Can There Be Another Jane Goodall?

So I have calmed down a bit after the excitement of getting to meet and talk with Jane Goodall.  It was a great experience and something I will probably remember for the rest of my life.  However, while discussing the encounter with my friend, she raised a disconcerting point: “There can never be another Jane Goodall.”  I’d be lying if I said I had never thought about that myself.  Specifically in the fields of biology and anthropology, can there ever been another adventurous, explorer to uncover some great mystery about life and our relationship to it?  Could there ever be another Darwin?  Another Leakey?  Another Goodall?  And if the answer is no; should someone who is in the process of dedicating his/her academic time to a related subject care?  This is no simple question.

Pillars of modern day evolutionary thought

Charles Darwin, Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall are all examples of individual scientists that have conducted pioneering field research and as a consequence have made incredible contributions to evolutionary science.  Darwin, through his observations aboard the H.M.S. Beagle co-discovered the mechanism by which the evolution of life occurs.  Louis Leakey, through his excavations in Olduvai Gorge uncovered the geographical origins and anatomical structure of our ancient ancestors.  Jane Goodall, through her field work at Gombe in Tanzania, introduced the world to our closest relatives.  Each scientist in their own way helped piece together the mystery of our origins and helped us to better understand where we came from as a species.

But are they part of an age of science that is now over?  Of course, evolutionary science is stronger than ever.  The work of Darwin is integral to all biological sciences, palaeoanthropologists are still conducting excavations and uncovering more and more about our evolutionary past and our closest relatives evolutionary past, and great ape field research is still an integral aspect of most anthropology and biology departments.  However, are the roles of individuals in these fields to simply fill in the gaps?  Can there be more pioneers?  Any more daring Beagle voyages to uncover the mysteries of life?  Any more brave treks into the jungles of Africa to gaze upon a forgotten past?

A matter of perspective

For my friend it was disheartening to think that there cannot be “another Goodall”.  It was a reason to find the field of primatology less attractive, less interesting, and perhaps less deserving of young, intelligent researchers.  A part of me understands that point of view.  And as an aspiring primatologist I have to agree with her that there cannot be “another Goodall.”  I know that unless I randomly happen to stumble upon a group of yet-to-be-discovered apes in the heart of Africa (very improbable) my research will not be pioneering anything in the same way as her research was.  However, that does not leave me less excited, and I certainly do not think that my time and energy is wasted by dedicating my life to better understanding our closest living relatives.

Charles Darwin, Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall may have been the pioneers, but because of them fields of inquiry exist that could not even be dreamed of in the not-so-distant past.  Researchers today are working on problems and attempting to answer questions that Darwin would not have even thought of back in the 19th century, or Goodall would have been able to ask in the 1960s.

For example, in evolutionary biology, scientists are able to sequence genomes and literally read the code of life.  As a result, biologists are able to understand the relationship between organisms, discover the mysteries of the origin of life itself, and solve fundamental problems related to disease and ageing that were pure fantasy to many human civilizations.

Likewise, many palaeoanthropologists are only beginning to piece together the origins of our species.  It seems as though every year a new species is uncovered that radically challenges previous assumptions about the environmental pressures that led to the existence of the most dominant and inquisitive species in the 4 billion years of our planets existence.  On top of that we have only started to understand the evolutionary history for the great apes.

In primatology, an equally impressive radiation of research specialization has occurred since the 1960s.  In the past primatologists conducted localized, regional studies of small groups of unhabituated populations.  Today, research is being conducted on Pan-African and global scales.  Field researchers are able to collect biological samples to understand social structure and disease transmission; camera traps are being utilized to understand what great ape behaviour is like when the researcher is not present (the double-slit experiments of the primate world) and observe unhabituated groups; and comparative long-term studies that span continents and centuries are revealing trends and allowing us to answer previous unanswerable questions.

So for me, although the pioneering era of Darwin, Leakey and Goodall may be over.  I personally choose to cherish the foundation they have given present day researchers, as opposed to becoming disheartened at the impossibility of becoming “the next Goodall”.  And in a greater perspective this may be part of a larger transition in the sciences – from the age of discovery to the age of mastery.  But I’ll save my thoughts on that for a later post.

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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