Thursday, January 30, 2014
Saint alert: Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall was born in 1934 in Bournemouth, England; her father was a businessman and her mother a novelist. When she was barely one, her father bought her a lifelike chimpanzee doll, which she took everywhere with her. (She still has that toy today, though it is now completely bald.) She also had a dog, Rusty, with whom she bonded. After reading Dr. Dolittle and the Tarzan books as a young girl, she dreamed of going to Africa some day.
During World War Two, Goodall's father served in the British Army as an engineer. When he returned, her parents divorced. Goodall lived with her mother and grandmother in Bournemouth, though she visited her father in London frequently. When she graduated from high school in 1952, there wasn't enough money to send her to college, so she got a job as a typist at Oxford.
In 1956 a friend invited Goodall to visit her family's farm in Kenya. Jane was thrilled. She quit her job in London and moved back to Bournemouth to work as a waitress in order to save the money she needed for the trip.
While in Africa, Goodall met paleontologist Louis Leakey and went to work for him, first as a secretary at the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, then at Olduvai Gorge, helping him dig up fossils. Leakey had been looking for someone to study wild chimpanzees, thinking they might yield clues about mankind's earliest origins. He saw Goodall as the perfect candidate, and in 1960, she went to Gombe National Park in Tanganyika to observe chimpanzees for two years.
In 1962, Leakey arranged for Goodall to go back to Oxford to get a Ph.D. in ethology; she obtained that in three years (much of which was spent at Gombe) despite not having a BA. After obtaining her doctorate, she spent much of the next two decades at Gombe.
Going off to Africa to study chimpanzees was something young British girls simply didn't do back then. It took courage, independence, and intelligence.
But what really set Goodall apart was her patience, serenity, and self-sufficiency. At 28, an age at which most young women were fretting about whether they would get married, or, at least, what parties they might be missing back home, Goodall was content to spend her time in the company of chimpanzees, studying them and making observations about their behavior that had never been made before.
She was no Margaret Mead, who came back from her years in Samoa with a head chock full of misinformation after having basically been put on by the locals. Goodall merely observed quietly, and reported on what she saw, without bias. She had great affection for the chimps, but reported the bad along with the good, including their often violent nature and the way they sometimes killed each other (and each other's babies). Goodall was the first to observe that chimps used tools and hunted other animals as well. She was also the first human to ever be "adopted" by a tribe of chimps, although she was eventually driven out by a new alpha male.
Goodall must have been a remarkably soothing presence, because she was never seriously attacked by chimps, which can be vicious when they feel threatened.
She was married twice, first to Hugo van Lawick, the National Geographic photographer sent to cover her; they divorced after seven years. Her second marriage, to Derek Bryceson, director of Tanzania's national parks, ended when he died five years later.
One indication of a person's character is how willing they are to spend time alone: how un-needy they are. Goodall seemed the epitome of of calmness, and self-sufficiency.
Yes, it's somehow easier to attribute good qualities to a beautiful woman; as Tolstoy pointed out, "It is amazing how complete the delusion that beauty is goodness." But there are plenty of beauties who radiate maladjustment and discontent and, sometimes, outright hostility. Goodall exuded serenity.
Dian Fossey, who devoted her life to studying and protecting gorillas, and Goodall were evidently friends; both had been started on their careers by Louis Leakey. (A third woman, Birute Galdikas, was sent by Leakey to study orangutans in Borneo.) Fossey was also an admirable woman. Yet she never gave off the same vibe as Goodall; she did not have a happy childhood, constantly smoked, did not get along with her assistants, was always on the lookout for men, and liked to joke about her vibrator keeping her company in the wild.
While it's hard to imagine Goodall joking about a vibrator, she was not without a sense of humor. From Wikipedia:
One of cartoonist Gary Larson's more famous cartoons shows two chimpanzees grooming. One finds a blonde human hair on the other and inquires, "Conducting a little more 'research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?" Goodall herself was in Africa at the time, and the Jane Goodall Institute thought this was in bad taste, and had their lawyers draft a letter to Larson and his distribution syndicate, in which they described the cartoon as an "atrocity". They were stymied by Goodall herself when she returned and saw the cartoon, as she stated that she found the cartoon amusing. Since then, all profits from sales of a shirt featuring this cartoon go to the Jane Goodall Institute.
Today Goodall, 79, spends her time raising money for preservation of wild lands for chimps and other environmental causes. She reportedly owns only two sets of clothes (she wears one while the other is being washed), and travels around the world lecturing and raising funds for preservation. Looking at the pictures of her now, she is still a beatific presence:
She's let herself age gracefully; plastic surgery would have been entirely out of character for her. She still seems completely at peace with herself, if not with a world which is encroaching on wild animal habitat.
It is precisely because she doesn't seem to care all that much about herself that she is a saint. She cares about the future of the chimps and other wild animals, not about her own legacy. (Contrast this to Mother Teresa, whose entire life seems to have been an active, conniving campaign for her own sainthood.)
Goodall is not a religious figure, so she won't be canonized. (When asked if she believed in god, she replied, "I don't have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that's bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it's enough for me.")
I do hope she'll at least be memorialized at Westminster Abbey.