Jane Goodall: an external contribution to psychology

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Jane Goodall (1934-)  is a British anthropologist and primatologist, best known for her 45-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania.

She began to study the Kasakela chimpanzee community in 1960. Goodall was able to observe what the strict scientific doctrines overlooked, having no collegiate training influencing her research. Instead of numbering the chimpanzees that she observed, she gave them personal names, and found that they had unique and individual personalities, unconventional as an idea at the time. She found that, “it isn’t only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought [and] emotions like joy and sorrow.” Similarly, she observed ‘human’ behaviours such as hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and tickling. Goodall insists that these gestures are evidence of “the close, supportive, affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community, which can persist throughout a life span of more than 50 years.” These results provide support for the idea that similarities between humans and chimpanzees have an influence greater than that of genetics, and it can be seen in emotion, intelligence, and family and social relationships.

Goodall’s research is best known to science for challenging two significant long-standing beliefs: that only humans could construct and use tools, and that chimpanzees were vegetarians. The chimps were observed to take twigs and strip off their leaves in order to make the twig more effective, a form of object modification which is the rudimentary beginnings of toolmaking. Humans had long distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom as “Man the Toolmaker”. In response to Goodall’s revolutionary findings, Louis Leakey wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!”

Goodall also noted much aggressive behaviour. She observed that dominant females deliberately killed the younger females of the troop  to maintain dominance, sometimes resorting to cannibalism.  She says of this revelation, “During the first ten years of the study I had believed […] that the Gombe chimpanzees were, for the most part, rather nicer than human beings. […] Then suddenly we found that chimpanzees could be brutal—that they, like us, had a darker side to their nature.” 

Evaluation of Goodall’s work:

Numbering was an almost universal practice in research at the time, and perceived as essential in the removal of one’s self from the potential emotional attachment to the subject being studied, leading to bias and artificial data. Despite this, Goodall named her subjects and is thus criticised for the  loss of objectivity. This has her accused of “that of the worst of ethological sins”.

Some recent studies such as those by  Sanz in the Congo and Boesch in the Tai National Park have not shown the aggression observed in Goodall’s Gombe studies. However, not all primatologists agree that the studies are flawed; Jim Moore provides a critique of Margaret Powers’ assertions and some studies of other chimpanzee groups have shown similar aggression to Gombe even in the absence of feeding.

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