Renowned primatologist draws huge crowd
Jane Goodall speaks at Canisius
Published: Friday, April 16, 2010
Updated: Sunday, May 2, 2010 22:05
As dusk fell over the Koessler Athletic Center Wednesday, hundreds of people stood for hours wrapped around Main Street to the Health Science building on Delavan. If a stranger had walked by the Canisius campus, one would have thought that a rock star or renowned athlete was gracing the basketball court.
But the weighty books, animal t-shirts and occasional stuffed toy primates gave false impression to the arrival of a celebrity of that kind. The multitudes were gathered to hear a completely different superstar – one from the field of biology.
"When I ask my students who has been the most influential biologist, undeniably, the name is Jane Goodall," said Susan Margulis, Ph.D., a biology professor at Canisius, before introducing the legendary primatologist.
Indeed, outside of astronauts and perhaps Albert Einstein, Jane Goodall is the reigning pop star of science. She has been educating and inspiring anthropologists, biologists, animal enthusiasts and eager students both young and old since her chimpanzee research in Tanzania fifty years ago.
When she walked onto the stage, the entire gym erupted into applause for over a minute. "I think after that great welcome," said Goodall, "you deserve a greeting as you would hear if you came to Gombe National Park, if you were lucky to climb up and hear the chimpanzee announcing where he or she is. To me it's one of the most evocative sounds of the African forest."
Goodall then began the slow and low call of the chimp, which ended with a high-pitched sigh. Once again, the crowd was enchanted.
Canisius was the first stop on a 300-day spring tour. Goodall was drawn to Canisius' Ambassadors for Conservation group, whose philosophy advocates conservation now for the future of later generations.
On coservenature.org, program director and Canisius professor Michael Noonan, Ph.D., notes, "In our program, select college students travel with me to distant locations to make firsthand studies of wildlife and conservation issues. We then provide pro-conservation educational resources about the ecosystems that we observe in the field."
Canisius also provided a great incentive for Goodall's organization, the Jane Goodall Institute, which improves the life of great apes through research and conservation. "I go to a lot of small schools actually," Goodall said. "For me, the important thing is to raise awareness. But it's desperately important to raise funds for the Jane Goodall Institute. The U.S. office alone has to raise around $12 million a year to support these programs. So, one of the criteria for the lectures we arrange is: let's go to a place that can pay some money."
Jane exhibited the makings of a scientist before most children develop significant motor skills. At age four she visited a farm on holiday with her family and was puzzled by the process of how hens laid eggs. "Where was the hole on the hen that the egg was big enough to come out?" Goodall said. Still perplexed, she climbed into the hen house, scaring the waiting chickens.
Ever the clever scientist, the young Goodall later climbed into an empty henhouse, camouflaged herself in straw, and waited. "Apparently I had waited for four hours and my family had absolutely no idea where I had gone," Goodall said. "They even called the police." But when the straw-covered Jane emerged from the coop victorious, her mother greeted her happily, waiting to hear the story.
Goodall's virtue of patience paid off in later years, when she would spend in silence, studying chimps in the wild. Her groundbreaking studies on chimp behavior near the Gombe River in 1960 revolutionized our perception of evolution and our relationship with primates.
Goodall's exploration into the world of primates began with the help of famed anthropologist, Louis Leaky. "Behavior doesn't fossilize," said Goodall. "[Leaky] believed that if we learned a little about the behavior of the chimpanzees, our closest living relatives along with bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, it might give him a better feeling for how our ancestors might have behaved."
The methods of her work at Gombe were, at times, controversial and unorthodox. When Goodall started her research for Leaky near Gombe, she had no formal university education. An unprecedented action in the scientific field, she gave her subjects names, such as Flo, Flint, and David, rather than assigning each a number. Like humans, each chimp had an individual personality, a point which Goodall would emphasize continuously.
It was not until after Goodall had finished her research and gone to get her Ph.D. that her "erudite professors," told her this practice was wrong. "Why didn't I capitulate and rename them?" Goodall asked the audience. "Because I had a teacher, my dog, Rusty, who taught me that animals had personalities."
When the six months of funding for the Gombe project had almost dried up, Goodall made a remarkable discovery. Her favorite chimp, David Graybeard, had used a thick blade of grass to dig a termite mound. He had also taken a tree branch and stripped it of its leaves, in order to modify it to make it more efficient.
This epiphany was a seismic shift in anthropology, shattering the notion that man alone was the "tool maker." Goodall's mentor Leaky even noted "humans would now have to either change the definition of ‘tool' or ‘man,' or else accept chimpanzees into the human race."
Since Goodall's accomplishments in the field of science, she has also become an environmental activist. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a non-profit organization whose mission has been to preserve the environment and animals.
"I'm not in the forests of Tanzania anymore because I had to do something to help the chimps in their plight," says Goodall.