Chimps Like Us

My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe
By Jane Goodall
Thomas Allen, 268 pp.

Imagine, as the movie trailers used to say, a sweeping generational saga of passion and ambition … set in the exotic equatorial forests of Gombe, Tanzania … played out against the bloody backdrop of civil war!

Make no mistake, Jane Goodall’s Through a Window is no arid empirical account of higher primates’ social behavior. This is a page-turner. This is I, Claudius starring a cast of chimpanzees. This is Gombe With the Wind.

Which is not to say that Goodall has turned 30 years of field research into melodramatic mush. No, no, no. The book is nothing short of profound – a genteel meditation on what it means to be sentient. But considered simply as literature, it is utter magic: the sort of book that rekindles the exhilaration of reading – of entering worlds of the fantastic – that children experience on first devouring Huckleberry Finn or Treasure Island.

The source of its delight is that Goodall charts the lives of her chimps, not with the clinical gaze of the biologist, but with the eye of a biographer. To weave the grand narrative of their social structure, she tells the smaller stories of their personalities (chimpanalities?): their squabbles and triumphs, their loves and tragedies. And by the end, you’ll know these non-human protagonists – Evered the bohemian, Fifi the matriarch, Passion the psychopath – as well as you know Huck Finn or Long John Silver.

The crucial difference, of course, is that the chimpanzees actually exist. One realizes, as one turns the pages, that halfway around the world the characters in Through a Window are going about the drama of their lives just as we do ours. They are laughing, cuddling, sulking, doing the chimp equivalent of the laundry. These are not “experimental subjects,” but social creatures with minds and hearts.

Goodall began her life’s work on the encouragement of Louis Leakey, the archeo-anthropologist, who wondered whether understanding the conduct of chimpanzees in the wild might not shed light on the behavior of early humans. She has rewarded her mentor amply, illuminating not only the world of the chimps, but our prehistory and our supposedly civilized selves as well.

In the early days, needless to say, this was scientific heresy. To suggest that dumb brutes possessed personalities, emotions, a rationality of their own, was to perpetrate a fiction. “Beasts,” said John Locke, “abstract not.”

As a consequence, the referees for Goodall’s first published paper demanded that she strike any reference to her subjects as “he” or “she,” and stick instead to the value-neutral impersonal pronoun “it.” Goodall refused, and as her work yielded ever more fascinating insights, she won more and more adherents until eventually her perspective prevailed. Today, no one is dumb enough to contest her discovery that these beasts abstract just fine, thank you.

Some of the early findings were startling simply because no one had bothered to look closely at how chimps behave in the bush. Goodall learned that they not only occasionally eat meat, but hunt it in an orchestrated manner, stalking young baboons through the treetops. They not only use tools but make them, fashioning sticks with which to fish for termites.

But it is Goodall’s documentation of the chimps’ social structure and kinship ties that is most compelling. The chimp community is not a mere aggregate of individuals. There is a hierarchy at work, and one that turns on a logic of intimidation and affection.

Social status is determined by who one frightens and who one finds frightening; who one grooms and plays with and mates with; who one’s allies are in a pinch. And although this status is never fixed – males and females alike must work their way up the ladder, and even a high-ranking male can be toppled by mutineers – it is often a product of the class one is born into. The child of a high-standing female has advantages that others are denied.

Presiding over the community is the ranking alpha male, and the advantage of Goodall’s long term field research is that she is able to chart from childhood how each of the dominant males came to win his station. It is a process which any veteran of office politics will recognize, since the alpha rules, not because he can intimidate the others alone, but by virtue of a complex web of allegiances. (Because our director is about to retire, my academic department is currently searching for a successor. If we were chimps, the corridors would be a hair-bristling cacophony of braying and aggressive displays, punctuated by intent sessions of mutual grooming.)

Through a Window is a loving account of this intricate social structure – but do not suppose that the chimps reside in a pre-civilized paradise. We cannot know whether they have consciences, but they are certainly capable of what looks to us like evil.

Such as civil war. In 1971, the community Goodall had been observing split into two groups: 10 adults moved south, while 20 remained in the north. For three years the groups coexisted peacefully. Then, in 1974, the northern males began to hunt their southern cousins. They did so deliberately, systematically, and with fury. By late 1977, the splinter group had been exterminated.

Even more shocking is the case of Passion, a friendless, uneasy female Goodall describes as “a cold mother, intolerant and brusque.” Even as the civil war was being waged, Passion and her emotionally scarred daughter, Pom, murdered and devoured as many as 10 infants of their own community.

In that regard, the title of the book is perhaps misleading. It echoes Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, but not all is playful in the forests of Gombe. Some chapters recall the work of William Golding: not only his famous account of innocence gone awry, Lord of the Flies, but also The Inheritors, his novel told from the perspective of the last Neanderthal.

It’s dangerous to make too much of the parallels between the chimps and humans, as Goodall herself points out. They communicate with astonishing sophistication, but they do not have a language, and therefore they lack a shared memory (otherwise Passion might have been punished). But they do have individual consciousness: a capacity to feel both love and torment.

Goodall emphasizes this fact in documenting what is done to lab chimps. If we accept that these beasts abstract, she implies, then we must either halt their use in clinical experimentation or reconcile ourselves to being

  • Montreal Gazette January 5, 1991