Inspired by Jane Goodall

There is an old joke. The way I remember it is that the following question was asked during a job interview: “Imagine you are escorted into a zoo enclosure where you find a chimpanzee and a gorilla. You are able to observe the behavior of the chimp and gorilla. Which is the most intelligent primate in the enclosure?”

I don’t think that this was ever used as a screening question in an actual job interview. It is more of a story that is repeated. Certainly I never encountered questions like that in any of the job interviews of my life. I did get asked hypothetical questions on occasion. During the public question period of the ecclesiastical council where I presented my ordination paper someone asked, “How would you respond if a single mother asked you to do her baby?” I didn’t have a clue what the questioner was asking. It turned out he was asking about baptism and posing a question about baptism of an infant born out of wedlock. I didn’t learn much from that experience, but I did make sure, in subsequent interviews and conversations with church leaders that I made it absolutely clear that I view the sacraments, baptism and communion, as gifts of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe I have the authority to refuse them to anyone and I hope that I never did in the years of my ministry.

Back to the question about you, the chimpanzee and the gorilla. It was Jane Goodall who taught many of us about not only the intelligence of other primates, especially chimpanzees, but also about their emotional intelligence. By employing techniques that were different from traditional scientific studies, she gave us a way of understanding the social behaviors of chimpanzees. She gave the subjects in her study names instead of identifying them by number as traditional studies had done. She observed them closely over a long period of time. She kept meticulous notes.

Her work as a scientist, however, is not the primary thing that has made her an inspiration to generations of people all around the globe. It wasn’t her ability to take notes that made me want to purchase a Jane Goodall t-shirt for my granddaughter.

What distinguished Jane Goodall throughout her life has been her ability to tell stories. It isn’t just that she observed the chimpanzees. She told us their stories. And it isn’t just the stories of the chimps that have inspired us. She has spoken eloquently about the deforestation of Africa. She has told us the stories of people who were living without access to health care and education who lived in crippling poverty. She raised funds for Tacare, a program that provides microcredit for women and scholarships to keep girls in school and supplies and education to restore the fertility of the land without the use of chemicals. The program has grown beyond Tanzania and now operates in six other African countries. She founded Roots & Shoots, a youth program that now operates in 100 countries worldwide. Youth in Roots and Shoots chose projects that make the world better for animals, for people and for the environment. She has advocated for legislation around the globe that protects wildlife and the environment. She has supported protecting the Endangered Species Act here in the United States. She has taught us that we are a part of the natural world and that we depend on healthy ecosystems. She has told us stories that remind us that we are a part of the larger picture of life.

Once again Jane Goodall is telling stories and teaching us about the world in which we live and our responsibilities to other living creatures. Working from her childhood home in Bournemouth, UK, where she has been living with her younger sister and her sister’s family during the pandemic, she has been granting interviews over Zoom, writing, and speaking to world leaders about a wide variety of topics. Among those topics is her continuing work to stop the trafficking of animals and the international trade in animal body parts. She reminds us all that the novel coronavirus has a direct link to wildlife markets. While scientists haven’t completely traced the origins of Covid-19, they are confident that at some point the virus mutated in such a way that it was transferred to humans from other animals. Viruses and bacteria can jump from animal to person. The way we treat animals has a direct impact on our world and that impact has become very clear in the devastating pandemic that continues to claim too many lives every day.

I have read the story of Jane Goodall with my granddaughters and it makes me proud and happy to know that they have heard some of the stories of this remarkable teacher and inspirational woman. One of the things that gives me hope in these troubled times is the natural curiosity and intelligence of our grandchildren. Being allowed to watch them learn and grow is truly one of life’s great blessings. Knowing that they are inspired and challenged by great teachers and storytellers like Jane Goodall gives hope that generations to come will learn from the mistakes of our generation and work together to make this world a better place for all of its creatures.

It renews and restores my hope to hear the stories that Jane Goodall tells. As someone who is a bit older than myself, she continues to demonstrate the power of remaining engaged and active in the world. And I have learned a few things about telling stories from reading her writing and checking interviews with her. She has made science come alive for millions of people because it is evident that she really cares about her subject matter. Genuine care and concern is at the heart of the best of the storytelling tradition.

So the answer to the question doesn’t really require that you decide you are more intelligent than a chimpanzee or a gorilla. The real answer comes when you realize that we are all in this together and how we treat one another is the key to our future.