Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Jane Goodall’

03 APRIL, 2014

Jane Goodall on Science, Religion, and Our Human Responsibilities

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What the chimpanzees teach us about the fine line between faith and apathy.

Legendary British primatologist Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) is celebrated not only as humanity’s greatest expert on chimpanzees but also as a remarkable mind that bridges the rigor of science with the sensitivity of spirituality. In a passage from her altogether fantastic 1999 exploration of science and spirituality, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey (public library), which also gave us her gorgeous poem “The Old Wisdom”, Goodall reflects on a trying time in her life — her divorce in 1974, coupled with her quest to reconcile the faith in a higher power that she had harbored her whole life with the new understanding of and awe at evolution after her transformational experience of studying the chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park.

Portrait of Jane Goodall by Lisa Congdon from our collaborative project, 'The Reconstructionist.' Click image for details.

She writes:

Even if there was no God, even if human beings had no soul, it would still be true that evolution had created a remarkable animal — the human animal — during its millions of years of labor. So very like our closest biological relatives, the chimpanzees, yet so different. For our study of the chimpanzees had helped to pinpoint not only the similarities between them and us, but also those ways in which we are most different. Admittedly, we are not the only beings with personalities, reasoning powers, altruism, and emotions like joy and sorrow; nor are we the only beings capable of mental as well as physical suffering. But our intellect has grown mighty in complexity since the first true men branched off from the ape-man stock some two million years ago. And we, and only we, have developed a sophisticated spoken language. For the first time in evolution, a species evolved that was able to teach its young about objects and events not present, to pass on wisdom gleaned from the successes — and the mistakes — of the past, to make plans for the distant future, to discuss ideas so that they could grow, sometimes out of all recognition, through the combined wisdom of the group.

Echoing Mark Twain’s lament that we often use religion as a mask for human egotism, Goodall considers how these human capacities unfold beyond the intellectual and the spiritual to affect the very behaviors that shape our future and the responsibilities we have to our species, all species, and our precious shared planet:

With language we can ask, as can no other living beings, those questions about who we are and why we are here. And this highly developed intellect means, surely, that we have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species — quite regardless of whether or not we believe in God. Indeed, those who acknowledge no God, but are convinced that we are in this world as an evolutionary accident, may be more active in environmental responsibility — for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is entirely up to us to put things right. On the other hand, I have encountered a number of people with a strong faith in God who shrug off their own human responsibilities, believing that everything is safely “in God’s hands.” I was brought up to believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” We should all take responsibility, all play our part in helping to clean up and heal the planet that, in so many ways, we have desecrated.

Perhaps rather than disheartening, the awareness that we are, indeed, a cosmic accident is the most powerful gift we have.

Dame Jane Goodall, 2011 (Photograph by Angela George via Wikimedia Commons)

Reason for Hope is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Goodall’s conversation with Bill Moyers about science and spirit and her little-known, lovely children’s book, then see Carl Sagan on science and religion.

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21 JANUARY, 2014

Jane Goodall on Science and Spirit: The Iconic Primatologist Talks to Bill Moyers and Reads Her Poem “The Old Wisdom”

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“As human beings, we can encompass a vague feeling of what the universe is, and all in this funny little brain here — so there has to be something more than just brain, it has to be something to do with spirit as well.”

Alan Lightman’s superb recent meditation on science and religion reminded me of a 2009 Bill Moyers conversation with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, in which the celebrated scientist contemplates the question of science and spirit — a question previously pondered by such great minds as Galileo in 1615, Ada Lovelace in 1844, Albert Einstein in 1936, Isaac Asimov throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps most famously Carl Sagan in 1985.

In the interview, found in the altogether fantastic Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues (public library), Goodall also reads her beautiful poem “The Old Wisdom,” inspired by the eternal inquiry and found in her 1999 book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey (public library), which further explores Goodall’s views on science and spirituality.

THE OLD WISDOM

When the night wind makes the pine trees creak
And the pale clouds glide across the dark sky,
Go out my child, go out and seek
Your soul: The Eternal I.

For all the grasses rustling at your feet
And every flaming star that glitters high
Above you, close up and meet
In you: The Eternal I.

Yes, my child, go out into the world; walk slow
And silent, comprehending all, and by and by
Your soul, the Universe, will know
Itself: the Eternal I.

A transcript of the full discussion, absolutely stimulating from beginning to end, can be found it Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, which also features conversations with luminaries like E.O. Wilson, Karen Armstrong, John Lithgow, Michael Pollan, and Jon Stewart.

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21 AUGUST, 2013

Pioneering Primatologist Jane Goodall’s Children’s Book about the Healing Power of Pet Love

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The story of a scruffy white dog makes a heartening case for pet therapy for kids.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by celebrated luminaries — including especial favorites by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, and Sylvia Plath — I was thrilled to chance upon a signed copy of Dr. White (public library) by none other than beloved primatologist and reconstructionist Jane Goodall.

“It was a cold, wet morning. Dr. White dashed to the hospital. He was late,” the charming 1999 tale begins. But as the hospital cook dries Dr. White’s rain-roused head with a towel, we realize the good “doctor” is in fact a small, shaggy white dog who helps children heal. The story, full of tender and expressive watercolors by Julie Litty, is based on a real pup-healer at a London hospital and bespeaks Goodall’s unflinching faith in the inextricable, in this case life-saving link we share with our fellow non-human beings.

Dr. White’s reign of love, however, is soon interrupted by an antagonistic efforts of a zealous health inspector who refuses to stray from the rules and evicts Dr. White from the hospital.

But when the inspector’s own little girl falls ill, Dr. White sneaks back in with the help of the hospital staff and the situation takes a heartening turn.

Complement Dr. White with more lovely children’s books by famous “adult” authors like Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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