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Jane Goodall at Penn State: 'We Seem to Have Lost Wisdom'

on March 25, 2011 8:48 AM

The question was logical enough, and five-year-old Jane Goodall really wanted to know the answer:

Where on a hen, she wondered, is a hole big enough to allow an egg to emerge?

So she followed a chicken into a hen house when she thought the bird was about to lay an egg. When the chicken freaked out, young Jane formed Plan B:

She stationed herself inside a hen house to wait for another feathered friend to amble in and do the deed.

"And I waited, and I waited," Goodall, 76, told a near-capacity Penn State audience Thursday night at Eisenhower Auditorium. "And I waited."

Finally, she said, success arrived in the form of a fresh egg. Her mother, rather than scolding young Jane for having disappeared so long, indulged her daughter's enthusiastic account after the fact, Goodall said.

It was one of several personal stories that she shared during her 84-minute appearance, part of the university Distinguished Speaker Series. Nearly 2,500 people showed up to hear Goodall, among the world's foremost primatologists, an author and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. The crowd gave her two standing ovations.

A native of England, Goodall was 26 years old when she began her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in what is now Tanzania. She scrimped and saved to make her early appearances on what was then known as "the Dark Continent," having worked as a waitress in her home country, Goodall said.

Now, more than 50 years after she began her African chimpanzee studies -- the largest uninterrupted study of any one animal group in the world, she said -- her most striking discovery is this:

The primates are more like humans than even early primatologists imagined, Goodall said.

And make no mistake, she told the audience: They do have thoughts and emotions. She believes humans' denial that chimps and other animals can have such human-like traits has helped foster animal cruelty, she said.

"There are grumpy ones and irritable ones," generous ones and outgoing ones, just like people, Goodall said of the chimps.

She has been particularly fascinated by their family life, in which female chimps begin having babies at age 12 or 13, then continue to bear offspring once every five years, Goodall said.

They have their dark sides, too, with highly territorial tendencies and a violent streak, she said.

"I do believe we've inherited aggressive tendencies," Goodall said, saying she thinks that humans and chimps share a common ancestor.

Her talk spanned a gamut -- from her youth in England and research in Africa to environmental conservation -- before she opened the floor to 15 minutes of audience questions. She spoke gently but with self-deprecating humor, at one point announcing her onetime love -- as a 10-year-old -- for Tarzan.

"And what does he do?" Goodall said. "He married another stupid, wimpy Jane."

Accompanied on stage by a small, gray toy animal in the shape of a chimp, she greeted the crowd with a chimp call before launching into her remarks. She began to wind down her presentation with a somber assessment of deforestation, climate change, pollution and consumption of natural resources.

But there's ample reason to hope the world will bounce back, Goodall said. "We haven't yet reached the point of no return. I feel fairly sure for various reasons."

She identified four specific reasons: the commitment and dedication of young people; her optimism that humans will begin making choices with longer-term perspectives in mind; the "indomitable human spirit"; and "the resilience of nature."

"We seem to have lost wisdom," the wisdom of indigenous peoples who considered how their actions would affect descendants many generations down the line, Goodall said.

These days, she said, people seem too consumed with immediate results -- how their behavior will affect the next stockholders' meeting or their next romantic relationship, for instance.

"Perhaps it's going to be the young people" who reverse that trend, Goodall said. She asked the audience to imagine a new generation that respects all life and understands that "while we need money to live, we should never be living for money."

She said she finds hope in the young people she meets through Roots and Shoots, the international youth-humanitarian and environmental program fostered through the Jane Goodall Institute. Roots and Shoots now reaches 126 countries, and Goodall encouraged youth in the audience at Eisenhower Auditorium to become involved.

Goodall still travels some 300 days a year, largely through the work of her institute, aides said. It was established in 1977 to support her research.

She's currently in the midst of a 20-city U.S. tour. She was in Ohio just prior to her Penn State visit; next, she'll be at Duke University in North Carolina.

At all of her stops, aides said, she carries a message of self-empowerment, encouraging people to take small steps in their daily lives to help change the world.

That was among her underlying themes in Eisenhower Auditorium. Every day a person is alive, she told reporters before her talk, he or she can make a difference.

The type of difference, Goodall said, is "up to us."

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