I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
In 1960, paleontologist Louis Leakey did something remarkable: He hired a 26-year-old secretary, untrained in the sciences and without a university degree in any field at all, to go into the wilds of Tanzania and study chimps. Jane Goodall is now, at age 83, one of the most renowned figures in primatology, and arguably one of the most famous scientists living today (maybe to ever have lived), one of those rare superstars of science whose work has captured the imagination of the general public. But at the time, she knew nothing about wild chimps. The thing is, though: no one else did either. No one else had ever done what Leakey trusted her to do, to simply observe them in their natural habitat over long stretches of time in order to learn about their lives and their culture. Goodall had nothing but her spirit of adventure, a love of animals, an open mind, and “monumental patience.” That would turn out to be more than enough for her to bust some paradigms and radically shake up our understanding of our close cousins and, hence, of ourselves.
In the beautiful Jane, documentarian Brett Morgen combines his new conversation with Goodall with astonishing vintage footage to craft a portrait of a woman and her work that is simple and straightforward yet profound in everything that it says about the blinders our culture places on itself when looking at the world around us. Goodall didn’t let low-to-nonexistent professional expectations for girls and women (which haven’t much changed today) stop her; she praises her mother, a remarkable woman herself, for not placing limitations on her. Goodall didn’t let gushing early media coverage, which focused as much as her blonde good looks as on her work — as we see here with wry yet disgusted amusement — distract her. When she did let herself get a little bit distracted, like by falling in love with wildlife photographer and filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, she raised their child in the jungle, among the chimps, and let her own experience as a mother inform her observations of chimp mothers. She didn’t pretend to some false sense of objectivity in her work: she embraced her humanity, her perceptions not just as a human being but as a woman and as a mother, as essential to her understanding as a scientist.
Goodall’s work has been criticized for not being detached enough, and for her anthropomorphism of her research subjects; she gave them names, for instance, rather than numbers, which was the accepted protocol, supposedly to prevent any emotional attachment. (I would suggest that if you are unable to form an emotional attachment with an animal merely because it has a number instead of a name, there is something not quite right with you.) Jane is not a “balanced” examination of her work, and there’s no discussion of that here. But to look at the 1960s footage that makes up the bulk of Jane — shot by van Lawick for National Geographic and believed lost until it was rediscovered in 2014 — is to meet animals who obviously have their own personalities, whose babies engage in similar adorable antics as human babies do, who have relationships with one another that are deep and genuine. To deny that would surely do the science a disservice.
Our culture has so few role models for girls aspiring not only to do science but to do their own oddball thing, no matter what that might be. Goodall is such a figure, and Jane should be seen by everybody as a reminder of what can be achieved when you don’t give a damn what other people think, but especially by girls and boys as a shining example of independence of thought and spirit. Everything Goodall says here is a quotable snippet of wisdom about feminism and nonconformity. (“Fortunately I had not been to university” made me laugh out loud.) Goodall as today’s sage gray elder has become iconic, as well she should be. But we should grab hold of the imagery of her here as an intrepid young woman tramping through the jungle in khakis and Converse, armed with nothing but a notebook, as inspirational, too.