Why the much-loved  scientist’s mission and message is resonating today with people of all ages.

Twenty-six-year-old Jane Goodall desperately tried to keep up with the chimpanzee she’d affectionately named David Greybeard. The thick undergrowth of the Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania pulled at her clothing and slowed her down. The chimpanzee’s sleek body hair allowed him to slip through the tangled branches with ease, and he disappeared into the bushes ahead.

Being accepted into a group of wild chimpanzees was thought to be impossible at the time, but Goodall had all the patience in the world. Two years before, in 1960, when she left her native England, she was told she’d never get close to them unless she was very well hidden. But on this day, her tenacity was about to change her life and inspire millions more well into the next millennium.

Goodall walked into a clearing to find David Greybeard waiting, looking back as if expecting her. Spotting a bright red palm nut that she knew chimpanzees loved, she offered it to him. The chimp took it, dropped it on the ground, and turned away.

“Then, he turned around,” recalls Goodall, “looked directly into my eyes, and reached out to grab my hand. He very gently squeezed my fingers, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other. At that moment, the two of us communicated in a language that almost certainly predates words. He didn’t want the palm nut, but he understood my motivation in giving it to him. At that moment I made a commitment: I would spend the rest of my life trying to understand and protect these extraordinary beings, who are more like us than any other living creature.”

Young researcher Jane Goodall, with baby chimpanzee Flint at Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania, 1970s.

At age 85, Goodall has made good on her lifelong commitment to helping protect natural resources and raise awareness around the inherent intelligence of the animal kingdom, from which she thinks we can learn much. To celebrate her birthday in April, she assembled friends, donors, and supporters in Los Angeles to demonstrate that her commitment to the mission is still strong.

“If it starts to rain,” she explains at the open-air venue, as clouds loom, “just hunker down like a chimp and wait for it to stop. We should all be grateful for this life-giving water in such a dry part of the world.” There’s a ripple of laughter through the well-heeled guests, who quickly consider the disastrous outcome of water on their designer suits and dresses, versus the natural protection afforded by chimpanzee fur.

Goodall still travels an astonishing 300 days of the year to promote her work, and while she no longer endures harsh African weather or stays up all night to observe nocturnal primates, she speaks to me well past midnight.

“Every single individual makes a difference every single day,” she tells me. “We can choose what sort of difference we’re going to make.” In the 1960s, Goodall’s colleagues were desperately trying to turn the study of chimpanzees into hard science. Many professors told her it was wrong to give chimps a name, to talk about them having a personality or an ability to solve problems. These attributes, they exclaimed, were unique to humans.

Goodall always travels with a stuffed animal named Mr. H to remind her of the ‘indomitable human spirit.’

“Unfortunately for those professors, I had this amazing teacher when I was a child,” says Goodall, “who taught me they were wrong — my dog, Rusty. We are not the only beings on the planet capable of thinking and resolving things outside of our bubble. Emotions, such as happiness, sadness, fear, and despair are all part of the animal kingdom, too.”

Goodall points out that it’s now been proven that many animals are highly intelligent, more-so than humans. “Yet, to have myself taken seriously by my peers, I had to earn my Ph.D. and learn to think like a scientist, which I did,” she says. “Then, I wrote about my observations in a way that allowed other scientists to tear them apart.” Goodall’s advocacy for the environment is not only aimed at the converted. A few years ago, she addressed 700 lawyers — people who help design legal systems that embody our world view and upon which Western civilization is based. In this world, she notes, chimpanzees are treated much the same as stones, timber, and dirt, not something precious or valuable. If Goodall’s observations from the past 60 years are accurate, she argues, then we should make efforts to change the law, and the way we relate to the natural world. It should instead be considered as something precious and sacred, not something to exploit.

Take the humble, microscopic phytoplankton in our oceans as an example. We have no empathy for this organism, yet it supplies 50 to 70 percent of our oxygen. It’s treated with total disregard, despite the growing risks of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere. If we don’t start acting according to what’s true, according to science and biology, then we’re surely not going to succeed in anything.

“We may have different skin colors, different cultures and religions, but if we cut ourselves, our blood is all the same. If we weep, our tears are the same.” 

Goodall’s work tells us as much about other species as it does about ourselves, and her work has sometimes revealed startling facts. “For a long time, I felt chimpanzees were like us, just nicer,” says Goodall. “Look at some of the despicable human behavior we see around us. Then, I realized to my shock and horror that chimps have a dark and brutal side, too.”

Goodall observed that male primates are very territorial and patrol the boundaries of their domain. If they encounter a stranger from a neighboring community, they will attack and kill. “This was a real shock,” she recalls.  “A large community of chimpanzees I once studied separated and moved apart, yet still remained within the same territory they once all shared. It resulted in a four year ‘civil war,’ where the males of the larger community systematically attacked and killed the males, females, and juveniles of the smaller community. Consider that America had a civil war, and so did the United Kingdom. People who grew up together and played together once, killed each other. It made me realize
how similar chimps are to humans.”

There’s one big difference that Goodall thinks separates us from chimps and other animals — the explosive development of our intellect.

“Throughout evolution, we’ve inherited these aggressive tendencies,” she says. “But unlike animals who act on the spur of the moment, we can think about it and consider our reaction first before acting because of this intellect. How many of us have said: ‘Oh, I could kill him!” in a moment of rage? Yet, we don’t, because we can’t all go around acting how we feel. We’ve largely learned to control our aggressive instincts, but there are still parts of society that incite aggression and hatred. In humans, this has moved from simple territorial aggression to something more sinister.”

Today, human intellect has developed to the point where we are capable of destroying ourselves in an afternoon. The United States recently pledged $1.7 trillion toward modernizing its nuclear arsenal, which in turn has reignited a global arms race.

“No chimpanzee could create a nuclear weapon,” Goodall points out. “We’ve created rockets that can reach Mars. We’ve all seen the photographs of the surface of Mars, yet who really wants to live there? Not if you look at those photos! So here we are, the most intellectual creature to ever walk the planet, destroying our home. Polluting our oceans, destroying the rainforests, gradually exterminating one species after another. Why are the most intelligent species destroying our planet? We have this amazing brain, but there seems to be a disconnect between it and the human heart — love and compassion. Only when our head works in harmony with our heart will we attain true human potential. And that human potential is huge.”

In Greenland, Goodall stood with an Alaskan Inuit called Uncle, who pointed to a glacial shelf that once stood two miles high, but now barely reaches 100 yards in height. Huge chunks of ice broke off and crashed into rushing rivers of the purest water, created when the planet first formed. Billions of gallons of water are flowing into our oceans, changing the acidic alkaline balance.

Global warming in Greenland has resulted in enormous swarms of mosquitoes destroying the caribou, on which the Inuit have depended for food and clothing for 11,000 years. What’s needed now from real leaders is to make clear to others that it’s these fundamental moral insights that make us human. There’s an urgency now to create an awareness of the preciousness of life, and to find ways to use law and morality to constrain our behavior.

When Goodall left Africa to travel the world and spread her message on the plight of chimpanzees, she became aware of even more significant problems. “I learned about the chemicals used in agriculture, businesses, and households draining away to pollute land, rivers, and oceans. I learned about the reckless burning of fossil fuels and the intensive, inhumane farming of animals on a massive scale. Billions of animals kept in horrible conditions, for which we need to grow grain. Grain farming entails cutting down forests for arable land, then using massive amounts of fossil fuel to move the grain from the farms to animals. Then, moving the animals from farms to the meat on our tables. Vast quantities of water are needed for this ongoing cycle of turning vegetable protein into animal protein.

“A little-known fact is that flatulence from cows and pigs is a more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2,” emphasizes Goodall. “Even if you don’t care about animal cruelty or the environment, you’ll maybe care about the antibiotics that animals are fed to keep them alive in cruel conditions. These medications end up in our bodies, where they cause bacteria to become resistant to existing drugs. People are now dying from a scratch on their finger.”

An old Native American adage says that we haven’t inherited the planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children. Goodall is blunter. “We’re not borrowing our children’s future, we’re stealing it,” she says. “We’re stealing it because we’re caught up in a materialistic society where money has become a god. We no longer consider enough money for a good life, enough. We’re always seeking more and are caught up in a mindset of waste. People wear an outfit once, then buy another.”Realizing that the future looked grim unless the next generation starts thinking differently, in 1991 Goodall founded Roots and Shoots for young people.

“Our message to children is that every single one of us matters,” says Goodall. “Each of us has a role to play, even if we don’t know what it is yet.”

Now in more than 50 countries, the movement touches the lives of more than 150,000 and empowers young people to become leaders who will make the right choices to build a better world. Children lead local change through service while developing the skills and traits of compassionate leaders. The benefits of starting young become more evident when, later in life, participants of Roots and Shoots find themselves in positions of real power. The Minister of Wildlife in Tanzania was involved in Roots and Shoots in primary school and now stands up against the country’s president, who is not very sympathetic to the environment. The Minister of the Environment in the Democratic Republic of Congo is also a former member.

“We’re developing a human family,” says Goodall. “We may have different skin colors, different cultures, and religions, but if we cut ourselves, our blood is all the same. If we weep, our tears are the same. When something makes us laugh, we all feel that wonderful, happy feeling inside. There’s no way that we can measure the value of inspiration at Roots and Shoots because it’s impossible to measure the future impact of what we’re creating. At some point, every famous person in history was just a normal individual making a choice. We all have that potential. There are so many extraordinary people out there who will not become well known,” concludes Goodall. “People are quietly saving animal species, improving the lives of millions, and risking their lives to help those who suffer. The planet changes for the better each time we pass a moral test.”