Thursday, September 5, 2019

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, by Jane Goodall (author), Pearl Hewitt (narrator)

Tantor Audio, July 2018 (original publication 1990)

Jane Goodall has done decades of groundbreaking research on the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. This is her account of her work there over thirty years, starting when it was still scientific heresy to describe animals as having thoughts and emotions--even animals so obviously close to us in evolutionary terms as chimpanzees. Goodall didn't have a degree at all, much less in ethology, when Louis Leakey recruited her to study chimpanzees, so she described what she saw in the chimpanzees' behavior. When Leakey arranged funding and sent her to Cambridge University in 1962 to get a PhD in ethology, Goodall discovered the narrow view of the scientific establishment. In order to get her scientific work published, she pushed back where she could and compromised where she had to, and gradually had an impact on the silly practice of talking about higher mammals as inanimate objects.

But this book is mostly about the chimpanzees of Gombe, their interactions with each other and with her. Chimpanzee society is complex and in many ways very familiar, though also very different. Biology alone means that sexual relations among chimpanzees are rather different than among humans. Yet chimpanzees have clear family bonds, and maternal child-rearing skills make a significant impact on the kind of adults the young chimps mature into them. She observed not only tool use, but tool making, and suggested, to the skepticism of many, that different chimp communities would prove to have different tool-making cultures and practices. (She was right.) I remember the outrage and distress when that mean Jane Goodall claimed chimpanzees engaged in war against other chimp communities they were in conflict with. (She documented it happening between two chimp communities in Gombe.)

The personalities of the chimpanzees of Gombe are beautifully and compellingly described, and, careful observer that she is, it's highly informative. Politics and power structures among chimpanzees, our closest relatives, are quite recognizable. On the one hand, chimps aren't going to be building multistory buildings anytime in the next few millennia. On the other hand, we can definitely see ourselves in them in many ways.

It's a fascinating look at chimpanzees by one of the people on this planet who knows them best. Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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