Jane Goodall on chimpanzee families
In her decades spent studying chimpanzees, primatologist Jane Goodall has witnessed chimps behaving in ways that many of us might describe as almost human – expressing distinct personalities, waging war on one another, even “adopting” orphans into families. She recently spoke with beijingkids about what human children have in common with young chimpanzees and what bad mothering looks like in the animal world.
Goodall, who founded the Roots and Shoots program in Beijing for kids with an interest in the environment, will attend the Conservation Dinner at the Traders Upper East Hotel on December 5 and deliver a public lecture, “Hope for Nature,” at Peking University Hall on December 6.
What could we learn from chimpanzee society about raising offspring and communal living?
Both humans and chimpanzees are capable of forming close affectionate bonds with each other. Both can show care and compassion for each other, as well as true altruism. Chimpanzees have been observed “adopting” and caring for orphans whose mothers have died. A chimpanzee will often announce, with delighted calls, when a new food source is discovered, so that the other members of the community can share this resource.
What are some of the more surprising similarities between the development of children and chimpanzees?
Both young humans and young chimpanzees stay with their mothers and siblings until they become adolescents (about 9 years old for chimpanzees), during which time strong bonds develop between mother and offspring, and brothers and sisters. During their childhood, young chimpanzees learn by observing their mothers and older siblings. They learn many things about acceptable behavior in chimp society – how to care for babies by observing how the mother looks after new infants, and practicing that caring behavior when the mother permits this. The youngster learns by observing what others do, and imitating their behavior – such as using and making tools. And they learn about dangers in the forest such as snakes or other animals. Another wonderful similarity is that mother chimps can be seen spending an extensive amount of time showing affection for, and playing with, their babies and young offspring.
Do chimps have any sense of filial or familial love? What kind of emotions do chimps feel, and how do they express them?
Chimps most definitely feel real affection – that we would call love – for family members. These bonds can persist through a life of 50 or 60 years. Chimpanzees have emotions that are clearly similar to – even the same as – those that we call happiness and sadness, fear and despair, anger and affection. Interestingly, they express emotion in similar ways to us. They hug and kiss each other to show affection, they laugh to express enjoyment, they can cry out in fear or frustration, and they can experience extended periods of depression when a family member dies or disappears.
You’ve acquired data about good mothers and bad mothers in the chimpanzee population. How would you describe these categories and how do their offspring differ after childhood?
I have most certainly observed good mothers and not-so-good mothers among the chimpanzees. Good mothers are protective, affectionate, playful and above all supportive – but also able to impose discipline. Their offspring are likely to grow up to be assertive, form relaxed relationships with other individuals and play an important role in the reproductive history of their community. Those whose mothers are more punitive and less supportive tend to grow up having tense relationships with other chimpanzees, and to be less successful reproductively. When the daughter of a not-so-good mother has her own infant, she herself is not likely to be a good mother.
And it seems very likely – according to more and more human child psychologists – that early experience, during the first two or three years, also plays a very important role in determining adult human behavior.
Photos: Courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute