NATURE AND NURTURE; In a new book, chimp expert Jane Goodall reflects on the human condition. She professes a faith that through education, we can undo the selfishness that threatens our planet


So who was the genius who picked the National Aquarium's Marine Mammal Pavilion for a lecture Sunday morning by Jane Goodall?

The celebrated environmental campaigner and chronicler of the lives of wild chimpanzees hates the idea of captive performing dolphins.

She has dedicated her life to confronting the economic forces and the ignorance that denude the forests surrounding her beloved Gombe Wildlife Preserve in Tanzania and that encourage pet traders, zoos and medical labs to mistreat wild and captive animals.

Goodall may comment on the dolphins cruising the tank behind her when she speaks at 10 a.m. Sunday. But don't expect her to shout or condemn. That's not her way.

Goodall will more likely skewer the aquarium with gentleness, and facts, and moral force -- the same way she confronts man's indifference to his fellow beings in her new book, "Reason for Hope" (Warner Books, 282 pages. $26.95).

"If only we can overcome cruelty, to human and animal, with love and compassion," she writes, "we shall stand at the threshhold of a new era in human moral and spiritual evolution -- and realize, at last, our most unique quality: humanity."

Her visit to Baltimore this weekend -- she will also appear at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Book Festival's Literary Salon on Mount Vernon Place -- is part book tour and part lecture tour for the Jane Goodall Institute.

The Institute -- its U.S. branch is based in Silver Spring -- is the environmental education and conservation organization she founded in 1977 after she recognized the rising human threat to the chimps she had studied, and to the web of life that supports us all.

In two weeks, the tour has already taken her from England to the West Coast and back to New York City schools to speak to students participating in her institute's "Roots and Shoots" conservation curriculum. There have been endless media interviews and book signings, one of which drew 800 people who stayed until 11 p.m. And there are still six weeks to go.

"It's a nightmare," says Goodall, 65. Secretly, "selfishly," she says, she longs to be back at Gombe, in the forest that gives her so much peace. But she cannot stop to study chimps now.

"I have other people doing that. I'm not needed there anymore," she said. The chimps are vanishing all across Africa and suffering in zoos and lab. African children are living in hopelessness, apathy and despair.

And in cities, even in the United States, she says, "there are children who live in fear. And so many thinking adolescents who subscribe to the view that it's too late to change the downward spiral of planet Earth."

It's her responsibility -- her Institute's mission -- to educate, to inspire, to help put things right. So she does the books, the lectures and school visits, and a PBS TV special airing on Oct. 27.

"I feel I've been given a gift, an ability to communicate with talking, with writing," she says. She feels she must use it.

She's not sure what wellsprings supply her energy. "I've inherited very good stamina. And, I feel this great spiritual power around us. I get some [energy] from that. And, it's very much the people and the look in their eyes and the feeling I get from the audience. I can't speak if I have bright lights in my eyes, and I can't see the audience."

But Goodall has been delighted with the book reviews, with the turnout at the lectures and book signings, and the book's sales.

She was not always certain this "spiritual biography" was such a good idea. "It wasn't my idea to write the book like this," she says. "It was originally meant to be a series of interviews, a theologian asking questions of an anthropologist. That was the idea."

Instead, Philip Berman, the Harvard theologian who proposed the book and who is listed as co-author, interviewed Goodall and devised the book's outline. But that was it. "I wrote the book, every word of it," she says.

Reluctantly. "I didn't have time for it," she says. But the matter was settled. "Short of deciding not to do the book at all, I had to then make the time and do the soul-searching, and it had to be written by me."

It was an ordeal. "I was very sick this time last year because of this book. I was totally exhausted when I started this tour. I was collapsing."

"I can't slow down yet," she says. "I'm fine now, filled with energy again, and health. I live on chocolate, coffee and scotch."

A treacherous world

The book is the story of her life, from a youth in England that seems quaint by today's lights. Her family of modest means was loving and supportive despite the divorce of her parents. She was immersed in books, enthralled by her pastor's sermons and captivated by the outdoors and the animals around her.

She knows today's children face a much more treacherous world and that she doesn't have all the answers. "I do think it's desperately important to try as hard as we can to give a child a family life, even if we have to get substitute families. I have no idea how it could work. I just feel very desperate for the children that don't have it."

In a Western world she believes is driven by greed and overconsumption, she recognizes how young people can grow up selfishly, without concern for the natural world or with an indifference toward their fellow creatures.

Her mission is to somehow awaken in children and adults a sense of individual responsibility for the health and future of the environment -- a realization she found in the fragile and threatened forests at Gombe.

Her Roots and Shoots program is now helping people protect and restore ecosystems around the world. It is in schools in 50 countries, she says. Last week, teachers at a school in one of New York's poorest Bronx neighborhoods told her it's working.

"Particularly in children not likely to shine academically," Goodall says. "They found a new self-assurance. Those once too shy to speak are now acting in plays. They've become more articulate, writing to the mayor of New York about banning styrofoam in the school disrict."

They even wrote to Kelloggs to object to a "smiling" chimp face that appeared on a cereal box. That teeth-baring "grin" actually signifies fear, Goodall found. "It's now gone off the package, and those kids are sure it's because of their campaign. And they're just so proud and happy. They're going to change the world."

It's introduced new values to the children, teachers tell Goodall. "Without pushing the values," she says, "they've just come -- care and concern about the environment, animals and people."

Goodall's crusade is rooted in Christian religious beliefs she has held since childhood. Her book is subtitled, "A Spiritual Journey." It is laced with biblical references, and she writes at some length about a vivid encounter she had with her late husband's "spirit" not long after he had died of cancer in 1979.

Her faith has clearly energized her work and helped her survive the dark times -- the 1975 kidnapping of four students at Gombe, the discovery that chimps share some of our own dark and violent tendencies, the piecemeal destruction of the chimps' African range, and the loss of her husband in 1979.

But she is not pushing her faith on the skeptical. Nor does she quarrel with the creationists, who reject her embrace of human evolution and our genetic and behavioral kinship with the Great Apes.

"I grew up in an atmosphere that accommodated science and religion," she says. Often, she says, people in her lecture audiences will write, or approach her afterwards, and say, "'I love everything you do, but how can you be such a wonderful person and have such a wrong belief?' So, we talk."

"I simply say, quite honestly, that how we got to be here is much less important than what we do, together, to get out of the mess we've made," she says.

Taking it on faith

For those who may be uncomfortable with her ecumenical religious message, her spiritual epiphanies in the Gombe forest and at Notre Dame cathedral or her encounter with her late husband's spirit -- Goodall has no answer.

"I've no idea what they will make of it," she says. "I don't have any missionary zeal. I'm not trying to change anybody. I just want to share what's helped me in the hope it may help others. And I think it has."

People have thanked her for writing about the agony she experienced during her husband's slow death and the unexpected comfort and strength she found in her encounter with his -- what? ghost? -- later at Gombe.

It helped strengthen her belief in a spiritual existence beyond science's explanation and in the essential spiritual unity of all living things. But she is not pushing it.

"Science demands objective factual evidence -- proof," she writes. "Spiritual experience is subjective and leads to faith. It is enough, for me, that my faith gives me an inner peace and brings meaning to my own life."

For everyone else, she only hopes to instill a recognition that we are all in this together -- that the fate of the planet is in our hands -- and that each individual must take responsibility for putting right the things we have made a mess of.

That may require no more than common sense.

Jane Goodall will appear at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Book Festival's Literary Salon on Mount Vernon Place. She will speak at 10 a.m. Sunday at the National Aquarium, Pier 3, 501 E. Pratt St. Call 410-727-FISH.

Pub Date: 9/21/99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad