Humans Are Not the Sole Intelligent, Thinking Beings on Earth

By Hordern, Nick | New African, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Humans Are Not the Sole Intelligent, Thinking Beings on Earth


Hordern, Nick, New African


Dame Jane Goodall, the British primatologist and world's foremost authority on chimpanzees, lived for 30 years in the wilds of the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Nobody knows chimpanzees better than her. And she says, emphatically, that humans are not the sole intelligent, thinking beings on earth. Chimpanzees think too. Nick Hordern went to meet her.

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It is Africa which has given the world's greatest gift to humanity--life itself. And it is in Africa where a common ancestor sired not only the line that resulted in today's chimpanzee but human beings--7.5 million years ago in East Africa, one group of apes, in a desperate bid for survival, began walking on two legs to reach food in a steadily shrinking forest. This group's descendants eventually evolved into humans, who today proliferate the planet to such an extent that they threaten its destruction. Meanwhile, our four-legged closest cousins, who stayed behind, cling on to life as an embattled species.

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Can these survivors, with whom human beings share 98.4% DNA, tell us anything about our behaviour in the 21st-century? Dr Jane Goodall believes they can. "By saving chimps we can save ourselves from self-annihilation in the process. The two are inextricably linked," she says. The world's greatest authority on chimpanzees lived for 30 years in the wild in the Tanzanian forests at Gombe National Park, and from direct observation was able to unravel startling new discoveries.

She found that chimpanzees were clever, complex, devious, tender, and with capacities for colossal violence and cruelty to the point of murder. They are also very social, can communicate by a type of language (they have 30 identifiable calls), and (staggering to scientists) can use tools. Earlier, scientists had dismissed Jane Goodall's capacity to treat chimps as individuals by giving them names and depicting personalities. Now it is they who are the Damascene converts. Through people like Dr Goodall, we discover that humans are not the sole intelligent, thinking beings on earth. Chimpanzees are capable of altruism and less noble ideals--the division between humans and animals is blurred.

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The renowned primatologist heads the Jane Goodall Institute set up to not only save chimpanzees but humans from destroying life on earth. This year, Dr. Goodall received the insignia of Dame of the British Empire (DBE) from Queen Elizabeth II for her services to conservation and the environment. Two years earlier, the UN secretary--general, Kofi Annan, had made her a UN Messenger for Peace.

Yet the peace envoy has a titanic battle on her hands. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says there were more than a million wild chimpanzees in Africa at the start of the 1900s, but they could be extinct by 2010 due to the activities of loggers and small-scale miners.

Some chimps are retaliating in kind. They have snatched and killed babies, at least 10, in Gombe National Park alone.

Jane Goodall's road to Gombe and her love of Africa, its people and chimpanzees, was preordained. Tall, slim and stunningly blonde, Jane was raised on England's south coast. Swapping her native British Winter Gardens in Bournemouth for Africa's Garden of Eden on the shores of Tanzania's Lake Gombe, Jane met her date with destiny in 1959 when she was just 23 years old.

That was when she joined Dr. Louis Leakey's pioneering research team in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. Creating a dangerous and even life-threatening precedent, Leakey invited Jane to live in the wild observing chimpanzees--then an unknown quantity.

The Tanganyikan authorities, aghast that this might endanger Jane's life, forbade her to proceed unless accompanied in the forest by her mother--who happily obliged. Vanne Goodall died this year, aged 96.

Jane's record in East Africa and around the world speaks for itself in a cascade of awards and honours. …

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