Autumn books: the hero of Gombe

The next in the Nature Autumn books series is "Jane Goodall: the Woman who Redefined Man" by Dale Petersen, reviewed by Bill McGrew. From the review:

"But what of the subtitle’s claim, that she has redefined our species, Homo sapiens? This originates in the response of Louis Leakey, the flamboyant archaeologist and mentor of Goodall, to her unexpected finding that the apes not only used tools but also made them, as part of their extractive foraging. He stated, with characteristic panache, that now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans. This blurring of long-established boundaries was further advanced by Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees doing other human-like things, such as hunting, cannibalism, warfare, adoption and ritual-like displays.

The book is comprehensive, following Goodall from her childhood interest in animals through her somewhat chequered young adulthood as debutante and waitress. The breakthrough came with a self-financed trip to Kenya, where she met Leakey, who set her on the route to primatology, although she had no prior training nor higher education. Her aptitude showed quickly as she met chimpanzees on her first day in the field and discovered tool use and meat eating within the first few months. These successes led to her acceptance at the University of Cambridge, UK, to do a doctorate in ethology, despite not having a first degree. From that point onwards, she never looked back.

Peterson writes vividly. Descriptions of early days at Gombe, based on excerpts from Goodall’s field notes and letters home, come alive. Days in the forest or on the savanna capture the downs (ill health, frustrations with sparse resources) as well as the ups (discovery of totally new phenomena, fast friendships) of field work."

As before, if you do not have a subscription or site licence to Nature and would like to read the whole review, please drop me a line in the comments and I’ll let you know how.