As I write these words, British Dame and ethologist Jane Goodall is arrived to the oil capital of Canada to promote an environmental conservation agenda and to reflect upon fifty years of chimpanzee research in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania. With her work you are no doubt familiar: she has done all she can to make of that a certainty. An unrelenting traveler, if she is not on the road nor in the air, it is only because she is before an audience.
I also need not tell you that her research and advocacy have been occasions of disagreement and sometimes hostile opposition. On the subject of the environment’s rough handling by the human species I don’t share the hostile response to her message, but I think I understand why it exists. Her statement the other day that “we have really, really harmed Mother Nature and I don’t know how long she will retain this amazing ability to regenerate” makes me think, as all environmentalist-doomsday utterances do, of George Carlin’s brilliant commentary on “saving the planet.” If you’re not familiar, allow me to sum it up for you in his own words: “There is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked.” Who can argue? It is indeed the case that we’ll be long gone soon enough, and the Earth will go on as it did for billions of years before we arrived, quite by accident.
Well, then, perhaps she is wrong about the apocalypse, even if only in her identification of its victim. On another topic however, our near kinship with chimpanzees, she is correct. I, like she, have always found the division of primates into Us and Them a flattering but unconvincing fiction. Nothing could be more obvious to me than the fact we humans differ from chimpanzees in very slight degree. The long effort to identify and enshrine the One Thing which makes humans unique among sentient beings is in my view a wasted effort. We are not special, and we are not “better.” Nor are we the culmination of nature’s work, much less the intended outcome of a purposeful creation. It’s much easier to approach the rest of nature with self-important disgregard when one is under the force of such illusions. Goodall’s principal insight, which may be the result of “bad science” (I am nowhere near qualified to judge the merits of this, but the case has been made), is that we are of nature, not somehow above or outside it. And a good, I would even say “humanizing”, insight it is. To imagine otherwise is to indulge human arrogance. If there’s anything unique about us, it appears to be just that — a persistent claim to be Very Important.
I respect Jane Goodall, and like her also. Primate that I am, it has occurred to me that the woman who arrived to Africa in 1960 looked quite companionable in khaki shorts, and that surely there would have been ample down time in the forest, and she apparently often all alone. (She is also the subject of a Far Side cartoon, which to my way of thinking is no mean distinction.) You may well say that this sort of compliment is disrespectful, but I would differ. I do believe she remains lovely to this day and on the terms of the saying that — here I paraphrase — “one ends up with the face one deserves.” In this instance, the lovely face of a lovely primate.