Jane Goodall

A Kinship With Chimps
© Jane Goodall Institute

Primatologist Jane Goodall, Ph.D., CBE and UN Messenger of Peace, needs little introduction, because her work with chimps in Tanzania is known throughout the world. Fifty years of intimate contact with these close human relatives gives her authority to speak on everything from their value systems to their ability to make music. Goodall’s most recent book, written with Marc Bekoff, is The Ten Trusts (Harper San Francisco).

E: How do chimps communicate? And do they have a value system that could be defined as morality or spirituality?

Jane Goodall: Chimps have a repertoire of at least 30 sounds that mean different things and show emotions. It’s not like human language, but these calls help the chimps understand what’s going on. Chimps can display fear or pleasure, but they can’t show complex language about things that aren’t present—as in expressing the idea that there’s a poacher two miles away. Chimps are capable of American sign language and use it in the right context. They can learn a few hundred signs. They have gestures and postures, which are non-verbal communication. You can watch chimps interacting and be pretty sure about what they’re thinking. When they kiss, hold hands or pat each other on the back it means more or less the same thing as when humans do it.

I’ve seen much evidence of their morality. To give one example: a male might break up a fight. Some of them watch sunsets—that’s a spiritual mind at work. They can also show altruism.

Do chimps make music?

Out in nature, they drum on tree trunks. They also exhibit a dance-like swaying from foot to foot. It’s just lovely to see. Captive chimps love to paint. Their paintings clearly mean something to them. One of my favorites was when a female drew zigzags. Asked what it was, she said, "ball." It was based on a bouncing game.

In your lectures, you mention that chimps have a dual or complex nature.

Like humans, chimps have two natures. Sometimes they are pleasant and quiet and sometimes they are aggressive and get into fights. They can be dangerous. Chimps, like people, also have unique personalities.

They have many similarities to humans, including their immune systems. They’re more like us than they are like gorillas. They have helped us bridge the gap between humans and the animal kingdom. Chimps share something like 98.6 percent of our DNA.

Shouldn’t that make humans more compassionate toward chimps?

Oh, yes, it should. But it doesn’t always work that way. There were two million chimps a hundred years ago, and now there’s 150,000. They are scattered and live in small communities. Their habitat is vanishing; there’s the bush meat trade (see "Wildlife on the Menu," Currents, this issue).
From your books and talks, I get the feeling that you’re a vegetarian.

I became a vegetarian after reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. I looked at the meat in my dish and I saw fear, pain, death. Family farms are more humane, but most of that world is gone. Now there are factory farms where animals are treated horribly. Meat eating is bad for our health, bad for the environment. Chimps, by the way, aren’t vegetarian; that tells you something about our origins. But we have a choice in our diet, and a realization that everything is part of the web of life.