Thursday, December 8, 2011

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, by Jane Goodall

There's no doubt in my mind that understanding human behavior is easier if you look at other primates too.

Jane Goodall looks back Through a Window to tell us what she learned studying chimpanzees for thirty years. Her earlier book, In the Shadow of Man, was good, but this one's importance is hard to overstate. It's not easy choosing what to quote, but here goes:

Often I have gazed into a chimpanzee's eyes and wondered what was going on behind them... I shall never forget my meeting with Lucy, an eight-year-old home-raised chimpanzee... Lucy, having grown up as a human child, was like a changeling... I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic. She took the drink to the TV, turned the set on, flipped from one channel to another then, as though in disgust, turned it off again. She selected a glossy magazine from the table and, still carrying her drink, settled in a comfortable chair. Occasionally, as she leafed through the magazine she identified something she saw, using... American Sign Language...

Chimpanzees can plan ahead... at Gombe, during the termiting season: often an individual prepares a tool for use on a termite mound that is several hundred yards away and absolutely out of sight.

...chimpanzees possess pre-mathematical skills: they can ... differentiate between more and less. They can classify things into specific categories... separating a pile of food into fruits and vegetables on one occasion,
and, on another, dividing the same pile into large versus small items, even though this requires putting some vegetables with some fruits.Chimpanzees who have been taught a language can combine signs creatively in order to describe objects for which they have no symbol. Washoe, for example, puzzled her caretakers by asking, repeatedly, for a rock berry. Eventually it transpired that she was referring to Brazil nuts which she had encountered for the first time a while before. Another language-trained chimp described a cucumber as a green banana, and another referred to an Alka-Seltzer as a listen drink. They can even invent signs. Lucy, as she got older, had to be put on a leash for her outings. One day, eager to set off but having no sign for leash, she signalled her wishes by holding a crooked index finger to the ring on her collar. This sign became part of her vocabulary... Some chimpanzees love to draw, and especially to paint. Those who have learned sign language sometimes spontaneously label their works, 'This [is] apple' - or bird, or sweetcorn, or whatever.

Ms. Goodall tells about chimpanzee families over the thirty years of her study, so we get to watch them as they grow up and assume different roles throughout their lives. There are human parallels that are immediately recognizable. There are wonderful photographs. I can't praise this book enough!

I assumed this book would be shelved in our library with the other chimp books, but I was wrong. Someone cataloged it as (auto)biography (It does tell some of the story of her life.). So if you don't find it on your library shelves with the chimpanzee books, check the biography section, under "Goodall."

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