In my childhood, I enjoyed National Geographic specials about a slight English woman who would sit in the Tanzanian forest by the Gombe River and observe chimpanzees. In college I read one of her books, Through a Window: My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe and became even more deeply enamored with the woman and her works. When Jane Goodall received an honorary degree from the College of William & Mary on Charter Day in 1993, my roommate Hal joked that they would need security to keep me from swooping in from the rafters and abducting her. Thus it was natural for me to read the comprehensive biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (2006) by Dale Peterson.
Peterson relies on a wealth of source material including interviews with Goodall, her family, colleagues and researchers; a huge volume of Goodall’s correspondence; and Goodall’s voluminous notes and published writings. From early childhood, Jane Goodall seemed to be fated to her future work by observing farm animals, starting science clubs with her friends, and studying the behavior of her many family pets. At times, the detail of Goodall’s childhood seems a bit too much. I swear there’s an entire chapter that just lists the names of young men who fancied the teenage Jane.
The strength of this biography is the portion of Jane’s life from the late-1950′s to the mid-1970′s. Starting with her affiliation with Louis Leakey anthropological & archaeological works in Africa, Jane set off on a new bold path with her quiet observation of the chimpanzees of Gombe, recognizing the chimps as individuals, and building up a detailed record of behavior over time. Her methods were considered unscientific by some, yet at the same time she recieved pressure from her sponsors at National Geographic to make her writing less scientific (National Geographic doesn’t come off well in this book due to a often tempestuous relationship with Goodall and the Gombe Stream reserve.) Goodall’s family life is fascinating as well, including her mother Vanne and sister Judy who both accompanied Jane to Gombe at times, her two husbands – photographer Hugo and Tanzanian politician Derek, and son Grub who grew up at the research station. Most of the biography is related in a strict chronological manner although there are some artistic details such as a chapter where the regime changes among Gombe’s alpha male chimpanzees are intertwined with the changes of administration from National Geographic support to a more independent Jane Goodall Institute.
For the excess of detail in the early part of the book, the last portion of the book from the mid-1970′s to the present feels rushed. The death of Goodall’s second husband seems to be just a few paragraphs tacked onto a chapter about Idi Amin’s invasion of Tanzania and inexplicably long passages about the family dogs. Thirty years of Goodall’s life – during a period when she became a traveling activist for both wild and captive chimpanzees – seems to be nothing more than a list of awards, appearances, and accomplishments. I like this book because I love Jane Goodall for her remarkable accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and educator, but Peterson’s writing can be plodding and uneven at times. I’ve added Goodall’s own book Reason For Hope; A Spiritual Journey to my reading list for 2009 to learn even more.
In the meantime, check out The Jane Goodall Institute website for lots of neat resources.
Jane Goodall : the woman who redefined man by Dale Peterson.
Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.