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Recently read: Through a Window

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on January 10, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Jane Goodall. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe

When Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees in the 1960s, it was not considered proper to speculate about the mental states of animals. Animal ethology was at the time very much influenced by behaviourism, which was then still influential in the study of human beings, and also by much deeper and longer running currents in Western thinking about animals. As Goodall tells it, she escaped the dominant fashion in animal ethology because she was launched fortuitously without any formal training into the study of chimpanzees in Gombe, now a national park in Tanzania, by Louis Leaky, and only came into contact with the prevailing wisdom about animals when she subsequently went to Cambridge for doctoral work. By this point, the Goodall story goes, she had accumulated too much naive experience simply observing animals to accept the standard party line.

This story strikes me as possibly a bit too modest. Goodall seems to me much too tenacious, too temperamentally biased against then current assumptions about animals, and too sharp to have settled for them in some counterfactual world in which formal training preceded fieldwork. In any case, one of her accomplishments over a long and celebrated career was to help overturn many of the assumptions then current in animal ethology and primatology, with work that stands as a model of empathetic observation and engagement.

Through a Window is about that long career, filled with reflections accumulated over a lifetime of such observation. Much of the book narrates various happenings in the champanzee communities in Gombe, as observed by Goodall herself and other scientists and helpers in the park. Goodall relates the rise and fall of various alpha males in shifting networks of coalitions and alliances; a series of cannibalistic infanticides practiced by a mother-daughter team of chimpanzees on other weaker mothers and their infants; her discovery of tool use among chimpanzees; the fate of a splinter group of chimpanzees inhabiting a dangerous sliver of territory between two other groups; and more. If you find such stories fascinating and addictive, as I do, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

The account also has all of marks of Goodall’s particular brand of engagement with her subjects. She does not affect the traditional pose of scientific detachment, for example, while relating the series of infanticides. She is (understandably) horrified and even angry. Even more interesting, I thought, was her statement that after the first infanticide, she and her research team were determined to intervene to prevent another such incident, if they could. The statement raises interesting questions about the relationship between the observed and the observers that her book does not really address. The desire to intervene in such cases must be strong, but I wonder if enough interventions of this kind would leave the researchers with a distorted view of wild chimpanzee behavior and their group dynamics. I had similar questions about the treatment of some chimpanzees with medicine and the use of bananas in researcher/chimp interactions. (As it turns out, there appears to be some controversy (under “Criticism”) about precisely this last worry among primatologists. Goodal touches on this issue at the end of the book, but in a way that seemed to me perhaps in some tension with earlier parts of it.)

But I’ll leave these worries to the primatologists. The most striking thing for a layperson in books such as Goodall’s (or Frans de Waal’s, to name another well-known primatologist—see his engrossing Peacemaking Among Primates, for example) is how engaging the narratives are. So much about human beings is unique in its character and its complexity. But for all that, we share a great deal in common with other animals too, and the most with chimpanzees, our closest cousins. Goodal has a real talent for bringing out both the contrasts and the points of comparison with these stories, and that’s reason enough to recommend giving this book a try.