As a young woman, Jane Goodall revolutionised the way we think about primates – and about ourselves as humans. She had to defend her research results against the academic establishment.

Despite having no academic training, you became one of the most influential primate researchers in the world. Where did your courage to be self-determined come from?
I was fortunate in having a supportive mother. When I was 10 years old, after reading many books about animals (from the library as we had little money, and WW2 was raging), I decided I would grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them. Everyone laughed at me – How could I do that? Africa was far away, it would cost a lot to get there – and I was “just a girl”. I was told to dream about things I could actually achieve. But not my mother. She simply told me that if that’s what I really wanted to do I would have to work very hard, take advantage of all opportunities – and not give up.

Her advice was obviously correct.
I have told this to thousands of young people and I wish Mum was alive to know how many people have said to me “Jane, thank you! You taught me that because you did it, I could do it too”. My mother also taught me that if I disagreed with people, I should first listen to them so I could understand why they thought as they did, and maybe say something that would make me rethink my own position. But if, after listening, I still thought I was right, then I should have the courage of my convictions. I owe much of my success to my wise mother.

Chimpanzees have entirely different personalities.

Your research has shown – contrary to the view that was common at the time – that chimpanzees possess intelligence and complex feelings, too.
Chimpanzees all have different personalities, as I observed during my time among them. I saw how easily excitable, clever or courageous they can be. I saw how they feel sad, how they show themselves to be concerned and how they can fight with great brutality. I saw how they tenderly embraced and kissed one another. I saw their human-like behaviour.

And yet established researchers initially rejected your research results.
They told me that I had done everything wrong. That it was unscientific. I couldn’t ascribe human characteristics, feelings or minds to chimpanzees.

What does it take to be a pioneer like you?
Most important is determination to succeed. Patience, because success does not always come quickly. Also I am an obstinate person – if that is the right word. I don’t easily give up, I am prepared to stick to my opinion and not be intimidated. Some might call this courage. And I think it is important to be optimistic – for without hope one becomes apathetic and gives up.

We are responsible for our own destiny.

What does self-determination mean to you?
I can do no better than quote Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings”. We are responsible for our own destiny. You must believe in yourself.

How important is self-determination to chimpanzees?
You can see that some males, more than others, are highly motivated to reach a high position in the male hierarchy. Interestingly, they are often those who had supportive mothers when young! Most will, at some point, challenge a higher-ranking individual. If a fight ensues and the young male gets hurt, he may at that point give up his aspirations. But some simply will not give up. 

You’re almost 85 and still very active. What is the secret of a long life?
A large part lies in genetics. My grandmother lived to be 98, my mother 96 and my father 97. And even my uncle, despite problems with alcohol and a heart attack, reached the age of 88. I inherited, from my father, a strong constitution. I have been a vegetarian since my early 20s – when I learned about factory farms. 

What is the meaning of life?
For different people different things. For me, my life is a challenge. It is as though I have been given a mission – to raise awareness about the harm we are doing to our planet, and give people hope. That is why I started our youth programme, Roots & Shoots. There are now groups of all ages (kindergarten through university) in over 50 countries, all working on projects of their own choice to make a better world for people, animals and the environment. Every individual has a role to play in this life. Every individual makes some impact – every day.  Together we can change the world before it is too late.

Jane Goodall


Chimpanzee researcher and environmental activist

Jane Goodall, 85, is one of the most famous animal researchers and conservationists in the world. In 1960, at the age of 26, she started the first long-term study of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. She discovered that chimpanzees use tools that they make themselves. For example, they remove the leaves from plants and use the stems to fish for termites. This contradicted the previous scientific theory that only humans used tools. Goodall immediately became world famous. The Jane Goodall Institute is dedicated to protecting primates. Its projects range from nature and wildlife conservation to development cooperation and are intended to help people, animals and the environment. The Roots & Shoots programme engages children and young people. Jane Goodall will speak at the DigitalEvent in Baden on 2 November and at the University of Zurich-Irchel on 3 November. The proceeds will go to projects of the Jane Goodall Institute Switzerland.

Images: Michael Neugebauer; The Jane Goodall Institute / Michael Cox; Vincent Calmel

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