Everyday Saints

Jane Goodall reflects on the meaning of her life.

THE PATIENCE AND humility of simply observing our natural world and other animals is like the daily practice of any spiritual tradition. For Jane Goodall, it is this Zen-like being with another culture—in this case, that of chimpanzees—that inspires and teaches so many of us how to be truly human and humane. Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey

by Jane Goodall (Time/Warner, $26.95) In her new memoir, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, the scientist Goodall finds perfect equipoise with the seeker. It is through the mirror of our close cousins—we share 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees—that Goodall most eloquently contemplates her connection with the divine. Jane disregarded the dogma of previous primatologists and while with the chimps of Gombe's forest, like her favorite saint, Francis of Assisi, "named them and greeted them as friends." Before paleontologist Louis Leakey had the inspired notion to send his British secretary and her adventurous mother off into the wilds of Tanganyika in 1960, next to nothing was known about chimpanzees in their natural habitat. And when Goodall, with her "open mind, with a passion for knowledge, with a love of animals, and with monumental patience," made the equally monumental discovery that chimpanzees used tools—twigs and stems poked into the earth to fish out termites for food—she sparked off both a scientific and a "theological" uproar by challenging "human uniqueness." It's a mark of how far we've come in healing the schism between science and spirituality that Goodall's Reason for Hope will not set off the same uproar. Yet there will be echoes, for here is one of the world's most beloved scientific researchers speaking her heart about such ineffable and unresearchable subjects as reincarnation, psychic phenomena, and "the peace that passeth understanding," which she finds in the Gombe forests as she follows the chimpanzee families that have become, through her storytelling and keen-eyed scrutiny, as familiar as our own. Following Goodall's spiritual journey, we find that philosophical and religious subjects are always open to observation. And this is what Goodall does best. Her rigorous observation skills are distinguished by empathy and a far-ranging imagination. As she tramps through forests after Daniel Greybeard, Goliath, Fifi, and others in the Gombe chimp family who slowly accept this "strange, white ape," Goodall longs to "look out onto the world through the eyes, with the mind, of a chimpanzee. For we are human-bound, imprisoned within our human perspective. . . . Indeed, it is even hard for us to see the world from the perspective of cultures other than our own. . . ." After five decades of looking at the world from the empathic point of view of the chimpanzees of Gombe, in the longest running animal-behavior project ever, Goodall recently led her colleagues into a new century by coediting a 1999 study declaring that chimpanzees show a discrete culture, complete with 39 customs—from toolmaking to grooming to courtship. It is the first time that scientists have allowed another species a culture, citing the chimps' strong social bonds, plant use for medicinal purposes, and group hunting. Why has this modest, unaggressive woman, who gained a Ph.D. only after decades of living in humble neighborliness with another culture, continued to set the pace for her more academic peers? Perhaps it is the same way a mystic can see worlds yet unimagined by those steeped in dogma. "Science does not have proper tools for the dissection of the spirit," Goodall explains. She is a visionary whose tool-making on her own spiritual journey has been her devotion and openness to the Other, which approaches awe. Her mystical experiences are most often alongside chimpanzees. Consider Goodall's meditation on her Gombe forest and primate companions, whom she seeks out after her dear husband Derek's death in 1981 "simply because I needed their company, undemanding and free of pity." It is early morning, and Goodall looks out from her empty house over the Congo Mountains framing Lake Tanganyika and a waning moon. One of her favorite chimps, Fifi, and her offspring are waking to feed on fallen figs. Goodall follows the family as they play and doze through a midday siesta. A fierce storm sends both Goodall and the chimps under shelter of palm fronds: The chimpanzees' black coats were shot with coppery brown, the branches on which they sat were wet and dark as ebony, the young leaves a pale but brilliant green. And behind was the dramatic backcloth of the indigo sky where lightning flickered and distant thunder growled and rumbled . . . self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself. SIMONE WEIL, THE French mystic, once described prayer as "rapt attention." Goodall's generosity in expanding the territory of her own soul's searching to include the consideration and companionship of other species makes her meditations on our shared primate ancestry engaging and keeps her readers rapt. So when she observes that chimpanzees experience love and "feelings akin to awe," we trust her not only as a scientist but also as loving and awe-inspired herself. Perhaps this emotional resonance explains Goodall's international appeal and her success in speaking to everyday people about the plight of our closest relatives. If Goodall's memoir were a prayer book, it would be most memorable for its reflections on the roots of human (and chimpanzee) evil, and her hope that "we will have to evolve, all of us, from ordinary, everyday human beings—into saints!" Her concept of "moral evolution" is appropriate for one whose primatological passion is "The Living Link between Man and Beast," and her Darwinian training prompts Goodall to posit that humans can select against the "selfish gene," which values self over any other, over preserving our own home planet, and even over all evidence of our imminent, self-inflicted extinction. Extinction is our species' fate as well, Goodall muses, unless we learn to truly adapt and grow—to, in other words, spiritually evolve. "That flame of pure spirit that is in each and every one of us, that is part of the Creator . . ." she writes, "that which is loved, I realized, can grow"—grow past the primitive abuses of our holocausts against ourselves and animals, grow past the aggression, territorial violence, and exploitation of our history, grow beyond the cruelty that allows us to imprison our primate relatives in laboratories, renting their bodies out to pharmaceutical companies to test diseases and vaccines. Goodall's commentary on the fate of chimpanzees captured in forests and trapped in labs for our sake is as compelling and heartbreaking as her haunting visit to Auschwitz to face the first evil encountered in her WWII childhood. "What is done to animals in the name of science is often, from the animal's point of view, pure torture—and would be regarded as such if perpetrated by anyone who was not a scientist," she writes. Yet she believes we can morally evolve and grow beyond the materialism that causes ourselves and other species so much suffering, toward spiritual acquisition. But, she warns, "we do not, I think, have much time." Goodall's reasons for hope are many, but her message is eloquently simple: "Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference." Jane Goodall speaks at Town Hall on 9/9 at 7:30pm. 221-2585. Brenda Peterson is a novelist and nature writer whose latest books include Sister Stories and Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. She is at work on a new novel and a book for National Geographic on the gray whale.

 
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