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Out on a Limb With Passion and Grace : THROUGH A WINDOW; My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe By Jane Goodall (Houghton Mifflin: $21.95; 222 pp.)

November 04, 1990|Bettyann Kevles | Kevles regularly reviews science books for View. and

It is hard to remember a time when the chimpanzees, Flo, Fifi and Flint, were not a part of the world of animal lovers, but at the same time, it is odd to realize that Jane Goodall, the slip of a girl who ventured into the forest at Gombe in Tanzania in 1960 to meet them, now is a widow and the mother of a grown son.

National Geographic specials have frozen in our minds the momentous news from Gombe, now a nature reserve, that she had observed chimpanzees making tools to dig for termites and later, that they live in complex matrilineal families. Goodall had fleshed out and updated these films with two earlier books, "In the Shadow of Man" in 1971 and, in 1986, "The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior," a beautifully illustrated scholarly masterpiece.

There are fewer photographs in "Through a Mirror: My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe," but Goodall presents vivid descriptions of the park today. It is a fragile wilderness island of rugged hillsides where chimps nest in trees and lakeside beaches, and where baboon troops gather, hemmed in by newly cultivated farmland.

As a chronicler, Goodall is impressionistic about people--even her son is mentioned only cursorily--with the exception of her late husband, Derek Bryceson, a member of Tanzania's parliament and director of its wildlife parks. She is at her best describing the antics of her beloved chimpanzees.

She is most emphatically not writing for scientists. Despite being one of them, Goodall is reluctant to identify with much of the world of science. She dedicates "Through a Window," in part, "to the chimpanzees of the world, those still living free in the wild and those held captive and enslaved by humans." Having gotten to know the wild chimpanzees at Gombe so well, she has become the advocate for all chimpanzees, everywhere: those in the wild whose habitats need protection, and those held in zoos, circuses and laboratories. Understandably, she is outraged at their collective fate.

Unlike Dian Fossey, another of the "ape girls" whom paleontologist Louis Leakey sent into the wild in the 1960s to confirm his suspicions that ape behavior could help explain the evolution of early humans, Goodall has been able to keep herself firmly in the human world while lobbying for improved conditions for animals. She reports on the decapitation of an infant chimpanzee, Getty, a favored enchanting youngster, with outrage and sadness but without a lust for revenge.

Goodall always has played by the rules, using Leakey as a model. Leakey, a white man born in black Africa, grew up bilingual in English and Kikuyu. As a student at Oxford, in order to pass a language examination he had to teach one of his teachers Kikuyu in order to be tested so he could get his degree. But he returned to Africa as a credentialed paleontologist.

Leakey understood that Goodall also would need credentials, so he arranged for her to study at Cambridge with Robert Hinde. At Cambridge, Goodall did not change the rules, but she chafed at them. In seminars, she was criticized for giving the chimps names instead of numbers, for referring to them by personal pronouns instead of the objective it . She was accused of "anthropomorphism"--reading human feelings and motives into animal behavior.

Although still anathema in some western scientific circles (primatologists in Japan never have attempted to excise the viewer from the viewed), distinguished young scholars such as Frans de Waal, winner of the 1989 Los Angeles Times Book Award for "Peacemaking Among Primates," have learned from Goodall and reject the value of such unrealistic objectivity.

Goodall assumes that there is an evolutionary connection emotionally and psychologically as well as physically between chimpanzees and human beings. As she describes individual chimpanzee lives and personalities, she highlights behaviors which, in some form, she feels, we humans have continued. She ponders the influence of nature over nurture as she traces the mothering behavior of Flo and Passion with their daughters and granddaughters, the good mother versus the bad mother.

She also believes she has observed the chimpanzees "on the threshold of another uniquely human behavior--war." After describing the separation of the Gombe chimps into two opposing groups, she concludes that war "may have put considerable selective pressure on the development of intelligence and increasingly sophisticated cooperation."

Writing directly to the audience she meets on her lecture tours, Goodall has tossed off her mantle of scientist as if to declare, "Let Jane be Jane." So here she is, replete with some contradictions (no animals in medical research. Well, a few--her mother did have a pig's valve implanted in her heart) but at her best as a story teller describing the adventures of the political world of the wild chimpanzees.

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