My guest today, Jane Goodall, transformed our understanding of the animal world with her work on chimpanzees. That was 60 years ago, but she’s still working as hard as ever to spread her message of hope.
GOODALL: Every time I tell a story, I’m actually living it. And every time I live it, it takes me back to who I am, how I began, and what I want to do. And how lucky I have been that my story has led me to the place where I am today.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
Few people have lived a life as remarkable as Jane Goodall’s. Born in an era when women’s options were greatly limited, especially in scientific domains, she defied the odds. Not only making remarkable scientific contributions, but also becoming one of the most widely known and admired people on the planet. And how devoted is Jane Goodall to her causes? She’s 88 years old, and despite the fact she’s got Covid, she insisted we go ahead with our conversation.
LEVITT: Wow, Jane, what a joy and an honor. I happened to see a documentary about you right around the time I started this podcast a little over two years ago. And we have been hounding and harassing your people ever since, trying to make this conversation happen. It took persistence, but I’m glad they finally gave in and allowed you to talk to me.
GOODALL: Well, I’ve been so busy being virtual Jane that my time has been unbelievably hectic. I’ve been busier during Covid than ever in my life before. I’m now on the road again, but for two-and-a-half years, I didn’t have one day off. There were no weekends, no holiday, including Christmas day. Nonstop.
LEVITT: So, I suspect that everyone listening knows the basics about your early experiences with the chimpanzees. You’re a young woman, 26 years old, no formal training. You’re working as Louis Leakey’s secretary, and you volunteered to go to Gombe Park in Tanzania — essentially alone — to observe chimpanzees in the wild.
GOODALL: I didn’t volunteer, Steve. Leakey asked me if I’d be prepared to do it, and that was my dream come true. And of course, I said, “Yes.” But I said, “I haven’t been to college, is that okay?” And it took him a long time — about a year — to get even a small grant for six months because, “Who was this young girl straight out from England and never been to college? What a ridiculous idea.” And the British authorities in what was then Tanganyika said, “No way will we take responsibility for this crazy idea.” But in the end, they said, “All right, she can come, but she cannot come alone.” So, the amazing mother who supported my childhood dream of going to live with wild animals in Africa and writing books about them — she volunteered to come. So, for four of those first six months, she was there, down in the camp. She was the brave one, not me.
LEVITT: And when she was there, she didn’t just sit around. She really helped the people there, which helped you do what you needed to do as well, right?
GOODALL: Yep, absolutely. She set up this little clinic. And she wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, but she had a supply of aspirins and Band-Aids. She cared about people. She’d spend hours with people, and she made some amazing cures. And I later discovered she was known as a “white-witch doctor.” So, she established this great relationship with all the local people — the fishermen from along the beach of Lake Tanganyika — which stood me in good stead ever since.
LEVITT: Now, you broke all the rules of so-called “good” scientific practice at the time. You gave names to the chimps. You allowed the chimps to come into your camp and take bananas. You prescribed feelings and emotions to them. And within a few years, you transformed not only our understanding of chimpanzees, but also of humankind’s place in the world — that we’re much less different than chimps than almost anyone would’ve guessed at the time. So, is that a fair 15-second summary of the early years of your life?
GOODALL: It wasn’t that I broke the rules. I didn’t know any rules to break. I just did my study the way I studied all the little animals around my house when I was growing up in England.
LEVITT: Now, one thing that really stands out to me is that you needed to have many talents to succeed. Obviously, you were fearless, and you worked incredibly long, hard days and nights in the field. But also, you really relied heavily on your intuition, on your common sense, right?
GOODALL: Yes. And when these Cambridge professors told me that only humans had personalities, minds, and emotions, I knew they were totally wrong because I had this great teacher when I was a child. That was my dog, Rusty. You can’t share your life in a meaningful way with a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a horse, a bird, and not know that we are not the only beings on this planet who are sentient and sapient.
LEVITT: Now, I’m fascinated by these cases where science and common sense collide, and they come to opposite conclusions. Because I would agree with you. If you’ve ever had a pet, it’s obvious that pets are a lot like people, much less chimpanzees who are even, obviously, much, much more like people. And I’m curious, how did scientific practice make such a terrible mistake of judgment when it’s so obvious they were wrong? Do you have theories about that?
GOODALL: Because it was convenient for them. One, there was a lot of very invasive animal research going on. And it’s much more convenient to think that the animal you are torturing doesn’t have feelings. But at that same time, doctors felt that newborn babies didn’t have feelings either. Unbelievable to contemplate now, but that was the case. Secondly, the science of animal behavior, ethology — which I got my degree in, in the end, they decided — I don’t think they believed that animals didn’t have personalities, minds, or emotions, but they couldn’t prove it. Therefore, it was best, as I was told by my supervisor, to brush it under the carpet.
LEVITT: The field of economics has made what I’d call some parallel mistakes, but I think we’ve done it for a different reason. I think in economics we did it because collectively we have an inferiority complex in the scientific hierarchy. Economics is a social science and has very low standing. And we envy the hard sciences, especially physics. So, in the 1970s and 1980s, especially where I teach, my own home institution, the University of Chicago, there was a view that all behaviors should be able to be explained as being the outcome of rational choices, even though common sense in everything we see around us tells you that there’s tons of irrational behavior. But I think the economists ignored that common sense because they wanted economic models to be like physics models. They wanted them to be simple. They wanted them to be universal. And it took decades for what we call behavioral economics — which has a more intuitive underpinning — to become mainstream. I’ve always had a hunch that the ethologists — they felt like they weren’t very high status in the world of science, and so they had pretensions to be more scientific, even if it was going to get in the way of their study.
GOODALL: Yes, absolutely. And as I say, I cannot believe that some of these very, very amazing professors — I can’t believe that they believed what they said. They must have known animals had personalities and minds and emotions. They had to have. And yet, some of the experiments that were being done, like when they were trying to study bird song, they deafened hundreds and hundreds of canaries and nightingales. And that to us today is so unethical, but they really needed to convince themselves that animals didn’t have feelings in order to carry out those experiments.
LEVITT: I suspect that you think that allowing yourself to recognize that the chimpanzees had emotions, that was critical to your success in the field. Do you think you could have discovered what you discovered if you had a sterile, disbelieving, scientific approach towards these wonderful animals?
GOODALL: No. And Leakey deliberately chose somebody who had not been to college. Somebody whose mind had not been tainted by this reductionist approach. But I never thought of doing it any other way. It was the only way I knew. You observe them. You learn from them. You write down what you see. And afterwards, you come up with some theories which you can then test. Whereas today, even now, students tend to go in the field with a theory to prove or disprove, rather than letting the animals teach you.
LEVITT: Well, that’s the scientific way, right? The scientific method tells you: you have a hypothesis to prove or disprove. It’s interesting because what you’re saying is exactly the approach that I have been calling for in economics — with no success whatsoever. What we do is we write down a hypothesis. We go to the data to test it. It turns out not to be true. And then, we write down a new hypothesis that matches the data. And then, we write up our research as if the hypothesis we finished with was the one we started with. It is completely non-scientific, but we masquerade like scientists. But I don’t want to put down science too much because, you and I are celebrating intuition and common sense over science. But, of course, there are plenty of cases where intuition and science collide, like the idea that the earth revolves around the sun hurtling through space. That seems preposterously at odds with our lived experience. Or quantum mechanics — how can things really be that strange at a subatomic level? Or maybe even climate change, where CO2 is invisible. It has no taste or smell. And there are only 400 parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere, a very small share. How could that possibly be causing climate change? So, I do think that it’s an interesting question when common sense will win and when science will win. I don’t know if there’s a scientific approach to knowing when to follow your intuition and when to follow the rules that the scientists have set up.
GOODALL: I can’t really answer that question, Steve. All I know is that some of the scientists I admire the most have understood what you’re talking about. And one of them is Albert Einstein. He was very intuitive. And what I loved about him was he said, “There will always be mystery. Science will never solve everything.”
LEVITT: I think it’s fair to say that the most impactful single insight from your early work is that the chimps in the wild use tools. They make tools. They take objects and intentionally alter those objects to make them better at accomplishing a task. Like stripping away at blades of grass until they’re just right for dipping into the anthills. And before you observed that, there was a thought that humans were the only species that made these tools. To you personally, is that the most notable insight?
GOODALL: When I started in 1960, nobody had studied chimps in the wild. No scientist, that is. If, at that time you had gone into some of the indigenous people living deep in the rainforest, they would’ve told you chimpanzees used to make tools. They knew it. But, of course, now we are back on the scientific bandwagon. So, when I saw David Greybeard using and making tools, I knew it was really exciting. It was what enabled Leakey to go to the Geographic to get funding when my six months of money ran out. But there’s a wonderful book written by a psychologist, called The Mentality of Apes, Wolfgang Köhler, and he studied this colony of captive apes, and he described so many innovative uses of objects. But at that time, the scientific community said, “Oh, well, these were chimpanzees in captivity. Therefore, our human characteristics had rubbed off onto them. It’s nothing to do with what they, as wild individuals, would be capable of.” So, when I observed that momentous day of David using and making tools, I knew that it was going to make a big impression on the science of the time. But I wasn’t surprised because I, unlike the other scientists, had believed that what Köhler was reporting was the ability of chimpanzees to use and make tools.
LEVITT: Now, David Greybeard was one of your favorite chimpanzees. He was your entry ticket, in some sense. Can you describe how you and David became friends?
GOODALL: Well, he was my mentor, really, you know, because he began to lose his fear. And for four whole months, the chimpanzees had been vanishing as soon as I came up to them, and I could only watch through binoculars. I only had six months, and time was running out. And then, David Greybeard began to lose his fear. And it was that — because when I approached a group, ready to run as usual, and David Greybeard was calmly sitting, and I could see them looking from him to me and back. And they must have been thinking, “Well, she can’t be so frightening after all.” And so, gradually, they began to relax and trust me. And that was my entry into understanding the complex social society; the very different and vivid personalities; the fact that they have emotions similar — sometimes the same — as ours of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, despair, grief, and so on.
LEVITT: So, after a few years at Gombe, you went to Cambridge to get a Ph.D., despite the fact that you had never attended university. You didn’t have a college degree. And it seems odd to me that you did this. Because I can’t imagine there was anything of use that the professors at Cambridge could teach you. You knew more about your area of research than the rest of the world combined. Did you learn anything in the Ph.D.?
GOODALL: Oh, well, first of all, a quick answer is “Yes.” And the reason I went is because Leakey wanted science to take me seriously. You know, there was all this, “Jane is just a Geographic cover girl. Jane is getting support from Geographic because she has nice legs,” which today would be such a sexist remark. But back then I thought, “Well, if my legs have got me on the Geographic cover, and that’s got me money to study chimpanzees, thank you, legs!” Leakey wanted me to get this degree. He said, “I’ve got you an opportunity to read for a degree in ethology in Cambridge University.” Which at that time was the No. 1 science university in the U.K. And because I’d never been to university, and because I was nervous, when I was told by all these erudite professors that I’d done everything wrong from naming the chimpanzees to describing their personalities, intelligence, and emotions — it was nerve-racking. But finally, because I described in detail the amazing behavior of the chimps — and Hugo van Lawick was sent by the Geographic to film what I was observing and to take stills. And, you know, gradually science began to change. But I had a fantastic supervisor. He was one of the top three ethologists in the world at that time, Robert Hinde. And what he taught me was how to think in a scientific way, how to test the things that I believed were true. And I loved that. I really, really loved to learn how to think logically and come to a conclusion and then test that conclusion, and that made all the difference to me. It really did.
LEVITT: Well, it’s interesting that you managed to take the good from Cambridge — that scientific way of thinking — without losing what was so original about you in the first place, which was this love of animals and belief in animals as teachers and mentors. I’m curious, are you familiar with the nature writer Sy Montgomery?
LEVITT: Among many other books she wrote one called The Soul of the Octopus, and it describes a deep bond, a love affair really, that she shared with a particular octopus. So, having had her on the show, I really felt talking to her that she had managed to keep this childlike love and empathy for animals precisely because she had never pursued higher education. But maybe you’re a case study of someone who’s — that it’s possible to get a Ph.D. in the study of animals without losing what makes you love animals in the first place.
GOODALL: I mean, I just felt even closer to animals. Because when you think in the terms of a scientist and you find that everything you believed is true when you put it to the scientific test, it’s just that much better. And I’m so glad that Leakey persuaded me to do a Ph.D. Because it did help me to gain standing with the scientific community. And that in turn, which is far more important, enabled the chimpanzees to help change the way science thinks about animals.
After this short break we’ll be back with more of my conversation with Jane Goodall.
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LEVITT: So, you spent over two decades with the chimpanzees, raising your son amidst them. I’m curious whether and how your time observing chimpanzee mothers raising their young — how that affected your own approach to parenting, if at all.
GOODALL: Well, at that time en vogue was — do you remember Dr. Spock? Who wrote the books about parenting? My own mother was a wonderful example of good parenting. So, my son was raised on a mixture of mom’s parenting, Dr. Spock’s advice — but also the chimps taught me one important thing, and that is: the chimpanzee mothers had such fun with their infants. And I vowed when I watched them, that I would have fun with my son. I did a lot of things chimp mothers did. I’d hold him up in the air. And tickle him and bounce him up and down, just like the chimp mothers do. I learned from the chimp mothers that before a child has understood the difference between what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, then the chimp mother will distract. So, she’s fishing for termites, and her infant is playfully grabbing the tool. Instead of punishing him because he hasn’t yet learned, she’ll tickle him with one hand and go on fishing with the other. But later on, when the child realizes that mom is busy and shouldn’t be disturbed, and therefore will go off and play by myself, but if he does try to snatch a tool, she’ll reprimand him by a tiny bite on the fingers. Not hard. And so, that taught me that it’s so important that when we are raising children, we do not punish them until they’ve understood that what they’re doing is not appropriate in that society. And Steve, I so well remember — I was in an airport, and I was at a table with a mother and a little girl. I think it was a little girl of about one-and-a-half — the age of exploration. And the child had been given a little drinking cup of milk and had drunken half and tipped a little bit onto the tray of the tray table and was drawing patterns with her finger. And the mother said, “That is very, very naughty. I think we go off and have a beating.” And she took the child off and beat her. That is exploration. That is how children learn. The child had no idea she was doing anything wrong. And I was so shocked. I also learned from the chimps that what is crucial for a child — chimp or human of between one and two years old — is to be surrounded by a supportive network of adults who can be trusted.
LEVITT: I watch my own parenting behavior at the playground. And I think sometimes parents punish their children not because of what the child did, but because the parents want to show other parents what kind of parents they are, right? So, sometimes when my daughter knocks over another kid trying to get something, I’m secretly a little bit proud. But out loud, I say, “Oh, Ana, you shouldn’t do that.” But I think I’ll try to do less of that going forward.
GOODALL: Steve, I think it’s okay to gradually teach your child the ways that we should and shouldn’t behave. It’s the punishing that’s the bad part. Not the gradual teaching. If your little, tiny child does something inappropriate before understanding that it’s inappropriate, then that’s when punishment is not appropriate.
LEVITT: Now, somewhere along the way, you had a big insight about the world. One that seems obvious ex-post, but that I don’t think was well appreciated before you made it your mission to bring it to the world’s attention. And that insight is that if you want to help animals, you have to help the people who live around the animals to remove the conflict between local people’s need for land and sustenance, and the animals’ need for habitat. So, instead, you need to create situations where local people see wildlife and their habitats as things of value to be protected. Is that a fair statement of how you view the world?
GOODALL: Yes, it is. But the most important thing was at the beginning when I flew over the tiny Gombe National Park, where, by the way, the research is still carrying on over 60 years later. But I flew over that tiny little national park, which had been part of the great equatorial forest belt right across Africa. And it was like that in 1960 and 1970. But by the late 1980s, I flew over this tiny island of forest surrounded by completely bare hills, more people living there than the land could support, too poor to buy food from elsewhere, their own land over-farmed and infertile. They were struggling to survive. Why were they cutting down the trees? Because they needed more land to grow food for their growing families, and they needed to make money from charcoal or selling timber. And that’s when it hit me. If we don’t help these people find ways of living without destroying their environment, we can’t save chimpanzee forests or anything else. And the different approach that we took from other conservationists of the time was not going into the villages that were destroying the environment as a bunch of arrogant white people. You know, “You are destroying your environment, and this is what we’re going to do to help.” No, no, no. It was, select a team of local Tanzanians. And they would go into the villages. And they would sit down, and they would listen. And they would say, “What do you think the Jane Goodall Institute, J.G.I., can do to make your lives better?” And that’s where we began. Grow more food, which meant restoring fertility to overused farmland without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and so on. The villagers also told us that they wanted better health and education facilities, and so we worked with local Tanzanian authorities to improve health facilities. In some cases, this meant building clinics. We had to raise money for that. To improve the schools — and we began finding scholarships to give girls a chance of secondary education. We provided microfinance opportunities based on Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank. We provided family planning information, which was eagerly received because even the remote poor villages had already understood a way to get out of poverty was to give their children a good education. And they could no longer afford to educate the eight to 10 children per woman, which was the normal when I arrived in 1960. And so, they were very eager to embrace family planning. And this has worked. And the people, they now have the tools; the people can monitor the health of their own village forest reserves; they can make their land-use management plans, which are required by the Tanzanian government. And they have now set land aside as a buffer between Gombe National Park and the villages. And also, to make corridors so that the chimpanzees of Gombe, who were totally isolated, can now have individuals move back and forth between Gombe and other remnant chimpanzee communities. And this is saving the chimps in their part of Tanzania. It’s a very successful program.
LEVITT: So, I’m curious, you described a very person-centric set of policies — reducing poverty, improving health. Did the conservation efforts arise organically out of that? Or was it more of a tit-for-tat, that when you would do wonderful things for the people, in return, they’d say, “We’ll sacrifice and do things for the animals”?
GOODALL: No, it grew organically. So, the difference between us and other conservation groups at the time is that we did not go in talking about preservation of wildlife. We just talked about improving the lives of the people and they came to trust us. And as a result of that, then we introduced our program for young people in the schools. We began talking about the importance of chimpanzees. We talked about ecotourism. And gradually, the people realized that protecting the environment wasn’t just for wildlife, but it was also for their own future. They understood the value of the forest for mitigating the climate, for having an effect on rainfall and shade and all the rest. So, it grew organically. And I think that’s what made it so different and what has made it so successful. So, we began with the 12 villages around Gombe National Park. It’s now in 104 villages throughout chimp range in Tanzania. And it’s in six other African countries where J.G.I. works to protect chimps and forests.
LEVITT: It’s stories like these that have made me a longtime donor to the Jane Goodall Institute, and I find your message incredibly compelling, as do many others. But it makes me sad that you have to spend so much of your time fundraising. That’s roughly my least favorite thing to do on the planet. You also? Or is fundraising not as painful for you as it is for most people?
GOODALL: Well, fundraising per se is not my thing. My job is to raise awareness. And when you raise awareness and you have a team, and the job of some of the team is to follow up with — “Well, if you were inspired by what Jane said, then maybe you’d like to help support the programs.” That’s the way it works. Fundraising per se is absolutely no more my thing than it is yours. But the raising of awareness is something that I will probably spend the rest of my life doing. And not only that, Steve, but giving people hope. We’re in very dark times. And we are facing the sixth great extinction — climate change, poverty — and people are losing hope. And if you lose hope, you become apathetic, and you feel helpless, and you do nothing. And if we all do nothing, particularly the young people, we’re doomed.
LEVITT: So, the third chapter of your career has gone beyond this already expansive agenda to focus on this even broader concept of hope. So, your latest book is entitled The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. And if I’m counting correctly, it’s your fifth book that has the word “hope” in the title. And you’ve got a podcast, “The Jane Goodall Hopecast.” And before Covid, you were on the road 300 days-a-year spreading this gospel of hope. And after Covid, you’ve been spreading it even more intensely from home. So, could you define hope? What do you mean when you say hope?
GOODALL: For me, hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is about action. And the way I’m looking at where we are today, Steve, is our human species is at the mouth of a very long, very dark tunnel. And right at the end of that tunnel is a little star shining. That’s hope. But there’s no good sitting at the start of the tunnel and just saying, “Oh, I hope that star will come here soon. No, we have to roll up our sleeves. And we have to climb under, work our way around all the obstacles that lie between us and that star. And that’s climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty, unsustainable lifestyles, industrial agriculture, particularly animal agriculture. It’s destroying the environment with pesticides and herbicides. It’s killing the soil.
LEVITT: So, clearly part of it is awareness of these problems and the need for solutions. But I sense that your deeper goal is something different. Is it to instill hope in young people? The belief that they have the power to do something hard? Is that at the heart of what you’re doing?
GOODALL: Oh, it’s certainly a major part of it. And it’s the reason that our program Roots & Shoots began back in the late 1980s. Because even back then, young people were losing hope. And I met them in different parts of the world. And they were all saying more or less the same: “We feel angry,” or, “We feel depressed,” or, “We just don’t care. Why? Because you’ve compromised the future, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Well, have we compromised the future of our young people? Answer: yes, yes, and yes. That’s why I started Roots & Shoots, which is designed to give young people hope. So, what began with 12 high school students in 1991 now has members from kindergarten, university, and beyond. It would be grassroots, bottom up, not dictated to. They would choose projects to make things better for people, projects to make things better for animals, projects to make things better for the environment. And it’s now in 66 countries. In fact, the 66th country came into our program just five days ago, and that was Java, where there are 1,000 young people taking part in Roots & Shoots. And it’s growing all the time.
LEVITT: It does seem like the young people today are more idealistic than any generation that I’ve experienced, really any generation since the ’60s. But somehow the idealism of the ’60s didn’t lead anywhere good. I suspect that you’re optimistic that the idealism of today will lead somewhere better than the ’60s.
GOODALL: Well, I think so because, the young people today, they are bombarded with what’s going on in the world. And that’s why so many of them lost hope because the media is full of doom and gloom. But once you start taking action locally — and the young people — they’re passionate, they care, and they see that they’re making a difference.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Jane Goodall. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Jane’s next great adventure.
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I want to take a chance in the last part of this interview and broach the topic of dying. I know it’s something we avoid talking about in this society, but given Jane’s lifelong observation of animals in nature, where death is always lurking, I have a feeling she’ll have an interesting perspective. And she won’t mind sharing it.
LEVITT: Now, you are not young. You’re 88 years old. And it’s largely taboo to speak about death in our society, but I suspect you don’t mind talking about death. Is that a topic you’re comfortable with?
GOODALL: I’m extremely comfortable with it. We all have to die. You can’t hide from that fact.
LEVITT: And how do you feel about dying?
GOODALL: Well, I really put it into words when I was asked in a very big lecture of about 10,000 people a question I’d never been asked before. And that was, “Jane, what is your next big adventure?” And if I’d been asked like 10 years ago, I would say, “Oh, I want to go into the unknown regions of places like Papua New Guinea where new species are being discovered.” But I know I can’t do that now. When you are 88, you have certain physical limitations. I’ll put it that way. Even though your mind is young, your body is getting older. So, I thought about this. And after a bit, I said, “Dying.” And there was dead silence for a few minutes, and then some nervous titters. And I said, “Well, when you die, there’s either nothing, which is fine, or there’s something, which I happen to believe. And if there is something beyond our death, then I cannot think of a greater adventure than finding out what that something is.”
LEVITT: Now growing up, my grandfather was my role model for how to grow old. He was similar to you in many ways. As he aged, he kept such joy about life, such curiosity. He was mentally sharp, and he still shoveled his own sidewalk in Minnesota into his nineties. But when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer — terminal cancer — and was going to die, he didn’t want to live without her. And they decided to commit suicide together. He was 95 years old. And other people might have reacted differently to the suicide. But to use your word, it gave me hope. Like everyone, I suppose, I feared death. But to know that the old person I most admired, a person who loved life and who lived it fully, to know that he didn’t fear death, he embraced it, that was an amazing gift from him to me. He was ready for death. And I think hopefully I’ll be ready also.
GOODALL: Yes. Well, just recently I had a very poignant example of that. It was a young man in Spain, 22 years old, and he was diagnosed with Hutchinson’s disease — causes great pain. And he suffered for two years, and then he couldn’t bear it anymore. And with his parents’ permission, he decided to end his life. And I was asked to send him a message. And those are difficult things to have to do. I’d never met the young man. But I sent him a message. And he sent me a reply. He said, “Jane, I was always afraid of death, but now I’ve read what you’ve written, I’m actually looking forward to it, and I’m looking forward to a time when maybe you and I will meet in a different place.”
LEVITT: I love that. I suspect that one reason that death is so frightening to many people today is that we’re so isolated from death. People generally live a long time, die largely out of sight. Unlike the past when many people lived on farms, and slaughtered the meat they ate. Now, meat appears almost miraculously on our plates. The link between the animal and what we’re eating is completely gone. And almost none of us get to witness nature, wildlife, the ever-present cycle of life and death. You, of course, are an exception. Do you think that spending so much time with the animals, it’s affected your attitude towards death?
GOODALL: I don’t know, Steve. My grandfather was a congregational minister. And my family used to talk about things like this. You say that we’re separated from death, but so many people have grieved and grieved for the loss of their dog or their cat, or their loved companion. So, we’re not as separated from death. Only from human death. Human death is sanitized.
LEVITT: Yeah, it’s interesting, I think that’s the reason that my mother actually got me pets, is that she wanted me to experience love and loss in a way that you don’t get a chance to do it that often with humans.
GOODALL: No, that’s right. And when people say, “Oh, but it’s only a dog, it’s only a cat,” that is ridiculous because the life of a dog or a cat who’s given you support is just as important as some human beings. It really is. And you know something, Steve, in this terrible war in Ukraine, I’ve been so moved — I’ve read at least eight stories of soldiers out in the fighting line, and they’ve made contact with stray dogs and taken the dog into their circle. And one group, which were down in horrible damp trenches that they dug to protect them from Russian artillery, and this dog, they said, “We used to have people all the time nervously looking around, looking in front, looking behind, looking on each side for enemies approaching, but now we have this little dog. He does all that for us. We can relax.” And I just love these stories because animals are or can be our partners. They can be our guides. They can be so much part of our lives to make our lives better.
LEVITT: I went to Argentina for my honeymoon, and we were in a very remote area by Mount Aconcagua, and it’s perhaps striking that the high point of this three-week honeymoon was we were off in the middle of nowhere in a little hut practically, but there was a group of dogs, about 10 of them, who lived with the landlord. And they would hang out around us. And I had been around dogs enough that somehow I managed to become the pack leader. And the dogs liked me and respected me. And so, as we would go for walks, just as you’re describing of the Ukraine search, these dogs would go ahead, they would search out for us — any threat, they would defend us. Now, that probably doesn’t compare at all to the time you spent when you were, in contrast to the pack leader, the lowest ranking number of a chimp society. Could you explain what it was like to actually find your way into the hierarchy?
GOODALL: Well, Steve, I didn’t. Right from the beginning, my goal was not to become part of their society, but to be an outsider looking in and getting to understand their society. Many, many people believed that I wanted to communicate with the chimps to be part of their group. I never wanted that. But to get to understand them, you need to be an observer from outside. An empathetic observer, but still an observer.
LEVITT: You’ve probably told your story more than almost anyone else on the planet has told their story. Do you get tired of hearing your story? Do you ever wish for something different?
GOODALL: Actually, no, because every time I tell the story, I’m telling it to a different audience. Every time I tell a story, I’m actually living it. And every time I live it, it takes me back to who I am, how I began, and what I want to do. And how lucky I have been that my story has led me to the place where I am today.
LEVITT: You’re an amazing communicator. Did it come to you easily? Were you the kind of person who could just go up in front of a crowd and be yourself? Or is this a learned skill?
GOODALL: When I was five years old, I was already telling stories. My mother wrote them down. I always knew, Africa, animals, books. No thought of being a scientist because girls weren’t back then. But writing books, I’ve always loved writing. I was a very shy child. I never stood up in school. I never talked. I was terrified of public speaking. And after I’d been with the chimps for a while, it so happens that first lecture was in Washington, D.C. for the Geographic with 5,000 people. That was my first lecture — 5,000 people. And I swear for the first five minutes I couldn’t breathe, although nobody noticed it. But getting ready for that talk, I practiced with my family, and I made two vows. One, I will never read a speech. Two, I will do my very best never to say “um” or “uh”. And I think if you listen to my talks today that maybe the odd “um” or “uh.” When I do my live talks, I always have notes, but just key points. I don’t look at them, but they’re like a security blanket. And after those five minutes of my first lecture, when I couldn’t breathe, I suddenly realized I’ve got this gift as well. This gift that was given to me isn’t just writing, it’s public speaking. And yes, I’ve worked at it. I’ve tried to make it better, but they were gifts. And when you have a gift, then you have to work at it and make it as good as you can, right?
LEVITT: One thing I find interesting about you, you talk about beliefs that are clearly not Christian, that sound much more Eastern, philosophy-wise. But there’s also, I think, this sense of a calling and a purpose, which to me feels like it comes out of a Christian background. Do you think about what you do in terms of religion at all? Or is that not part of how you view the world?
GOODALL: No, it is part of how I view the world. Going back to my amazing mother, she used to say to me, “You know, Jane, your grandfather is a congregational minister, so you’ve been brought up in a Christian household.” We weren’t particularly religious. We went to church sometimes. But she used to say to me, “If you’d been born in Egypt, you’d probably be Muslim, you’d worship Allah. You’re in a Christian household, so you worship God. You might have been in Jerusalem, and then you’d worship Jehovah.” And the great spiritual power I felt very close to when I was out in the rainforest in Tanzania. And what’s interesting is that every single major religion, every one, that includes Jains and Tao and all the rest of it, they all have the same golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. And just imagine if the whole world included not only religions, but peoples and nature. Do to others, do to them, as you would have them do to you. What an amazing world it would be. Although I can’t say I’m particularly Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or anything else, I just have this very, very strong feeling that there is a great spiritual power, which I can’t prove and I don’t want to, but it’s a power that gives me strength to cope with the difficult times in life.
I’ve always myself been a bit of a dilettante, content to move from one small problem to another. Perhaps that’s why I feel such awe and admiration for people like Jane Goodall, who have the drive and the patience to devote their lives to a few huge, difficult problems. I’ve only met a few people like that, and one thing they all have in common is that they exude a sort of peace, a saintliness. Could you feel that from Jane? I definitely could. I’d love to know, is it the saintliness that leads to the devotion or does the devotion produce the saintliness? I suspect the devotion comes first, which makes me wish I had a little more devotion, but I don’t. And devotion is one thing you definitely cannot fake. And now, our listener question.
LEVEY: Hey Steve.
LEVITT: Hey Morgan, how are you?
LEVEY: Good thanks. How are you?
LEVITT: I’m doing great.
LEVEY: So, a few weeks ago at the end of our episode with former public health officer Charity Dean, you advertised that RISC, your center at the University of Chicago, is hiring. How’s that hiring process going?
LEVITT: Well, it’s going great. We actually got 230 applications and the thing that I was most impressed by is that we got 23 applications from people who said they only heard about the job from our PIMA episode.
LEVITT: Yeah, really. I didn’t know anybody actually listened to the end of our episodes. We had buried that little blurb right at the end. I thought we might get two or three, but I didn’t think it would get 23. And the other thing is, it wasn’t easy to apply to this job. Because the usual way that recruiting goes is you ask people for resumes, you do a first round of screening and interviews, and then you often put people through a difficult task, a project they have to do to demonstrate whether they’re good at the particular job you have in mind. But we actually reversed the process this time. We required — of anyone who wanted to apply — that they do a really rigorous project up front before they had any idea whether we would even consider their application. And this project, if you wanted to do it well, I would guess someone would have to spend three, maybe four hours on doing it. So, we put a lot of people through a lot of work to figure out whether they’d have a chance to get this job.
LEVEY: Wait, so let me get this straight. You guys didn’t look at resumes at all, but instead just sent everybody a project, a test to do. And then just let the work speak for itself as the first impression of that applicant?
LEVITT: That’s exactly right.
LEVEY: Wow, that’s quite a time investment, especially if you have no idea if you’re even the right kind of candidate for this position. And you know what’s interesting is that we didn’t even receive a single PIMA email about this job. And usually, we use that as a really good indication — besides the number of downloads of an episode, we use our emails as a good indication of how engaged or interested people are in an episode. But maybe that’s a faulty way to be reviewing engagement levels because no one wrote in, and you got 23 PIMA people applying to this job.
LEVITT: That’s a good point. So, to be honest, I only really blurbed it on the podcast because my team asked me to do it. I didn’t really think we’d get any interest at all from the PIMA listeners, and I also wasn’t really sure that if we did get applications from PIMA, they’d be really high quality.
LEVEY: Well, were they high quality? Did any of the PIMA listeners make it to the interview round?
LEVITT: God, that is the best thing of all. Our usual recruiting, we blanket the elite schools, the Ivy Leagues — we go after really good people. But it turns out that our PIMA listeners, the 23 listeners who applied for the job — 35 percent of them made it to the interview round. The rest of our pool — so, this is the typical people that we take from the most elite universities in the country — they only had a 20-percent callback rate. So, the PIMA listeners were almost twice as likely to move on as the undergraduates from the most elite universities in the world. I had not expected that. And it was done totally blind. Just to make this clear, this was all done totally blind. We didn’t look at resumes. You could be an eight-year-old and if you did that project well, we would bring you back. So, it really was based on merit, and it turned out that the PIMA listeners were just better than the rest of the pool.
LEVEY: Wow. I’m so proud of our PIMA listeners right now. I mean, we do know that they are smarter than the average human, because obviously they listen to PIMA, but that’s fantastic. Go PIMA listeners!
LEVITT: So, we’ll see what happens next. We have 49 people who are now competing for roughly six jobs. And who knows, maybe it will be a clean sweep — a PIMA clean sweep. Now I have to be careful because I do have the final say so I don’t want to come off as biased in favor of the PIMA listeners, but let me be honest, I am.
LEVEY: Do you think this will change how you hire moving forward?
LEVITT: I do. You know, I just delegated the hiring job to my team, and when they explained to me that they had whittled down the pool to 49, I said, “What was the relative weight you used on resumes versus the projects?” And they said, “Oh, we did it completely blind. We didn’t even look at resumes.” And I practically fell off my chair. I mean, I never would’ve done that.
LEVEY: Is there anything else that’s been an interesting observation from this process?
LEVITT: There is one other fact that I found really interesting and that is that 34 out of 49 — so almost 70 percent of the people who are being interviewed — are women. And that’s a much higher share than we’ve ever had in the past. We’ve always been about 50-50 in the past between men and women, and it’s interesting that when we made it blind women performed so well. That for me is a really interesting eye opener.
LEVEY: That’s great. If you have a question for us or a comment, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I really do read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.
In two weeks we’ll be back with John Green. He’s the author of The Fault in Our Stars, and a YouTube sensation.
GREEN: I was just distraught. I was like, I can’t believe I wasted a year of my life. There was nothing. There was nothing that could be saved. Except there was this one sentence. “It was kind of a beautiful day.” And I was like, this is all such crap. Like, I’ve written 40,000 words of utter crap, but this sentence, “It was kind of a beautiful day” — there’s something a little lovely about it. And I remember highlighting like those six words and putting them in a new Word document and that became The Fault in Our Stars.
LEVITT: So, a year for one sentence? Yeah. It’s at the end of — almost near the end of the book, right?
GREEN: Yeah. By the way, I still like that sentence. Lik,e I think “It was kind of a beautiful day,” is a heck of a good sentence.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Alina Kulman, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
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GOODALL: I met, the other day, a sound technician. He said, “Oh, when these singers come in, they all want a sip of whiskey.” It relaxes your vocal cords.
LEVITT: So, that’s what you’ve been drinking the whole time, huh?
GOODALL: It’s the only thing that works.
- Dr. Jane Goodall, GBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace.
- The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, by Jane Goodall, Douglas Abrams, and Gail Hudson (2021).
- Jane, by Brett Morgen (2017).
- “Remembering My Mentor: Robert Hinde,” by Jane Goodall (2017).
- The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery (2015).
- Dr. Spock On Parenting: Sensible, Reassuring Advice for Today’s Parent, by by Benjamin Spock, M.D. (2001).
- The Mentality of Apes, by Wolfgang Kohler (1976).
- “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” (1965).