Trinity University Press

Jane Goodall- James R. Baugh

Chimps, Jungles, and Change

James R. Baugh

    Jane Goodall helped teach a 1970s course in human biology at Stanford University, and I was one of her students. She believed that there was a lot to be gained by studying chimpanzee behaviors (particularly mother/infant bonding), tool use, and social structure. Specifically, she believed that our understanding of our own evolution would be enhanced by the study of inherent similarities between humans and chimps. I was intrigued by these theories, and so I pursued further chimpanzee work with her, ultimately going to Africa myself.

    My experience at Gombe taught me how to study wildlife while living harmoniously with it. Our professor, Jane Goodall, instructed us to try to never touch chimpanzees, baboons, or other animals, especially those under study. We were taught how to crouch in submissive postures should an alpha male decide to express dominant behavior. I was once filled with trepidation the day I followed my chimp, Madame Bee, too closely, and fell onto her. For moments I lay against her hairy back. She was eating orange berries and really did not seem to care at all that I had lost my footing and stumbled onto her. In fact, she had grown quite tolerant of my presence, in much the same way other chimpanzees at the preserve had been habituated to people. For months thereafter, Madame Bee, her offspring Baby Bee, and I would walk the same terrain, sample the same food, and together experience the same bush wildlife. Occasionally, she would look my way and seem to study me, as if I might have been her oddly dressed distant cousin. How remarkable it was that each of our separate evolutionary histories had brought
us together in such a way--thanks to the efforts of Jane Goodall.

    I have since become a pediatrician, caring for patients in the US, Europe, and Haiti. I see the world now as evolving in ways not imagined during my time at Gombe. Chimpanzees are challenged to adapt to habitat destruction and smaller population dynamics and may be faced with extinction. Human primate populations, conversely, continue to grow and thrive, divided less by racism, religious doctrine, or geography. The trend for humans is now one of merger and intermarriage, with globalization accelerating such mixing in unprecedented ways.

    Our human evolution continues to strengthen us, as theory would suggest it ought to do. It is also clear, however, that our continued successful evolution depends, like for all creatures, on a healthy planet ecology, which would include the preservation of abundant and diverse wildlife systems. The survival and success of ourselves and our wild chimpanzee friends should be mutually beneficial. Jane Goodall’s life work has clearly validated this point for humanity, and the world owes her respect and gratitude. She has inspired many, many people to work for wildlife preservation and protection, and she has touched their lives in so many other ways. My own son, Adam, similarly inspired and touched, now furthers Jane’s endeavors by working in South Africa and Mozambique. She will be happy to know that.

    James R. Baugh is general pediatrician and clinical associate professor of pediatrics, Virginia University School of Medicine and visiting pediatric professor, Hopital de l'université d'état d'Haiti, Port au Prince, Haiti.