The Chimpanzees of Gombe Essay - Critical Essays

Jane Goodall


Despite a clearly intuitive sympathy with and understanding of the behavior and psychology of chimpanzees, with whom she shares a deep affection, Goodall is nevertheless the scientist, recording data, classifying, categorizing, and objectifying with tables, charts, and diagrams. She includes sketches of chimpanzee facial expressions and charts differentiating sounds associated with particular emotions, from puzzlement to rage. There is a fine tension between her personal and subjective affection for particular chimps under observation and her objective, inductive research methodology. Except for the rarest of instances, she refrains from interference that would taint her scientific analysis. When she realizes that the provision of bananas that first attracted the chimpanzees to the Gombe Center disrupts behavior patterns, she quickly reduces the supply, making it comparable to natural feeding sources. When she sees chimpanzees for whom she has developed strong ties weakened by polio, injured, and even cannibalized, she observes and records but refrains from interfering.

Anecdotal and individualistic, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior records not only the intimate, hidden life of a chimpanzee community in the wild but also the evolution of a remarkable scientist from an inexperienced but determined youth to a world-renowned ethologist, primatologist, and conservationist, a woman of integrity willing to publicly admit mistakes and correct them, a maverick willing to go against the advice of authorities, to act on instinct and to prove the validity of that instinct. Her struggle for the proper balance between scientific objectivity and empathic involvement is an underlying theme unifying this study and an indication of her personal sacrifice in breaking relationships when they threatened to alter the character of the community.

This remarkable study by a self-styled “old-fashioned naturalist” has changed the way scientists think about primates. It has called attention to their markedly different personalities and temperaments and the great variations within species. It has highlighted the importance of demographic changes, the subtle interactions of individuals and group, the different tactics that affect the chimpanzee community, and the social adroitness of some individual chimps. It presents for the first time surprising evidence about chimpanzee cognitive abilities (especially their individualistic use of tools), kinship-bonding, intergroup aggression, purposeful murder and cannibalism, and even war. After the community had split into two sections, the annihilation of the entire Kahama community by the Kasakela males over a four-year-long period of attack was shocking evidence of the dark side of primate nature.