(I wrote this for one of my Communicating Science classes through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook and really liked the assignment (and really love the center!). My professor told us, "Take some time to really think about what it is that you love about science. It doesn’t have to be what you’re doing right now. What is the driving force that got you here? Find an image that depicts or speaks to your relationship with science." Then we were to write one of the following to accompany this image: 1) a college graduation speech, 2) a letter to your great, great, great grandchild, to be written after you're gone, or 3) a final message to humanity to be printed in a publication of your choosing upon your death.
No pressure, right? I think it'd be fun for you to think of your own example, science-related or not! Here's mine below. I know loving Jane Goodall can be a bit of a cliché among primatologists, but I am proud to have received inspiration from her and what she stands for. Now, asking my 'great-great-great-grandchildren' to learn from her as well:
My dearest great-great-great-grandchildren,
I was the kind of child who absolutely always needed a book in my hand (back when books were physical printed objects!). Our house growing up was from the 1940s if you can imagine back then, so old that the shower took ages to warm up. I had to have something to read during those long ten-minute waits and remember, on several occasions, bringing a cereal box with me into the bathroom so I could read through it when I’d gone through everything else, even down to the lists of indecipherable chemical compounds included in Trix, Kix, or Reese’s Puffs. I loved reading that much. (I like imagining that’s something we share.) But I want to tell you about one book—or rather, the woman who wrote it, the pictures I saw in it—that truly changed my life forever.
Through a Window, the second book written by the estimable Dr. Jane Goodall and the first of hers I read all the way back when I was 12 years old, was that book. The picture above, of Jane and a young chimpanzee reaching out to connect, was the most impactful picture. I’d always loved animals too, so this book wasn’t introducing me to that passion. When I wasn’t reading, I was likely toad hunting outside, bringing in temporary new—and unenthusiastic—family members to stay in my ‘critter keeper’ for a few days and a few cricket dinners before I let them out into my backyard. I loved reading fact sheets about my favorite animals too, cheetahs and wolves, and an endless list of others: octopus, parrots, meerkats, camels...I hope you are still familiar with these incredible animals. I loved learning all I could about them and watching what they did at the zoo or on tv. What Through a Window articulated to me though was how complex and substantial chimpanzees’ (and, by extension, all animals’) lives were, how beautiful, and familiar, their minds. Jane wrote about the celebrated mother Flo and all her F-named children, each of whom she shared a mother-child relationship with as comforting and lasting as my own. She talked about Flo’s life with her grandchildren. She talked about wars between neighboring groups and told a story of a captive chimpanzee she’d met that knew ASL, who signed casually about the color of a woman’s dress (‘blue’) in an ad as she flipped through a magazine. What Jane Goodall is perhaps most known for, or at least what skyrocketed her career, was discovering that chimpanzees can make and use tools. She watched as they stuck long, skinny branches, their fabricated ‘fishing sticks,’ into termite mounds and waited until they could pull them out covered with a swarm of tasty treats. Sharing her observations, she was shut down and belittled by the scientific community, who ridiculed her for naming her ‘subjects’ and for endowing them with the ability to feel and express emotion. Her mentor, Dr. Louis Leakey, however, dashed off the following, now-celebrated telegram as soon as he’d received her missive from the field about what she’d seen: “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Before Jane dared think that animals could be compared to us, most scientists saw them almost as robots, ironically, and not living, thinking beings. “Tools” were exclusively used by humans (by man) and couldn’t possibly be used by other creatures. Now we know that octopus, sea otters, elephants, perhaps even crocodiles, among many other skilled species, make and use tools. Jane Goodall showed us that we did need to redefine man, as well as our place in the world we shared with others.
My hope for you is that you are both humbled and energized by the idea of what it means to ‘be a human.’ For me, humans are not ‘the most supreme beings of the universe;’ we are just good at being human. Mosquitoes, annoying as they are, are the best at being mosquitoes; we’d be terrible filling in for their job. We do ourselves a disservice to think we are ‘better than’ when we could be connecting with all those around us. In pursuing my career, I’ve tried, I’m trying, to see for myself life ‘through the window’ of animals’ eyes. I hope, by valuing animals and by learning about how their lives impact and are impacted by humans, I can inch the walls of the chasm between Man and Beast just a little bit closer together. Jane Goodall became a relentless advocate for animal rights and youth empowerment by letting young people know that they are powerful and that animals are not something to subjugate but to honor, to learn from, and to help. I hope you think about all the non-humans around you when you define yourself as ‘man.’ And I hope most of all that as you grow, you think of your own ways to ‘redefine human,’ for your own sense of self and perhaps even for us all.
To you, my future, fondly from your past,
Leave a Reply.