Jane Goodall- Thomas J. Daniels
Recollections of a Teen-aged Primate
Thomas J. Daniels
In 1972, I turned 17 years old, so for the first time, I was finally able to drive a car legally. It was also the first time I began to seriously think about what I was going to do with my life, how I would make a living (cars cost money, after all), and what I was capable of doing. Regarding the latter, the answer was “not very much,” but I knew it would be something to do with animals. TV shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the nature films by Disney, as contrived as they could be, were fascinating to me and the fact that there were real scientists engaged in these projects told me there was an opportunity to do something like that. But I needed to learn much more. And that’s when Jane Goodall entered my world.
By way of disclaimer, I should mention that I’ve never met Jane. Her influence was not that of a graduate advisor teaching a student or of a well-known speaker I’d heard at a symposium or public lecture. We had not corresponded personally. Quite simply, she had written about her work, and I had read about it. It was what I needed.
My hometown library was not very good at the time, and I used to make periodic forays to the library in the next town. This was how we acquired knowledge before the internet. I’d read books about captive animals in zoos and endangered species in the wild, but these were largely surveys on those topics and didn’t give me much insight into how you went about doing research. I would be finishing high school next year and, hopefully, enrolling in college, but while I had a strong interest in biology, I had none in being an M.D. Biology departments then were largely in the business of identifying med school candidates, pushing the lucky few along and leaving the rest behind to fend for themselves. Opportunities were few and far between for those interested in the nascent field of behavioral ecology, a field that didn’t even have a name at that time, and I had the uneasy feeling that even if I did well enough to get a degree in biology, I’d have to make my own way to graduate school and beyond.
In the midst of my existential angst, I managed to come up with money to buy three books that year. One was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It was on the bestseller list, everyone I knew who read it liked it, and I could get a paperback copy. Money well spent.
The second book I had seen in the library. I borrowed it and didn’t want to give back. I returned the library copy only after I’d bought the book for myself. Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man had come out the year before and was a fascinating look at our closest genetic relatives. The chimps had names, not numbers, a departure from the classic animal behavior literature that dominated the field at the time. They had personalities. They formed groups, sometimes acting like a mob. There was a hierarchy that had to be respected. There were families that didn’t always get along. There were known and unknown dangers. There were problems raising their young and dealing with the elderly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in some ways I was reading The Godfather all over again. More importantly, I was reading about a decade of field work that had been conducted by someone committed to her research, to whom the hardships of that work were accepted, and who understood that the reward gained, i.e., knowledge about these chimps, would be sporadic and frequently deferred.
The third of my literary purchases that year was Jane Goodall and Hugo Van Lawick’s Innocent Killers, a book that more directly affected my personal research choice once I entered grad school. I admit a bias toward canids, and this book’s depiction of carnivore life on the Serengeti started me thinking about community interactions involving man’s best friend in urban areas, a process that ultimately led to my own work on domestic dogs. When I subsequently began studying vector-borne diseases, the focus of my research today, it was with a greater appreciation of how complex and dynamic relationships among individuals can be.
Jane’s research at Gombe continues to inspire generations of biologists. If I’ve come to learn anything from her work, it is that smart, long-lived animals require smart, long-term ecological study if we are ever to appreciate their magnificence. By extension, the absence of that effort will frequently lead to misunderstanding and a lack of consideration for those animals, something that is all too common today. But I believe her true legacy will be to put our behavior in focus, to show how closely related we are to our primate cousins yet how distantly we hold them. In the face of our commonality with other species, we still consider little other than ourselves. The lesson is there to be learned, but if we fail to do so, it will not be for lack of guidance from those who, like Jane, know better.
Thomas J. Daniels studied free ranging and feral dogs as a student of Marc Bekoff. Now he studies ticks and mosquitoes as a vector ecologist in New York.