they use simple tools, twigs and stems to gather termites; and the use of different tools across different groups of chimps demonstrates a capacity for a kind of culture. Jane noted that even our DNA differs in only fractions of percentages. Ultimately, her discoveries challenged what people consider special about ourselves as humans.

While chimps were her professional interest, Jane’s time in Africa made her realise how significant humans are to this world. People became as much a part of her work as nature. When she described her arrival in Kenya, it was the segregation of blacks and whites that stood out to her the most. Later, in Tanganyika, when she assessed the damage to the environment and to the chimp populations in Gombe, it was the poverty of people that she saw as the root issue. She recounted flying over Gombe National Park, seeing a green patch of forest, ‘an oasis surrounded by barren hills’, and it was then she realised that the problems facing animals and the environment could only be solved if human problems were also taken into account.

The work of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is based on this people-environment-animals relationship, displayed in its four symbols: a portrait of Jane, a chimp representing animals, a leaf for the environment and a hand for community participation. (The Australian branch, the JGIA, added a bilby.) The JGI takes a holistic approach to conservation through development, beginning with the building of informed connections with local communities and, by providing what is needed, eventually letting them take charge of creating a sustainable future for themselves and their environment. Roots & Shoots is one of the ways JGI is accomplishing this in Australia.

Jane’s final message for the night was a reminder of the human potential for greatness and the cost we will pay for ignoring this potential. She spoke of the gap between the mind and the heart:

Only when head and heart work together can we attain our true human potential.

Jane described this potential as the indomitable spirit, the kind of spirit she ascribed to the late South African President Nelson Mandela. His ability to forgive after years of imprisonment and to change his country for the better was an inspiration to her that people can accomplish the impossible with perseverance. This kind of spirit is what she hopes to grow in people through the JGI and Roots & Shoots to accomplish a dream that, from an individual perspective, seems impossible: to create a sustainable future for the world.

The Indomitable Spirit

I found Dr Goodall’s message enjoyable and uplifting, and, as a university student, a pleasant change from most lectures I attend. She was engaging and humorous, and her character was very much as her name suggests. As a believer listening to her story and dream, I kept hearing echoes of the book of Genesis:

“Be Fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it.

(Genesis 1:28 & 2:15)

It is an unlikely argument that destroying this earth is beneficial for anyone. As Prof. Sakkie Pretorius, Macquarie’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), noted in his introduction to Dr Goodall’s talk, ‘there is no planet B’. Dr Goodall openly expressed her distress that the people who would suffer for the way we currently use our planet would be our descendants:

We have not borrowed your future; we’ve stolen it. We are still stealing it.

The problems are evident, the solutions are available, and as Christians we have a God-given responsibility to care for the earth – a responsiblity that is completely compatible with the work of organisations like JGIA. We must work together to save the future of this world.

And yet Jane’s story makes a crucial point about our purpose and identity as humans that will affect our reasons for saving our world. We know now that emotions, tools and even culture are not what make humans special. DNA provides only a marginal chemical difference (despite appearances and a partiality for bananas), and even virtues like charity seem to be a trait that chimps can display, as seen by remarkable cases of chimps adopting lone babies from outside their own families. Our identity as humans does not seem to lie in anything special or unique about how we behave, so where do we get the idea that our purpose is special? Why should we love other people and care for the earth? What drives us?

Unable to ask Dr Goodall herself, I asked one of the NSW Roots & Shoots youth leaders what it was that gave Jane the desire to love people and the environment, and the perseverance to accomplish the impossible task of making the future sustainable. What was the source of her indomitable spirit, and more specifically what is the difference between someone like her who goes to Africa and fulfils her dream and someone who would simply give up or not care? She answered that a person’s experience certainly played a part, but making the choice to love, to draw on the indomitable spirit, was an innate characteristic, and Jane just happened to make that choice.

What this implies is that the indomitable spirit lies dormant in some and is alive in others. Thus, Dr Goodall is completely correct: the root causes of most of the world’s environmental problems are human, and unless we find an identity and purpose greater than our tools, culture and capacity to care, we will continue stealing the future. In this regard, the indomitable spirit is not just a dream; it is a necessity.

As Christians, then, we have the greatest reason to work to make our world sustainable: the God of creation has demanded it of us since Genesis, and this is the same God who demands our love for each other. But we also have the greatest confidence that we can conserve our world and carry on in love for one another, even in hardship. We have the indomitable spirit of Philippians 4:13:

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Jack Mathieson
is a student at Macquarie University in his third year of studying Anthropology. He grew up with his missionary parents in Central Asia, and moved back to Australia in 2014.

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