Our brains can save us
Primatologist Jane Goodall points out even insects show surprising intelligence. The woman who discovered chimpanzees use tools tells Erik Nilsson humans’ intellect may be our best mechanism to blunt ecological devastation.
Bees can use tools. So can birds. Octopuses can slither out of tanks, slink into others to gobble fish and squish back into their own, pulling the lid closed behind them — humans none the wiser, until they reviewsurveillance footage. Clever creatures. Indeed. Especially considering the mollusks don’t have brains, per se.
This, says Jane Goodall, the household-name primatologistwho discovered chimps use tools, makes it an amazing time for humanity’s next generation to study animals.
And human intelligence can be the instrument by which we blunt ecological devastation, the Briton believes.
Goodall realized decades ago, upon observing the apes modifying natural objects to manipulate their environment — for instance, using sticks to extract yummy insects from the earth— that we needed to “redefine man, redefine tool or includechimpanzeeswithhumans”. So, science did. “It was very exciting for me because I was the first to learn about chimpanzees,” she says.
But revolutionary discoveries about animal intelligence are generating newparadigms.
“In 1960, if I talked to the professors about, ‘let’s study the intelligence of the octopus’, they would have laughed at me and locked me up as an insane person,” she says.
“Now, there’shugeinterestbecause octopuses are incredibly intelligent, and they can solve problems. Crows … canmake tools. Theycandothings evensomeprimates can’t.”
But experts for decades believed birds’ brains’ dissimilar structures meant they weren’t capable of intelligence, she points out.
“So, it’s a very exciting time for young people to go out there and learn about animals.”
Bumblebees were recently taught to pull strings to earn a reward. More strikingly, others replicated the procedure after observing it, she points out.
Goodall, who made the journey to Tanzania’s forests as a young woman without formal training, is celebrated for revolutionizing our understanding of our species’ closest kin. But her methods weren’t without criticism, especially giving names rather than numbers.
“(Numbers) make them objects of study rather than living beings. So, tomeit’s very, very important, if it’s possible, to know them as individuals, to name them and describe them,” she says. Jane Goodall,
Theymay not be people, yet have individual personalities. They share emotions like joy and sadness, she discovered. They’re capable of empathy.
Goodall first documented chimp warfare.
“(It’s) not only learning about the primate but also learning from the primate. There’s a difference,” she explains.
“It’s more a humility. I have a lot to learn.”
Goodall left the chimpanzees she loved decades ago— to save them.
She saw, while flying over Tanzania’s Gombe in the early 1990s, deforestation had shaved surrounding forests bald. That changed everything. She realized: “You cannot do animal conservation unless people conservation.”
Protecting nature requires sustainable development that produces solutions for humans who share other species’ habitats, she understood.
Goodall soon after led the successful movement to reforest the area and improve locals’ living standards. But her battle is global. The 82-year-old environmentalist, anthropologist and United Nations Messenger of Peace spends over 300 days a year jetting around the world as an advocate.
Whatstarted as a mission to save the chimpanzees turned into a journey to improve life for all living things.
Roots & Shoots, an environmental-education program for youth run by the Jane Goodall Institute, has 150,000 members in 130 countries and regions, and 700 groups on the Chinese mainland.
“My hope for Roots & Shoots is to create a critical mass of young people who understand the importance of the natural world — for humans as well as wildlife — and a group of peoplewhounderstandthat— while we need money to live — it starts to go wrong when we live for money,” she tellsChina Daily in Beijing. you do
“But it’s really young people who understand that economic development at the expense of the environment is a death knell if it goes on like this for the children of the future. That’s worldwide.”
Goodall says she has seen vast changes in Chinese children’s mentality since she started coming to the country three decades ago. Adults are following suit.
“China is already beginning to do a lot. In some cases, it’s a world leader in things like solar technology,” Goodall says.
“The big problem in China is air pollution.”
She says China has done better than many countries on climate change, especially regarding the Paris Agreement thatChina signed.
But the world needs more, she believes.
“Some countries are really doing well. And other countries have signed it and are carrying on as usual or even worse — that’s not China.”
She’simpressedbyawater-purification system in Sichuan province’s capital, Chengdu, that uses gravity to pull water through marshland plants that filter out contaminants. It doubles as a fish habitat.
Wetlands as sieves proved a prominent theme among students’ displays at the Beijing Roots & Shoots summit. Six primary schools in Jiangsu province’s Zhangjiagang distributed handdrawn postcards of wetlands with handwritten descriptions of what they learned during field research.
DalianMinzuUniversity student Wang Shuaiyu called the event and meeting Goodall “very moving”.
“It’s a moment to celebrate all our environmental-protection projects,” she says.
Goodall told the crowd one of her sources of hope is “our extraordinary brains”.
“It’s the explosive development of the human intellect that is the single greatest difference between us and chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives — and all other animals,” she says.
Beijing’s air pollution reminds her of London when she was growing up.
“It was same in New York and LA. It was when people began to use brains that we gradually made the difference.”
That, she believes, worldwide.
“You,” she told the Beijing crowd, “aremy reason for hope.”
(It’s) not only learning about the primate but also learning from the primate.” primatologist and environmentalist
is still happening
Top left: Primatologist and environmentalist Jane Goodall speaks at the recent Beijing summit of the Roots & Shoots environmental-education program for youth run by her institute. Above: at the Sweetwaters sanctuary, Kenya’s only great-ape sanctuary. Goodall looks at rescued chimpanzees in July