Film review: Jane (+commentary on objectivity)

I finally got around to seeing Jane, a documentary film about the great Jane Goodall using film made by her first husband back in the day and more recent interviews with her about her life and work. What a dedicated lady and what a life! This film leaves out her second marriage once she divorced her first husband and also does not cover any of the scientific controversies her methods instigated.  Both of these omissions are probably just as well.

Her first husband was Hugo van Lawick whom National Geographic sent to film her earliest work; they were something of soulmates in cherishing Africa, its animals and landscapes.  They married and eventually had one son.  Hugo’s film project lost funding so he had to find other work and Jane supported him in that as much as she could, given her deep commitment to her own research. They filmed extensively in the Serengeti and Hugo became one of the world’s most renowned wildlife video- and photo-graphers.  Eventually their work pulled them apart and they divorced.  She then married Derek Bryceson, who worked to protect her Gombe project from tourism and other encroachments through his positions in the Tanzanian government.  He died of cancer 5 years later.

Jane Goodall was sent out by Louis Leakey to study chimpanzees in the wild, something that had not been done before.  She had no formal education, training or experience in this area, but she had always loved animals and especially animals in Africa, so off she went to the Gombe forest on a shoestring operation.  The chimps there were naturally wary of her and she was worried she would not be able to gather enough data to justify her project’s continuance, but she did by being a keen and very patient, quiet observer, eventually identifying a dominant male who was confident enough of his prowess not to run away from her.

This contact started a 50 year project following this group with whom she became quite engaged as they became ever more comfortable with her and other humans, even visiting their camp and stealing food and clothes, etc.  Now this is where some scientific controversy started that the film does not really address and that I think is an academic dispute that borders quibbling in this specific instance, thought the issues here are important.  The main issue is how to be objective or what objectivity means here and how does a researcher protect their stance as an observer and not a participant.  One complaint is that Dr. Goodall named her subjects rather than assigning numbers—not that much of a problem I should think.  Goodall and company successfully gained enough trust with the apes that they would come into camp and steal clothes and food and destroy things.  The apes also fought amongst themselves for goods. Goodall’s solution was to set up feeding stations outside the camp and so redirect their energy there.

Other scientists later criticized this move, saying that this affected how the chimps foraged and that this then affected social behaviors.  And indeed, some years later, the film shows how the ‘tribe’ split into two factions and eventually one group killed the others over resources. I guess the critics say this kind of lethal warfare is not usually seen in the wild and that the humans’ interventions contributed to this.  Maybe. I have seen other documentaries done less intrusively where intergroup violence was quite pronounced, so maybe not. And while I am sure that the chimps’ foraging practices were affected, I wonder how much.  Feeding birds at a feeder only adds another stop in the daily foraging routine. I would think that the chimps’ were adapted and engaged with their ecological niche to such an extent that they continued to exploit the natural resources thereabouts.

This is actually, I guess, a complex issue.  I have in my head the saying that the act of measuring changes what is measured. This is true in quantum physics where you can measure the velocity or position but not both.  In my clinical psychology practice, I understood that my assessment and initial interactions with my patient were part of the patient’s experience and so they might very well respond differently to other assays and situations (that’s life, as Frank sang it.)  I put great stock in the fact that Jane Goodall was a pioneer and her findings have helped shape further research and advocacy.  She had no model to follow so she made up her own based upon her curiosity and love of the animals.  She was, perhaps, less of an ethologist and more of an anthropologist, who also struggle with their own effect on their subjects but still engage with them, necessarily so, sometimes living with them and certainly forming relationships.  And all the while she took meticulous notes and gathered objective data.   Dr. Goodall followed this group through several generations for over 50 years; some of her knowledge was gained through a precious intimacy and that I think is oh so very important.

Yes, others who came later took precautions to minimize their impact but read about Washoe and Kiki and scientists’ like Frans de Waal research and you will see that they understand how closely related we and chimpanzees are. When the Gombe chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic, Goodall’s team did what they could to mitigate its effects even as they watched and mourned the deaths of those too debilitated by the disease to survive in the wild.  And they changed their protocol to curb any physical contact so that they would not spread any more contagion.

This reminds me of the related issue of journalists’ objectivity that crops up once in a great while (and maybe should be discussed more openly besides). Consider a journalist covering a war where the people they are engaged with are killed or injured or they are covering people suffering from famine or drought.  Do they do nothing except witness and report?  No calls to medics, no offering bottles of water or a sandwich? Like a psychologist they must maintain the mental boundaries needed for objective work and avoid the ‘entanglements’ of a personal and no longer a professional relationship, but this is not a black and white issue and certainly not one where such distinctions are absolute. To constrain one’s humanity in the effort to strike an objective pose seems altogether pretentious, and in some cases, immoral.

Jane Goodall entangled herself with the Gombe chimps and her research has produced important findings and led to advocacy and inspiration to protect and cherish these fellow creatures.  She documented chimpanzee tool use in the wild, and of course many (mostly male?) disbelieved her at first—good thing a videographer came along for the ride.  The early footage of Dr. Goodall (and her mother who came along for a while to help manage the many tasks) is precious.  It evidently went missing for a while and was only recently found, so this documentary could then be made.  And the interviews with Dr. Goodall show clearly what a wonderful, spirited human she is.  We are lucky to have her on our side and fortunate to watch this film.  Travel on.


Jane? I miss her. She is my friend.


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