The difference makers: Jane Goodall
My legacy will be securing our relationship with those we share the planet with, says the world's most famous primatologist
Given that Jane Goodall has spent most of her adult live as an activist, what three things would she ask the Prime Minister to do if she had a meeting with her tomorrow? “I wouldn’t want to meet Theresa May tomorrow, thank you very much,” Goodall retorts. A question as to whether she’s not a fan is met with stony silence. No comment, I venture? “No comment”, she confirms through pursed lips.
Behind Goodall’s easy charm lies a quick wit and iron resolve. Born in London in 1934, Goodall’s father abandoned the family when she was young, and although her path was in many ways mapped out for her – she was presented to the Queen as a debutante in 1955 – she rejected it. “I always knew I wanted to go to Africa and live with animals and write books about them,” she reveals. By 1957, she was living on a friend’s farm in Kenya.
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While there, she connected with Kenyan archaeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, and developed a hypothesis about how studying the behaviour of apes should assume a degree of human cognitive function. In 1962, she began a PhD in ethology at Cambridge (without an undergraduate degree, the eighth time ever in history), working under zoologist Robert Hinde, whom she calls a “wonderful supervisor”. “Initially, he was very critical of talking about chimps with personalities, with minds and thoughts and emotions,” she explains. “I just thought it was so ridiculous to say animals don’t have personalities – so stupid.” Hinde was eventually persuaded after visiting Gombe in Tanzania with Goodall, the first of many high-profile conversions.
While Goodall used to be on the front line, today she knows there’s greater impact to be had by advocating publicly for the causes she cares about, and, in doing so, she knows her charisma and celebrity are valuable assets. “They usually want to meet me,” she says of the donors who finance her many projects. “And then I just talk to them, try to inspire them – I don’t go with my hand held out for money.” By the end of April, she is hoping to close a $20million investment for the Jane Goodall Legacy Foundation, putting her 10 per cent of the way to her $200million target. Future-proofing the change she’s engineered is now one of her primary concerns. “Unless I have an endowment to cover these things, or to start new things that seem really important, then the things I’ve worked for will gradually fade away,” she says quietly.
Given the legacy that Goodall will leave behind, it’s hard to imagine it fading easily. In a near 60-year career, she’s worked in seven African countries improving chimp habitats, and put 3.4 million acres of habitat under Conservation Action Plans. “If you don’t know about it, you can’t care about it,” she adds, explaining that her Roots and Shoots environmental education programme, which now works with children from pre-school age upwards in more than 100 countries, creates a trickle-down pyramid of impact. She is articulate when criticising the prevailing idea of unlimited economic growth on a planet with finite resources, adding that she wants to unite a group of free-thinking economists to tackle the issue. In pursuit of her goals, she spends 300 days a year on the road, but her childhood house in Bournemouth, where her sister now lives with her children, still feels like home.
Even though the African bush must feel a million miles away when Goodall embarks on some of her commitments, her laser-like focus remains constant. When we meet, she had recently attended the 2018 Baftas where a film about her life, Jane, was up for Best Documentary. She describes watching the red carpet with a mixture of anthropological detachment and human bafflement, especially the “pimpled gooseflesh” and inexplicably high heels of the freezing attendees. She doesn’t like award shows, citing the time she attended the Oscars in 1991; Madonna and Michael Jackson went together and, by Goodall’s account, ran up and down the aisles like children. I ask if she treats such events in the same way as watching animals in the wild. “It’s the only way to get through these things,” she agrees.
Large-scale publicity is inevitable when you’re trying to create change on an international scale, but Goodall isn’t neglectful of the smaller, everyday ways change is brought about. When dining recently in a Holland Park restaurant with Queen guitarist Brian May and friends, she noticed that the baby of a family of fellow diners was swaddled in a fur scarf. “I went over and I said, ‘Can you resolve an argument we’ve been having about whether the fur is real or not?’, and the mother immediately jumped in, proudly saying, ‘Oh yes, it’s real fur, of course it’s real fur,’” Goodall recollects. At this point, another member of the group pointed out the identity of her enquirer. “She went completely scarlet and said, ‘I thought you looked familiar,’” Goodall recalls. “The main thing is not to accuse people – but enter into a discussion,” she says of changing people’s minds. “You don’t make them feel…” Goodall trails off. “Well, she was embarrassed, but I was a bit aggressive.”
While it’s hard to imagine an aggressive Goodall, it’s clear that her comfort in challenging people is no less potent than in her Cambridge days, and she’s rather funny with it. Our photographer alerts her to a smaller, second camera he’s set up to record their interview. “I’ve seen it,” she replies drily. “I’ve done these things before, you know.” Half teasing, half serious, this is the Goodall way, but her self-possession is far from being robotic. “I don’t like my face at all,” she admits at one point, noting that, while she’ll concede she was beautiful as a young woman, like so many, “I didn’t think so then.” What’s inescapable is that Goodall does things on her own terms, even when handling the simplest of questions: cat or dog? “I’m a dog person,” she replies. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t like cats.”