Dr. Jane in the Flesh

Guess who came to USC today?  Jane Goodall!  Yes, the one who sits in the wild and travels the world raising awareness for environmental issues.  She holds a professorship here, actually.  Bovard was filled to the brim this afternoon, not only with students and professors but also other educators and a good number of local kids.

She bore an uncanny resemblance to the huge wild-colored painting of her on one side of the stage.  While she was talking, there would be occasional creaks and program rustles from the audience but as soon as her story reached a point in dramatic tension, the auditorium would go dead quiet.  There were quite a few of those, from when she was a girl struggling to go to university (her family couldn’t afford college, but eventually she went straight to her Ph.D.) to the rehabilitation of black robins from 7 birds, 1 fertile female to over 300.  Her message was simple: don’t give up.  Even though she had to get a secretarial certificate and wait tables for tourists, she eventually made it to Cambridge and from there, revolutionized the way everyone thought about “man” and “tool.”  If we do not accept chimpanzees as human, we must simply redefine that term.  One of her biggest hurdles was the rigid academic language in which biology was couched; when her preliminary papers described the chimpanzees in terms of personalities and human emotions, they flat-out told her she had done everything wrong.  “Fortunately,” she said, “in my childhood I had a wonderful teacher who taught me that no matter what anybody said, animals do have emotions and they do love, they do care, they do get upset, just like humans.  That teacher was my dog.”

A practical tip from Dr. Jane: If a mother chimp is nursing a newborn and her other child interferes, throws a fit, and is acting in all respects like a jealous sibling but because of scientific rigor, you can’t say that, you get around it by saying, “The chimpanzee acted in such a way that had she been a human child, one would say she was jealous.”  Just passing on some advice!

It made me think, though, of how we say archaeology is the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences and yet, the way we write (in American schools) about the archaeological record is so carefully devoid of our emotional, human responses to the objects under study.  That is, it is supposed to be.  When a researcher starts waxing imaginative on the powers of a pipe instead of stating “this pipe had ceremonial signficance, evidenced by patterns of exchange and…etc.,” he or she lays himself or herself open to criticism of the most damning kind: an attack on research objectivity.  All scientists accept that subjectivity coloring observations and analysis is inevitable, but few condone its ready adoption.  When archaeologists go out into the field armed with total stations and magnetometers and floatation screens, it is with the hope of furthering our understanding of ancient peoples through “hard” data for hard science.  Who is “us,” though, and who were the ancients?  We can never know who they were to themselves.  To us as people, they are as much a departure from our society, something to be viewed in reference and in opposition to the researcher’s universe, as a society unto itself.  Only the hardened factualist admits otherwise.  Is it really so bad to interject your own feelings and conjectures into a reconstruction of ancient lifeways?

Dr. Jane’s activism is informed by her perception of living creatures as emotional, social beings–the chimpanzees were given names and not just numbers as her superiors recommended, and she told a story about a zoo worker who slipped in the mud one day and was attacked by three threatened females until Old Man, a chimp he had groomed and been groomed by, headed them off as he dragged his bleeding self to safety.  He would later say there was no doubt that Old Man saved his life.  Stories like this, I feel, contribute just as much to our academic knowledge as MRI scans and DNA sequencing.

The talk ended with a question-answer session, with the kids asking the best questions as usual.  I mean, Jane Goodall’s views on vegetarianism and veganism (one young man actually had the audacity to ask if she had any positions for him) are very well and all for the factions, but it was refreshing to hear totally uncalculated questions like “Do gorillas have a favorite food?” and “The man in the beginning [Professor Craig Stanford] said you gave talks in 63 countries, so I was wondering how many languages you speak, and how did you learn them all?” (She speaks Swahili.)  She also put in some plugs for Roots and Shoots, her organization, and had a giant peace dove carried onstage and a teenage ambassador give a short speech.  The words “inspiration,” “empower,” and “thank you” were heard many times throughout the Q&A.

At the very end, there was a chance to stand in line and get her new book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink, but the entire auditorium had emptied out early and now snaked around Tommy Trojan.  So I went to the ARC lab instead–it’s nice to think we have our own niche to make a difference.

~Tiffany Tsai


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