Posted on 1/01/13 09:21 PM
Oh, the Places She's Gone!
Any number of people I know personally saw Dame Jane Goodall today. She was, at seventy-eight, the Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade. (Not the "Rose Bowl Parade"; the parade is older than the game by some time.) Since I know people who camped out on the parade route--and people who were in the parade--this means that they saw Dame Jane in person. They were not, alas, able to touch her monkey, but for once, there was a Grand Marshall who has actually accomplished something. This happens occasionally--one year, the joint Grand Marshalls were the crew of Apollo 12--but generally, it's someone from the world of entertainment. (Or, for some reason, politicians from other states. I don't know why.) Sometimes, it's someone who did one thing which caught the public eye. This year, it was a woman who travels about three hundred days a year, trying to make the world a better place.
She was born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall in 1934. As a small child, her father gave her a toy chimpanzee called Jubilee. Rather than having nightmares, as her mother's friends supposed would happen, Jane decided that what she wanted to do for the rest of her life was study animals in Africa. Despite a total lack of qualifications and higher education, she went to work for Louis Leakey, who sent her into the bush to study chimpanzees. (Leakey, a famous paleontologist, believed that studying primates would give us insight into our own ancestors.) He enabled her to get a doctorate from Cambridge despite not having a BA, and she has been one of the best-known primatologists ever since. In recent years, she has also begun to work on saving the humans. Some of her programs along those lines have involved saving chimps--her foundation has sponsored a program to encourage chicken farming to prevent hunting of "bush meat"--but some of them are just trying to make life better for people.
While much of the information presented was fascinating, this was still a very shallow biography. There was a short amount of interview with her son, Hugo Eric Louis "Grub" van Lawick, who spoke some about how he resented the chimps when he was a child, but while it's clear that he spent a long time very angry at his mother, it's not so clear how they've come to be on better terms. His anger obviously lasted for a considerable length of time, but we don't know when he resolved his issues or how. Since the documentary barely discusses the scientific discoveries Dame Jane made about chimps, it therefore follows that there is no discussion about any possible controversies in her discoveries. Just about the only one mentioned at all is her discovery that chimps not only use tools but create them, and that is one discovery that no one has disputed. How could they? The footage is right there--a chimp strips a branch and uses it to dig termites out of a nest and eat them.
Too, this feels as though it was produced by and for the Jane Goodall Fan Club. I'm not saying I dislike her, and I'm certainly not saying it should have been loaded with people who do, but I'm not entirely clear what Pierce Brosnan has to do with anything. I adore him, but that doesn't mean his opinions about primatology or philanthropy are of such vital importance to me. I don't even like Angelina Jolie, though I suppose both women are UN goodwill ambassadors, so that, at least, is something. It got a little wearing to have all those people talk about how marvelous Dame Jane is. I'm not saying she isn't, but surely, there's more to be said than just that she is an awesome woman who is trying to save the world. She raises some valid points, but I'm not sure much of anyone who knows even a little about chimpanzees would come away from this documentary knowing any more about them than they came in with, and surely, that's more important than a cute interview that some kid in Idaho got to do with her.
They didn't even tell my favourite Jane Goodall story! Many years ago, Gary Larson drew a Far Side cartoon in which one chimp picks a blonde hair off her mate and declares angrily that he's obviously been doing "research" with that Jane Goodall tramp. The next thing Gary Larson knew, he was on the receiving end of a furious letter from the Jane Goodall Institute. He felt quite guilty about it, because he respects her a lot. When he got a letter from the National Geographic Society, requesting permission to reprint the cartoon in their centennial issue, he regretfully denied it and explained why. Said person from the Society, "That doesn't sound like Jane Goodall to me!" It turns out that she had thought the cartoon was extremely funny and had meant to send him a note on the subject, but she was busy in Tanzania when the cartoon was published and then got busy and forgot again. The implication as I understand it, based on her version of the story, is that the person who sent that letter got fired. No sense of humour.