Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jane Goodall: human, primatitarian

Jane Goodall is a remarkable individual, known not only for her ground-breaking scientific research but also for her service. I'd like to say "service to humanity" here, but in fact she goes a step further, helping not only her own species, but her order: the primates.

When it comes to habitat preservation, the chimpanzees' interests and the humans' long-term interests go hand-in-hand. The rainforests (which are being rapidly destroyed around the world) are critical for maintaining our planet's surface -- that thin, delicate layer we rely on for life -- in a human-habitable condition.

If you're asking "What about the interests of the people who live near the rainforest and would like to harvest its resources?" -- remember that the continued existence of the rainforest is in their long-term interest as well, for themselves and their descendants. But when you're faced with a choice between "food today" and "no food today," it's hard to put future generations' interests first. That's one of the reasons why the Jane Goodall Institute's mission involves ecology as a sustainable source of livelihood for the local human population (see here). (The same is true of many other rainforest-preservation organizations, such as our local favorite, aiding the Masoala National Park in Madagascar in conjunction with the Zoo of Zurich.)

I know that rainforest preservation gets painted as some sort of out-of-touch, elitist cause (especially with the U.S. economy exploding lately). But the thing is that once a section of rainforest is destroyed, the tremendous biodiversity needed to sustain that ecosystem -- thousands (millions?) of species that haven't even been discovered and named -- isn't going to just grow back within the span of a few human generations. And what if humans discover that, in fact, we needed that giant green lung in order for our species to survive? And what if we discover this after it's too late? There are rainforests now, but we won't have them for long unless we do something. The Jane Goodall Institute is a good place to start.

But that isn't what sparked my interest in Jane Goodall and her work. Her books on chimpanzees were the first primatology books I'd ever read, put into my hands by a boyfriend during my BYU days. And I've just read a fascinating recent biography by Meg Greene that brings to life the story behind Goodall's chimpanzee stories, from Jane's childhood dreams, to finding a way to fulfill them against all odds, to her astonishing research and discoveries (chimpanzee tool-use, warfare, etc.) that have changed the way we think about apes, including humans.

Early in the story, Meg Greene points out that Jane Goodall wasn't just an ordinary-type scientist. She was a woman scientist:

But through her work, Goodall brought a woman's touch, one that emphasized relationships rather than rules, to be receptive rather than controlling, to be empathetic instead of objective. Her approach flew in the face of conventional science, a science defined by male views and values.

Interesting point, I thought, reading that in the introduction. I hadn't really thought of relationships as being at odds with rules or objectivity as being a "male" view or value...

So I read the entire book with an eye out for Greene's claim that Goodall's femaleness was crucial to her research. The evidence Greene presents for this hypothesis is the fact that Goodall named her subjects and wrote down what she observed them doing (instead of performing controlled experiments on them).

My counterargument?

As Greene herself points out, Goodall didn't invent the idea of doing scientific research through field observations. This had been the standard technique for all naturalists (including male ones), and had merely fallen out of favor around Goodall's time. And -- through this book -- we learn that Goodall had a number of other qualities that were also crucial to the success of her work: ambition, tenacity (finding every possible opportunity and refusing to give up in the face of major setbacks), courage (to follow chimpanzees alone in the wild when she was well aware that they might easily choose to kill her), stamina (to continue to do research even when she had malaria so bad she could barely get out of bed), self-confidence (to know she was right despite ridicule from much of the scientific community), not to mention intelligence and a talent for observation.

How many of these qualities are "female"? How many are generic human qualities? But when you're a minority -- as women are in science -- you're always viewed through the lens of your minority status. (Now I'm starting to wonder how empathy helped Madame Curie understand radioactive elements...)

Anyway, all in all, Jane Goodall is one truly astounding female primate! :D


Varina said...

I've never heard of a primatologist that didn't name their research subjects. For that matter most scientist studying higher order mammals name their subjects (marine biologists seem to be the cutesiest, is this because many are female or because dolphins are so darn cute?). Anthropologists even name their dead people. I think this is because we humans can't help but socially connect with any creature we spend a lot of time with, and the more like "us" they are, and chimpanzees are a lot like us. Also Bobo is a lot easier to remember than subject 1478a.

Varina said...

Oh, and also, since she wanted to study Primate social behaviour, which is more effectively done by naturalist observation than lab experiments, choosing to do naturalist observation makes her a good scientist not a feminine scientist. She choose the appropriate method for her research.

helensotiriadis said...

i was thrilled to attend a dinner with jane goodall and the roots n shoots program in china last year and had a small exchange as she signed my copy of harvest for hope: a guide to mindful eating. her work, past and present, make her a superlative primate, irrespective of gender.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sabayon!!!

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Yet the author brings it up multiple times as a reason why this research needed to be done by a woman.

The author seems to have some strange ideas about gender, though. She also claimed that Goodall was at odds with feminism because she emphasized the value of motherhood and never placed her career before her child. Riiiight, that's totally unlike feminists like me who are all about hating moms and neglecting their kids...? What an unnecessarily divisive way of looking at it, when most feminists would naturally look up to Goodall as a fantastic example of reaching your potential in terms of family responsibilities as well as other dreams.

Hey TooManyTribbles!!!

Wow, that's fantastic!!! I'm thinking of getting my kids involved in Roots n Shoots. I looked it up on the web this morning, and they have a branch here in Zurich. Unsurprisingly, the organization here in Zurich has a special partnership with Madagascar, undoubtedly in cooperation with the Zoo's conservation work in Madagascar (as I mentioned above). It looks like a great program!

Craig said...

Even as a child I found her fascinating and was very impressed with her work.

I'd never heard about her being more "female" in her work than other researchers, and I agree with you that it is not true, it's sexist in fact.

I would ask Greene, "As a gay male linguist, how does my innate sense of interior decorating and fashion help me in my field"?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Craig!!!

Exactly. I kind of hate to harp on this point since it was a very interesting book overall, but the treatment of gender was kind of annoying. Especially in contrast with another (equally if not more important) accident of her birth: the fact that Goodall was born in England.

When reading about Goodall's challenges in traveling to Africa and getting a research position there, I kept wondering "Did it really have to be a white European doing this? Is there a reason a local couldn't have done the same thing?" My conclusion is that it made sense for the scientist to be a European because of the connection with the scientific community (which had built the foundation for such work and promoted it). Now much of the research and field work at her institute is performed by locals, but it was initiated by outsiders (like her and Louis Leakey). The author doesn't even treat this question, and seems oblivious to it as though she hadn't considered the possibility that a ground-breaking scientist might be anything other than a white person from the European tradition.

Anonymous said...

"Empathetic instead of objective" - INSTEAD of? What the hell? A scientist who isn't objective isn't a scientist! And the one doesn't rule out the other. Man, that's weird.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Felicia!!!

Yeah, that was basically my reaction when I read that too...