Rossdavidh's Reviews > The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior

The Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall
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it was amazing
bookshelves: green, oversized

I have realized that the reason I have been putting off writing this review, is that I am a bit intimidated by it. The reason is, that Jane Goodall is a person for whom I have a very high esteem, and the idea of trying to sum up what I think of her book is putting me on edge, like I need to be on my "A" game. Doubtless, I am not, but it is time to write it anyway.

Jane Goodall was advised by Louis Leakey to study chimpanzees, because they were the animal species most closely related to humans (bonobos at the time were basically unknown). She made it her life's work, and most especially the chimpanzees at Gombe, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. In this mighty tome, copyright 1986, she sets out a thorough examination of how they behaved, when in the presence of her or any of the others helping her observe them. There is also, at the beginning, a short history of humans' attempts to understand chimpanzees, primarily in the lab.

Leakey's reason for recommending the study of chimpanzees was probably that we might learn something about early human behavior, by looking at the behavior of our closest relatives and seeing what if anything we had in common now. If you see a behavior in both modern humans and modern chimpanzees, it is plausible to say that our last common ancestors also had that behavior. So, what do we find?

- strong attachment between mother and child, that lasts into adulthood
- the forming of alliances between related or even unrelated individuals, to intimidate lone rivals
- the ability to avoid looking at what is most interesting, in order not to bring a rival's attention to it
- some individuals are more aggressive, and some less so, even when of the same age, size, and sex
- some individuals (both male and female) are more interested in one-on-one "consortships" away from the group when the female is in estrus, and other individuals are more prone to stay in the group and have multiple partners
- some females are prone to go to a nearby group when in estrus, to find a mate from another group of chimpanzees, but other females do not do this, and mate with a male from the same group
- differences between individuals in diet, as for example how much meat or fruit
- commonly seen behavior resembling "begging" in which an individual asks another for food, especially of a rarer or more highly prized sort such as meat or sweet fruit
- groups that can split in two, eventually leading to lethal violence between the two groups until all the males of one group are eliminated
- when a mother died (e.g. from disease) with offspring who were not yet old enough to make their way as adults, others in the group would take special attention to care for them; sometimes these were grown siblings, but sometimes not.

The principal things I came away from this book with were:
1) chimpanzee behavior looks a lot like human behavior
2) ...in junior high, when there were no adults present
3) ...but worse

Any book about animal behavior is going to need to talk about sex and violence. When the animal in question is butterflies, however, or sharks, or rats, or crows, it is interesting but has less of an emotional impact. I found that reading about chimpanzee drama was simultaneously more intriguing, and at times more disturbing, because it is so patently obvious that they are a lot like us (although also different in important ways). There were bullies, and also the kind who were shy and liked puzzles (like how to get more termites out of a termite colony, by "fishing" for them with a stick chosen for the purpose). There were low ranking and high ranking females, and the former taught their offspring to defer to the latter's. There were clever ones like Mike, who learned that empty petrol cans could be used to create a great noise when charging, and when these were taken away by the humans he found other noisemakers to enhance his stature. There were patient ones like David Graybeard. There was Passion, who was a sort of Elizabeth Bathory for her species, teaming up with her adolescent daughter Pom to attack mothers when they were not around other adults, in order to overpower the mother, and kill and eat their infants.

That, more than anything, brought home the importance of the major difference between chimpanzees and us, which is language. The mothers, unable to defend their infants when outnumbered 2 to 1, could not tell anyone later what had happened, or warn any other mother with a young infant. When they happened to be nearby enough to hear the sounds of fighting, the males would put a stop to it, but most often the mother chimpanzees of Gombe would wander off with their family, still within the group's territory but not close enough to others to be heard. In a human society, even a primitive one, behavior like that of Passion and her daughter Pom would have seen them, at a minimum, driven from the community, and more likely killed. Among chimpanzees, there was no way for them to be accused of their "crimes", and they persisted at it for years.

Equally haunting was the story of how, when they became numerous enough, the group of chimpanzees which Goodall was following split into two. What followed was a year-long campaign of violence, directed at males primarily (but not exclusively), in which one group's males would move as a pack, silently and in the direction of the other group's territory, until they had one by one caught the rival group's males alone and either killed them or fatally wounded them. Again, with no language to communicate, the group under attack had no method of organizing themselves for protection, or asking each other where a missing group member had gone to. We owe a lot to language, and it is not only books. Old tales of the Big Bad Wolf were not just for (and perhaps not even primarily for) entertainment; the old fairy tales were probably horrible because they were meant to tell the listeners that Bad Things Can Happen.

Goodall is clearly fascinated by the chimpanzees she has studied for so long, and it is to her credit that she is willing to give us an unvarnished picture of their behavior. For every act of horrible violence, of course, there are many in which even the gruffest and most domineering of alpha males puts up patiently with the many daily annoyances of having young ones underfoot (significantly, not only the ones he is father to, if he even has any notion of which ones those are). Chimpanzees care for one another when sick or old, visibly grieve for days when their fellow group members die, tickle each other and otherwise play, and otherwise behave in a hundred other ways that are endearing. Adult males who are domineering to all other females, rush to defend their mothers if they are in need. It would not have been hard for her to leave out the aspects of their behavior that were most likely to dismay the 1st World readers who have less experience of life's harder edges. It is to her credit as a scientist that she leaves those hard edges in her book.

Goodall relates that when she began, it was controversial for her to use names, rather than numbers, to refer to the individual chimpanzees. Similarly, her use of words like "excited", "sad", "angry", or "frustrated" to describe their behavior was considered by some to be too much like anthropomorphizing them. She made the (I think correct) decision that it was more informative to record that "Mike used petrol cans to frighten the other males with loud noise, and acted frustrated when we secured them so he could not get to them", than "chimpanzee #347 frequently threw empty petrol cans in front when moving at high speed in the presence of other males, and when these were made unavailable showed high intensity physical behavior that was not obviously goal-directed". We don't learn more from the non-anthropomorphizing language, rather we can easily miss the point, which is that at least some chimps can make plans on how to influence others by using a physical object, which implies both Theory of Mind and tool use.

In the end, the book demonstrates that Leakey was quite correct in thinking that it might help us learn about ourselves, to study closely our closest relatives. The aspect of the book which had the biggest impact on me was how different in personality the various chimpanzees were from one another, and how rich and complex their social lives were. All the emotional and social pieces of a good story are present in a group of chimpanzees, except for the language to tell that story with. It is to our great advantage that Goodall and others are able to provide it.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 20, 2018 – Shelved
October 20, 2018 – Shelved as: green
October 27, 2018 – Shelved as: oversized

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