Jane Goodall on Trump's Dominance Ritual and Other Monkey Business

In an interview, the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall explains why she compared the U.S. president’s dominance rituals with those of her study subjects and stresses the importance of protecting the environment.

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Chimp Haven sanctuary in Keithville, La. and Donald Trump.
Chimp Haven sanctuary in Keithville, La. and Donald Trump.Credit: Brandon Wade / AP Images, Brian Snyder / Reuters
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

For three months I tried to interview the legendary chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall. I began my efforts immediately after a remark she made in an interview with The Atlantic, before the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, caused an international furor: “In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Goodall said in October.

Goodall, an ethologist and anthropologist, is a famous figure and without a doubt the highest authority on chimpanzees. She has been in the public eye for nearly 60 years and has rarely spoken out on political issues. But if she says Trump reminds her of Mike the chimp, we should take notice.

It took some doing to speak with Goodall, 83. She is on the road for around 300 days out of the year, traveling around the world on speaking engagements and to fight for a better world for animals, the human community and the environment. By the time we found a time to talk at length, it was a few days before Trump’s inauguration, in January.

Jane Goodall with one of her research subjects in the Gombe National Park in northern
Tanzania, in 1972.
Jane Goodall with one of her research subjects in the Gombe National Park in northern Tanzania, in 1972.Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Goodall was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on a brief visit with her family. The telephone connection was poor, and her voice sounded thin and fragile.

The question about Trump, near the beginning of our conversation, had her roaring with laughter. “When I began observing chimpanzees in the Gombe in Tanzania, way back in the 1960s, there was a very dominant male in the community named Mike. I couldn’t not think of him when I watched the debates between Trump and the other Republican candidates.” Mike would make a huge amount of noise. He kicked objects and cans, and created a large amount of confusion among the other males, she says. His rivals were afraid of him and tried to hide from him. This is how Mike became the leader of the group and managed to hold on to his dominant status for a long time, she said.

“My statement was not a political statement but an observation of a primatologist. The behavior of dominant males, who are trying to gain control of the community, simply is similar among chimpanzees and humans. The comparison seemed to me to be almost obvious,” said Goodall.

“The fact that such comparisons still arouse a storm is the interesting point, but the truth is that I am rather used to it. Such comparisons, between chimpanzees and humans, always got me into trouble. I have no intention of stopping with them now. There will always be someone who is offended by them.”

Jane Goodall with a monkey doll, in Pasadena, Calif. in 2012.
Jane Goodall with a monkey doll, in Pasadena, Calif. in 2012.Credit: Nick Ut / AP

Goodall is an icon. It is very hard to identify another scientist who studies nature today who has such great standing and esteem. Her influence on the study of chimpanzees, protecting animals, establishing nature reserves in Africa and on environmental issues in general, is enormous.

When she started out on her career, Goodall was young and had no formal academic training. Nearly 60 years ago, at the age of 23, she arrived in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi from London. She came to visit a friend, and while she was there she met the anthropologist Louis Leakey, who was studying the origins of humans. She was hired as his secretary. In 1960, at age 26, still without any formal higher education, Leakey proposed she move to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and live there alone, as the only white person in the area, in the forests of Gombe and study the behavior of the some 100 wild chimpanzees living there.

Goodall hesitated before accepting the offer. “It was my greatest dream, since I was a child,” she says now. “I couldn’t refuse such a tempting offer, even though it seemed crazy to me.”

The Tanzanian authorities were worried about a young white woman staying alone in the bush, and demanded that she have someone with her. Her mother, Vanne, came from London to serve as her escort and they lived together in a tent in the middle of the forest for their first half year in Gombe.

“I owe my mother everything,” says Goodall pensively. “I was almost a girl then and it seemed natural to me that she came to Gombe to live with me, but later I understood that this was not at all something to be taken for granted. Especially because she had a horrible fear of spiders.”

A touching look in the mirror

Goodall’s observations shocked the world. The inexperienced and untrained young woman discovered an entire world that contradicted what scientists in the 1960s thought they knew about animals. She showed that chimpanzees, thought to be herbivorous, ate meat. She documented them making tools, for example by tearing the leaves off a branch and sticking it into a termite mound in order to fish out the insects, which the chimpanzees would eat. Such skills had previously been thought unique to humans.

“We must now redefine man, redefine tool or accept chimpanzees as human,” Leakey, by then an internationally famous scientist, said at the time in light of Goodall’s discoveries.

Goodall’s research included detailed descriptions of the social life of chimpanzees; their family structure; relations between parents and children, and couples; social behaviors; power, dominance and the changing of generations. Fifteen years after she began her research in Gombe, she observed cannibalism among the chimpanzees, but this she described as extremely rare. When she saw one group of chimpanzees harm another group, she was shocked at how similar they seemed to humans, she said.

“Today we learn and study such matters as animal emotions, or chimpanzee humor. At the time, these were matters that would never have been considered for study. Today there is no argument that animals express emotions. Then it was forbidden to talk about it, because you knew they would ridicule you. And they really did ridicule me many times. And also criticized me endlessly because I gave the chimpanzees I observed names, such as Mike, Flint, Flo or David Greybeard. It was considered unscientific and not serious. The fact that I bonded emotionally with the subjects of the research, the chimps I observed, was considered at the time to be problematic behavior,” says Goodall.”

Dian Fossey; Jane Goodall; and Birute Galdikas.
Dian Fossey; Jane Goodall; and Birute Galdikas.Credit: Jane Goodall Institute

She says that were she asked to summarize those years, she would say that we must respect animals. “We should be ashamed of our attitude to animals. Chimpanzees are disappearing rapidly. A hundred years ago there were a million chimps on earth. Today there are fewer than 300,000. The latest forecasts indicate that by 2020, 75 percent of the chimpanzee population will disappear from the earth. They are disappearing because we, humans, are cutting down their forests, hunting and not protecting them well enough,” she says.

A reason for hope

For a long time, Goodall’s findings were not accepted graciously. Many denigrated her research and its amazing findings. Leakey, her steadfast patron, sent her off to Cambridge, where she was allowed to study for a doctorate without first obtaining an undergraduate degree. She earned a Ph.D. in ethology with honors and immediately returned to Gombe to continue observing the chimpanzees.

Goodall’s research in Tanzania lasted for 26 years, and it became her life. She married Hugo van Lawick, a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. They met when he came to Tanzania to photograph her work. The marriage lasted 10 years and after they divorced she married Derek Bryceson, the director of Tanzania’s national parks. He died of cancer six years later. All this time. Goodall continued her observations and research on chimpanzees, and published many books and articles on the subject.

In 1986, Goodall announced she was ending her own research and would focus on animals in danger of extinction as well as protecting the environment. Since then, she has traveled ceaselessly all around the world. She has been awarded dozens of prizes and honors, honorary degrees and titles of nobility. She established the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977. Roots & Shoots is her global humanitarian and environmental program for young people of all ages. It empowers young people to become involved in “hands-on” projects for their local community, for animals and the environment we all share.

The cover of National Geographic in 1965.
The cover of National Geographic in 1965. Credit: No credit

“I travel because I’m crazy,” she says simply. “It seems to me that every lecture has an influence. This is a great feeling of purpose and I think that every meeting I hold will change the world. I hate airports and hotels, but I still don’t stop traveling. I still believe that this is the only way to pass on the message. The feeling of people like me is there is complete chaos around us. I see so many problems and so many helpless creatures who need protection, that I cannot sit quietly at home,” says Goodall.

“It is clear after all that this is not a matter of money or honors. I am on a mission. I meet on every journey, some 300 days a year, young people. They are the future of the world. I explain the importance of the help to people, the need to help animals and the problems facing the environment. There are things that must be said: Climate change is real, the earth is warming. Human behavior is destructive in an unbelievable fashion. My personal mission is to cause people to understand that every one of us can make a difference. Everyone has a role to play. The earth belongs to all of us. We are all part of nature.”

Dr. Louis B. Leakey.
Dr. Louis B. LeakeyCredit: AP

You still mention humans first.

“True. I came to the conclusion that the first problem that must be dealt with is the terrible poverty, especially in Africa. There is a direct relationship between poverty and the chimpanzees’ situation. If poverty prevails in a certain area, the first thing they will do to deal with it is to cut down the forests. It doesn’t matter why, in order to sell the trees, in order to prepare land for agriculture, for a lot of reasons. This is of course a terrible mistake and we must fight it. The rapid human reproduction, the crowding in cities, these are the true problems of the environment and we must solve them first,” says Goodall.

Pictures of Goodall as a young woman living alongside the chimps appeared on the covers of magazines all over the world. These were the years in which magazines such as National Geographic and Life flourished, and Goodall starred in documentaries and nature films. Suddenly, nature looked sexy and exciting, much more than before. This great success encouraged Leakey and the editors of National Geographic to copy the formula in at least two other similar cases, which received enormous publicity, too.

These two other cases also involved young, white and pretty women who were chosen to work as primate researchers in other particularly remote regions in Africa. The first was Dian Fossey, an American only two years older than Goodall, who studied the lives of mountain gorillas. The second was Birute Galdikas, who studied orangutans.

Looking back, Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas were considered the most prominent representatives of the “habituation” method of studying primate behavior. They spent months and years alongside the subjects of their research, let the animals become used to their presence, in some cases fed them and got to know them, gave them names and studied them closely. Their critics argue that all these things could have interfered with the objective analysis of their results.

Tamar Ron is an Israeli zoologist and ecologist who worked in nature conservation in Angola for several years. She is still involved in a few United Nations projects in Africa. In 2006 she and the late Israel journalist Tamar Golan published “Gorillot ve diplomatia,” published in English in 2010 as “Angolan Rendezvous: Man and Nature in the Shadow of War.”

The cover of National Geographic in 1995.
The cover of National Geographic in 1995.Credit: No credit

In a long conversation some weeks ago, Ron explained in detail why Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas won such great success. They arrived in Africa with an open mind and the willingness to see new things, even if they were revolutionary, says Ron.

“It is precisely because Goodall did not come from a structured school of thought with a scientific theory that she was able to discover the most impressive innovation, new interpretations. She succeeded in seeing and transmitting things that many did not want to hear. She demonstrated daring and devotion to her scientific truth. Her research was very pioneering and its influence is great even today, and recognizable personally for me, too. In many ways, I see myself as someone who is following Goodall’s path,” says Ron.

The controversial point in Goodall’s research, says Ron, is the anthropomorphism. “This is seen as an illegitimate tool for understanding chimpanzees, even if they are the closest animals to us. If we publish assumptions about thoughts and emotions of animals it will turn you into an outcast in the scientific community. She succeeded in convincing the fixated scientific world to accept findings that show that chimpanzees are similar to us,” added Ron.

Too close for comfort

Some of the criticism leveled against Goodall was the result of her starting to feed the chimpanzees bananas during her early research in Gombe. She set several feeding stations throughout the forest where she gave the chimpanzees bananas so that she could observe them much more easily and for longer periods. When I asked her if she thinks today that this was the right thing to do, to become so close to the chimpanzees, she answers with a slight hesitation.

“It is possible that it looks different today, and the tools for observation during the day and at night are better, but then we had almost no opportunity to follow them. The chimpanzees hid for hours in the foliage, and in that preliminary stage of the research it was important to feed them in order for them to come out of the dense bush and be able to observe them easily,” says Goodall.

“This observation allowed us to see details and learn things we didn’t know about their lives and the relationships between them. In retrospect, the answer is yes. I am glad that we did it then. I’m not sure but that’s the answer I would give to a young researcher who would ask me today about a similar research method.

“I don’t regret at all the other components of the closeness, such as giving names or habituating the animals. A very important part of my research is the proof that animals such as chimpanzees have an individual personality and individual character, exactly like humans. It is impossible to reach this conclusion without forming a close bond,” she added.

Itai Roffman of the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa studies chimpanzee behavior and the question of their identity and their relationship to early human ancestors. In a conversation, he says Goodall has been his mentor since he was in high school, nearly 20 years ago. He is in regular contact with her, in part due to his involvement in Roots & Shoots in Israel.

“Chimpanzees need to be included in the family of hominids,” he says. “We must look at them as an ancient human. There is genetic similarity, that stands at 99.7 percent, but it is much more than that. My research shows that they have the entire range of ancient human characteristics. They manufacture, as Goodall was the first to show, the entire range of tools of prehistoric man. They have cultural diversity, every community is different than all the others. They have personal facial expressions and the ability to express themselves, memory and interpretation of iconography,” says Roffman.

“The importance of this insight is that we need to change the status of chimps in society, from animal to human. This points to moral and ethical problems, for example, releasing them from zoos because after all you do not keep relatives in zoos; rehabilitating their communities; preserving the heritage of chimpanzees as the heritage of early humans. The conclusion is that if we do not save them, something of the human heritage will become extinct. This leads to the conclusion that we have an obligation to save them,” he added.

For more information about the work of Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute visit: www.janegoodall.org or www.rootsandshoots.org