Bioethics Blogs

Happy Birthday, Jane Goodall!

Jane Goodall with Freud

Credit: Michael Neugebauer, courtesy of The Jane Goodall Institute
Caption: Dr. Jane Goodall with Freud, a Gombe chimpanzee

Today, I’d like to wish a very “Happy Birthday” to a dear friend and one of my personal heroes: Jane Goodall. Given Jane’s energy and youthful attitude, it’s hard to believe that this scientist who was so instrumental in advancing our understanding of primate behavior is turning 80 today.

But, indeed, more than a half-century has passed since Jane first traveled to Africa to begin her field research in Gombe National Park on the shores of Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Her goal? To observe wild chimpanzees in their natural environment and analyze their behavior like no researcher had done before.

At first, the chimps were shy and ran away whenever Jane approached. But, as they grew used to the young biologist’s presence, they continued on with their daily activities as she carefully watched and meticulously recorded their actions, often equipped with nothing more than a pair of binoculars, a pencil, and a notebook. Her landmark work revealed that chimp behavior resembled human behavior in ways that no one had even imagined—findings that transformed our understanding of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

Through Jane’s keen power of observation, we learned that chimps had complex social lives, emotional relationships, and behaviors that included hugging, kissing, grooming, playing, and even learning by observing and imitating the behavior of others. Like humans, chimps could be compassionate, altruistic, cooperative, but, at other times, violent and cruel [1].

Jane was the first to discover that chimps used tools—for example, inserting grass stems, or small twigs from which they carefully stripped the leaves, into earthen termite mounds to “fish” out the tasty insects.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.