Jane Goodall: Hazards, Choices and Hope

Alan Cranston’s treatise on sovereignty, which he completed just before he died, and just before the world came crashing into the twenty-first century with the fall of the World Trade Center, is eerily predictive of the conflict that has since consumed the world. Alan all but spelled out how Osama Bin Laden would bring his war of terror directly to the territory of the United States. He saw clearly the dangers that were lurking, and I shudder to think that his foresight may continue to prove accurate. I find the following paragraph from his essay to be most unsettling:

The creation of nuclear weapons and their proliferation into many hands is the most ominous fact that emerged from the unflowered carnage and unforgotten sorrow entombed in the remains of the twentieth century. It separates today and all the tomorrows from all the yesterdays. Wars once had their limits. Despite whatever horrors humans experienced through the centuries, they have always been able to say, “Life goes on.” That may no longer be an accurate assessment of the human condition.

Alan (everyone who knew him called him Alan) spent most of his time and energy working to alert the world to the horrific dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Occasionally I had the privilege of working with him, and I continue to work with the Global Security Institute, an organization he founded that works for the ultimate goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons. It is a great honour to be able to contribute, even in a small way, to his final effort to provide an alternate, hopeful vision for the future of the world.

Alan died before the terrible attacks of September 11 but, as mentioned, he had predicted such incidents, and he had already identified the roots of the conflict we are now caught up in. The “war” on terrorism that was declared following 9/11 and the ensuing global conflict, in which we are now ensnared, is a war that Alan believed was, in large part, a war about sovereignty. Let me quote Alan’s comments of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York was a direct and ominous import into our country of the terrorism creating so much havoc elsewhere, carried out by militant and fanatic Islamic fundamentalists in retaliation for various perceived grievances including our intervention in the sovereignty struggles of the Middle East. Its toll was six dead, 1000 injured. There are dark warnings of worse to come as terrorists proclaim they will wage a holy war against the United States and its citizens wherever they may be as long as we keep our “infidel” forces in Islamic lands in what they view as irreverent violation of their sacrosanct sovereignty by the “Great Satan.”

Yes, Alan saw the writing on the wall and we are going through what may well be the most frightening period in human history to date, for never have the weapons of “conventional” war, such as those unleashed by the United States against Iraq, been so deadly, so powerful—or so costly. It seems very clear that we have the capacity to destroy life on earth, as we know it. Yet at the same time the human brain has created technology that has hugely benefited people around the globe. It has enabled us to walk on the moon, communicate through e-mail and the Internet, to cure diseases that would have killed us a few years ago. Unfortunately scientific ingenuity has also conceived weapons of mass destruction—and the threat posed by biological, chemical, and most frightening of all, nuclear weapons is real and immediate. How did we get into this sorry state of affairs? Is our capacity to destroy ourselves a uniquely human phenomenon, or is it something we have inherited from our stone-age ancestors? I have studied the behaviour of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, for over forty years and this study has yielded some information about the origins of good and evil, and the origins of warfare, that may be of more than academic interest as we strive to understand our current predicament.

The Roots of Evil

Louis Leakey sent me to Gombe with the hope that a better understanding of chimpanzee behaviour might provide us with a window on our past. He was right. The study of the chimpanzees of Gombe that began in 1960, and data from studies of chimpanzees in other parts of Africa and in captivity, has helped us understand a great deal about our own nature, about how we got to be the way we are. In particular, it helps us to understand the evolution of human aggression.

Louis, farsighted genius that he was, told me he thought my work would take at least ten years to complete, and this at a time when just one year for such a study was almost unheard of. Of course, when I first stepped foot on the sandy beaches of Gombe on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, I had no plan to remain there for ten years. Yet had I stopped after only ten years, I should have continued to believe that chimpanzees, though very like us in behaviour, were rather nicer. Then came a series of shocking and horrific events.

In 1971 one of our researchers observed a brutal attack on a female of a neighbouring chimpanzee community. She was set upon by a group of “our” males who hit her and stamped on her, one after the other. During the course of the assault, which lasted more than five minutes, her infant of about eighteen months was seized, killed, and partially eaten. The mother managed to escape, but she was bleeding heavily and was so badly wounded that she probably died later.

We discussed the attack back at our research station late into the night, and decided it must have been a bizarre, once-only aberration. After all, the ringleader, Humphrey, was the alpha male and most of us considered him to be somewhat of a psychopath with a history of vicious attacks on females of his own community. Humphrey, we felt, must have encouraged the other males to behave in a way that seemed, at the time, to be so uncharacteristic. But, sadly, my picture of the “noble ape” was just as mythical as the “noble savage”—we would witness many more incidents of brutal inter-community aggression, several of which led to the killing of the infants of the female victims.

By 1974 it was clear that the once peaceful-seeming chimpanzees were heavily engaged in what amounted to a sort of primitive warfare. This had begun when the chimpanzee community, whose members I had known so well, began to divide. Seven adult males and three mothers and their offspring began spending longer and longer periods of time in the southern part of the range over which the whole community roamed. By 1972 it was obvious that these chimpanzees had formed an entirely new and separate community. The southern, “Kahama” community (as we had named it) had given up the northern part of the range, while the Kasakela community now found itself excluded from places in the south where it had previously roamed at will. When males of the two communities encountered one another in the overlapping zone between the two, they threatened one another; the group with fewer males gave up quickly and retreated into the heart of its home range. This was typical of the territorial behaviour shown by many species of mammals and birds.

But suddenly the aggression became more serious. The first deadly attack was seen by our senior field assistant, Hilali Matama. Six Kasakela males moved silently toward their southern border where they encountered one of the young Kahama males, Godi, feeding quietly by himself. When he saw them he tried to flee, but was seized and held to the ground while the Kasakela thugs beat him up for ten minutes. Then they left him lying on the ground, screaming weakly. Slowly he got up, still screaming, and gazed after them. He must have died of his wounds, for he was never seen again.

That was the first of a series of brutal assaults perpetrated by the powerful Kasakela community on individuals of the breakaway community: the Four-Year War. And it was not only adult males who were victimized, but the adult females also. All the attacks lasted between ten and twenty minutes and resulted in the subsequent death of the victim. All told, four of the seven breakaway males were seen to be attacked and a fifth was found dead, his body mutilated in a way that indicated he had also been victimized by the Kasakela males. The other two simply disappeared. One of the three adult females of the Kahama community was subjected to a horrific attack and died of her wounds; the other two vanished. In other words, during the war, the entire community that moved south was annihilated—with the exception of three young childless females. The victorious males actively recruited them.
The four years from 1974-1977 were the darkest in Gombe’s history, and some of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging years of my life. Our peaceful and idyllic world, our little paradise, had been turned upside-down: The Four-Year war was devastating, but it was not the only violence that overtook our community. Two adult female chimpanzees began killing and eating the infants of others within their own group; the cannibalism stopped only when the two perpetrators finally gave birth to infants of their own. And the violence of human conflicts spilled over into our world as well, with the high-profile kidnapping of four of my students who were held for a ransom that was paid—and then helped to finance a civil war in Congo-Zaire that led, years later, to the overthrow of President Mbutu.

All my life I had known about kidnapping and ransom, and even experiencing it firsthand did little to change my view of the dark side of humanity. However, the brutal killings observed among the chimpanzees were different: they changed forever my view of chimpanzee nature. Suddenly, I had found that chimpanzees could be brutal—that they, like us, had a dark side to their nature.

For months I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often I awoke at night with horrific pictures of violence in my mind, of adult chimpanzees, their lips smeared with the blood of another; twisting and breaking the bones of a victim; of Madam Bee lying hidden under the vegetation, slowly dying of her terrible wounds, while her ten-year-old daughter tried to comfort her, gently grooming her and keeping the flies away.

When I published the first observations of inter-community killing at Gombe I came in for a good deal of criticism from certain scientists. They told me that these data would enable irresponsible scientists and writers to ‘prove’ that our human tendency to engage in conflict is innate, that war is, therefore, inevitable—an unfortunate and regrettable legacy from our brutal ape-like ancestors. It was my first experience with the politics of science, the pressure to publish or not to publish for political, religious, or social reasons.

It was during the early 1970s that the subject of aggression became so highly political. This was hardly surprising, since questions about the nature of aggression were still linked with the horrors of the Second World War that we had recently lived through. On one side of the debate were those who maintained that aggression was innate, coded in our genes; on the other, those who believed that a human infant came into the world like a blank sheet of paper upon which the events that occurred during childhood would be etched and would determine all subsequent behaviour. One ethologist, whom I had always greatly admired, came out strongly on the “blank slate” side of the controversy. I shall never forget asking him, over a cup of coffee: “Do you really believe that all aggression is learned? I don’t see how you can, as one who studies animal behaviour.” “Jane,” he replied, “I’d rather not talk about what I really believe.” He went down in my estimation.

I had gone to Gombe neither to prove that the chimps were better or worse than humans, nor to provide myself with a platform for making sweeping pronouncements about the “true” nature of the human species. I had gone to learn, to observe, and to record what I observed; and I wanted to share my observations and reflections with others as honestly and clearly as I could. Certainly I felt strongly it was better to face up to the facts, however unsettling, than to live in a state of denial.

I concluded back then, and I still believe, that it is pointless to deny that we humans harbour innate aggressive and violent tendencies. The quite irrational surges of anger I felt as a mother when my own precious infant seemed to be threatened are proof enough for me. Many scientific experiments have shown that aggressive patterns are, at the very least, easy to learn. In the early 1970s, when I was an associate professor at Stanford, the psychiatrist Robert Bindora was conducting an experiment to test how readily small children learned aggressive patterns. He produced a dummy human figure, set it in front of a group of kids between two and three years old, then proceeded to beat, pummel, punch, stamp on, and kick it. He repeated each of these actions several times, slowly and clearly. Then, at varying times afterwards, he gave these same children access to the dummy and recorded their response. As might be expected, his little subjects eagerly attacked the figure, performing many of the same actions that he had demonstrated. A good argument against allowing small children to watch violence on television. (I begged for a similar experiment in which the dummy would be kissed, embraced, stroked, and so on. But to the best of my knowledge this was never done.)

The aggressive behaviour of the Gombe chimpanzees provided fuel for much theorising. But while other scientists were eagerly using this Gombe data to substantiate or refute their own pet theories on the nature of human aggression, I was trying to understand a little better the nature of chimpanzee aggression. My question was: How far along our human path, which has led to hatred and evil and full-scale war, have chimpanzees travelled?

Precursors to War

It is both fascinating and appalling to learn that chimpanzees are capable of hostile and territorial behaviour that is not unlike certain forms of primitive human warfare. War had always seemed to me to be a purely human behaviour. Accounts of warlike behaviour date back to the very first written records of human history; it seems to be an almost universal characteristic of human groups. Wars have been fought over a wide range of issues, including culturally and intellectually determined ideological ones. They have functioned, at least ecologically, to secure living space and adequate resources for
It has actually been suggested that warfare may have been the principal evolutionary pressure that created the huge gap between the human brain and that of our closest living relatives, the anthropoid apes. Whole groups of hominids with inferior brains could not win wars and were therefore exterminated.
When we think of war, we usually picture vast armies on the move, terrifying confrontations between men mounted on horses, marching on foot, driving armoured jeeps and tanks, flying fighter planes or bombers and, in the worst scenario, pressing buttons that, in an instant, could destroy whole countries. Human wars are waged between countries; and between factions within countries—revolutions and civil wars have been among the most brutal of all.

Whilst warfare in its typical human form is a cultural development, certain pre-adaptations must have existed in our earliest ancestors to permit its emergence in the first place. Do we see evidence of such tendencies in chimpanzees? Certainly they are aggressively territorial. Not only do they protect their home range from incursion by “strangers”—that is, individuals of either sex (with the exception of adolescent females) from neighbouring communities—but they also actively patrol the boundaries of their home range at least once a week, monitoring the movements of their neighbours. And not only do they defend their territory; they also sometimes enlarge it at the expense of a weaker neighbour.
One of the most significant facts established about human behaviour, as it relates to warfare and other acts of violence against conspecifics, is this—cultural evolution permits the development of pseudospeciation. Pseudospeciation, or cultural speciation as I prefer to call it, means among other things that the members of one group (the in-group) may not only see themselves as different from members of another group (the out-group), but also behave in different ways to group and non-group individuals. In its extreme form, cultural speciation leads to the dehumanizing of out-group members, so that they may come to be regarded almost as members of a different species. This frees group members from the inhibitions and social sanctions that operate within the group, and enables them to direct acts toward “those others” which would not be tolerated within the group. Slavery and torture at one end of the scale, ridicule and ostracism at the other.

Unfortunately, cultural speciation has become very highly developed in human societies around the world. Our tendency to form select in-groups from which we exclude those who do not share our ethnic background, socio-economic position, political persuasions, religious beliefs, and so on, is one of the major causes of war, rioting, gang violence, and other kinds of conflict. We find examples of our human tendency to form in-groups from which we exclude others in our cities, towns, and villages, in schools and neighbourhoods. Children very quickly form exclusive groups, sticking together, supporting each other, and distancing themselves from all others. Children who have formed such a group can be extremely cruel to “outsiders” and some children suffer intensely as a result. Today, cultural speciation is obvious in the terrifying evolution of the modern gangs. Gangs similar to Los Angeles’s Crips and Bloods exist throughout the world with their identifying colours and graffiti and other cultural differentiations. There are countless other examples.

In the late 1970s, as I tried to understand the relationship between chimpanzee aggression and human violence, there was much evidence of the evils of in-and out-grouping among human peoples around the world. There were the ethnic, political, and religious hatreds in Rwanda, Burundi, Israel, Palestine, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Angola, and Somalia. Genocide, or ethnic cleansing, had led to the killing of hundreds and thousands—nay, millions—of humans.

It is particularly shocking to reflect on the extent to which different religious groups have, from the beginning, tried to force their beliefs on others. The number of wars throughout history that have been fought over religious issues is staggering. The so-called holy wars –- fighting over whose god was the God -– resulted in an incomprehensible amount of suffering inflicted on unbelievers by those who had the upper hand at the time.

Clearly cultural speciation has been crippling to human moral and spiritual growth. It has hindered freedom of thought, limited our thinking, and imprisoned us in the cultures into which we were born. And, provided we remain locked within these cultural mind prisons, all our fine ideas about the Family of Man, the Global Village, and the uniting of nations, are just rhetoric. (Although I suppose there is some comfort in knowing that at least we realise how we ought to want to live, and the kinds of relationships we ought to want to have!) But unless we “walk the talk,” racism, bigotry, and fanaticism, as well as hatred, arrogance, and bullying, will continue to flourish. Cultural speciation is a barrier to world peace. So long as we continue to attach more importance to our own narrow group membership than to the “global village” we shall propagate prejudice and ignorance.

My chimpanzee studies have persuaded me that the dark and evil side of human nature is indeed deeply rooted in our ancient past. We have strong predispositions to act aggressively in certain kinds of contexts; and they are the same contexts—jealousy, competition for food or sex or territory, fear, revenge, and so on—that trigger aggression in chimpanzees. Moreover, they show similar postures and gestures to ours when they are angry—swaggering, scowling, hitting, punching, kicking, biting, scratching, pulling out hair, chasing. They throw rocks at each other. Without a doubt, if chimpanzees had guns and knives and knew how to handle them, they would use them.

In some respects, however, human aggressive behaviour is unique. Thus while it seems that chimpanzees have some awareness of the pain they inflict on their victims, they are surely not capable of cruelty in the human sense. Only we humans inflict physical or mental pain on living creatures deliberately despite –- even because of -– our knowledge of the suffering involved. Only we, I believe, are capable of evil. And in our evilness we have designed a variety of tortures that have, over the centuries, caused unbelievable agony to millions of living, breathing human beings. Human wickedness is immeasurably worse than the worst aggression of the chimpanzees.

But does that mean that we humans must be forever enslaved to our evil genes? Surely not. Surely we, more than any other creatures, are able, if we so wish, to control our biological nature? And while it may be true that aggressive tendencies are part of our genetic inheritance, so too are characteristics of love, compassion and altruism. Chimpanzees show far more caring, compassionate and altruistic behaviour than brutal aggressive behaviour. And even as we humans are capable of acts of aggression that are far worse than anything chimpanzees are capable of, so too are we capable of heights of altruism that are denied to chimpanzees with their less sophisticated intellects. A chimpanzee, seeing a companion in trouble, may rush to the rescue. Indeed, individuals have risked and even lost their lives in trying to save drowning companions. But such an act of self-sacrifice is an instant response to seeing another in trouble. Humans respond, instinctively, in the same way. But we will also risk our lives—or our reputations—in “cold blood”, as it were. We may decide to help another even after thinking through all that we may have to suffer, as a result, at a future date. There are innumerable examples of this kind of altruism in war.

On Sovereignty

Not only do we have the ability to nurture or destroy, but we also have the ability to be aware of our actions and thus make choices. Unavoidably, this blessing or burden makes us responsible for our actions.

Humans have the unique capacity to consciously and intentionally organize institutions to control our behaviour and thus we create laws and political institutions to externalize controls over our own actions and govern our choices. This capacity for self-governance might be the necessary balance to our destructive abilities.

We are capable of extending our aggressive capacities to levels of violence that can destroy us. We are also capable of being negligent in controlling ourselves when our greed to dominate nature and harvest its resources outstrips its capacity to replenish. Unsustainable methods of providing livelihoods, and nuclear weapons, are examples of activities that beg for control. Moreover these issues are global in nature. There is presently an unwillingness on the part of nations to find organizational structures that will allow our sense of reason to curtail these dangers sufficiently. The idea of limiting power is repugnant to leaders of some governments. Yet, it is clearly necessary; we might be in a race against time to solve this institutional problem.

Alan’s approach to sovereignty forces us to rethink the challenge and places the issue squarely on the shoulders of the individual, exactly where it belongs. It is both awesome and empowering to be reminded that you and I are ultimately responsible for the welfare of the whole, and that we are the foundation of sovereignty and thus responsible to work to better the world. That is how Alan Cranston lived and that is what his book calls us to achieve, a higher sense and ability to be globally responsible.

Reason for Hope

The question I am asked most often as I travel around the world springs from people’s deepest fear: “Jane, do you think there is hope?” Is there hope for the rainforests? For the chimpanzees? For the people of our planet, rich and poor alike? For the planet itself, our beautiful planet that we are spoiling? Is there hope for us and for our children and grandchildren?

Sometimes it is hard to be optimistic, for we are, indeed, destroying our planet. The affluent societies around the world, with their unsustainable life styles, are continually draining the last natural resources from mother earth. In many parts of the developing world people are living in desperate poverty. When more people live on an area of land than it can support, and when they cannot afford to buy food from elsewhere, they increasingly destroy their environment. International agro-business is forcing more and more peasant farmers into the misery of overcrowded cities. The forests are going, the soil is eroding, the water tables are drying, the deserts are spreading. Droughts and floods are getting worse. In so many places there is a vicious cycle of hunger, disease, poverty, and ignorance. Everywhere we see human cruelty, greed, jealousy, vindictiveness, and corruption. In our big cities we see crime, drugs, gang violence; and thousands who are homeless, their few belongings in prams or grocery carts or on their backs, living, sleeping, and dying on landfills, in doorways, on gratings. There are ever growing numbers of street children. There are ethnic conflicts, massacres, and broken peace treaties. Millions of people have been killed or maimed with bullets, machetes, and land mines. Millions more have become refugees. There is organised crime, sale of arms; and an international black market in nuclear materials from Russia’s vast and crumbling nuclear arsenal. International terrorism, even before 9/11, developed a new and more sinister face—and the continued, ominous, almost forgotten threat of global terror, wielded in the form of the nuclear weapons of the United States and the other nuclear countries, plays a monstrous and unforgivable role in keeping us locked in this terrible situation.

Throughout the world Americans and their allies are, increasingly, looking over their shoulders, fearful not of their own shadows but those thrown by their own countries. Terrorism, with its suicide bombings, is fuelled by pure hate, by fanatical hate—that is learned, that is taught. And, as Alan says, much of this hatred is sparked by Arab anger at the interference of America in the way they govern their states, by America’s support of Israel, and by America’s blatant tactics designed to give her dominion over the world’s oil fields.

All this would seem to suggest a hope-less millennium ahead. It is as though we are on a large ship. The lookout in the bow suddenly sees rocks ahead and alerts the crew. Yet it takes time for the big vessel to change course, so all attempts to avert disaster will fail and there will be a shipwreck. Of course, it will take time for the ship to disintegrate in the waves. Our world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” It is easy to imagine that such a fate awaits life, as we know it, on Spaceship Earth.
Remember Alan said the time might come when we would no longer be able to say, after some horrifying experience, “Life goes on.”

Yet despite this, I do have hope for the future. The vast numbers of people around the globe who protested the bombing of Iraq suggests that individuals truly are beginning to believe that their actions will make a difference, even if they are facing up to the giant super-power that is the United States of America and the unprecedented might of its war machine with its obscenely huge budget. The protests against the dark side of globalisation, the huge power of the international multinationals, are getting ever better attended and better organised. Citizens are becoming increasingly determined to have a voice in the decision making process. More and more people realise that we need change in many areas of our lives, and that these changes must be made by us, the people. If we go on leaving it to others, shipwreck is inevitable.

Alan and I were united in our belief that individuals, working together, have the power to effect change and, that by taking informed and compassionate action we can make this world a better place for humans, animals and the environment.

Jane Goodall PhD, DBE
17th April 2003
Founder, Jane Goodall Institute / UN Messenger of Peace

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list and receive regular updates, insights, and expert opinions from leaders in nuclear disarmament and world peace.

Unlock the power of positive change with the Global Security Institute. We conduct groundbreaking research, engage in impactful advocacy, and collaborate with leaders across the globe, from heads of state to the public. Your generous support is the key to our success in creating a safer world. Donate today and be a catalyst for global security.

Most Popular