Weekend read: “Being Jane Goodall”

David Quammen always rewards attentive reading. For National Geographic, he has just written a lovely piece on Jane Goodall. His second paragraph merits study as a primer in concision, use of detail, and the fashioning of factual material into story without contrivance:

On the morning of July 14, 1960, she stepped onto a pebble beach along a remote stretch of the east shore of Lake Tanganyika. It was her first arrival at what was then called the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, a small protected area that had been established by the British colonial government back in 1943. She had brought a tent, a few tin plates, a cup without a handle, a shoddy pair of binoculars, an African cook named Dominic, and—as a companion, at the insistence of people who feared for her safety in the wilds of pre-independence Tanganyika—her mother. She had come to study chimpanzees. Or anyway, to try. Casual observers expected her to fail. One person, the paleontologist Louis Leakey, who had recruited her to the task up in Nairobi, believed she might succeed.

Quammen is a master at packing a sentence:

She came from a family of strong women, little money, and absent men.

Pay attention to his verbs, and his specificity:

During the early weeks at Gombe she struggled, groping for a methodology, losing time to a fever that was probably malaria, hiking many miles in the forested mountains, and glimpsing few chimpanzees, until an elderly male with grizzled chin whiskers extended to her a tentative, startling gesture of trust. She named the old chimp David Greybeard.

He situates his subject’s work in its social and scientific context:

The great thing about Gombe is not that Jane Goodall “redefined” humankind but that she set a new standard, a very high standard, for behavioral study of apes in the wild, focusing on individual characteristics as well as collective patterns. She created a research program, a set of protocols and ethics, an intellectual momentum—she created, in fact, a relationship between the scientific world and one community of chimpanzees—that has grown far beyond what one woman could do.

His piece is a retrospective appreciation of 50 years of science by Jane Goodall, but Quammen brings it up to the present with an example of the current relevance of her work—scientists at Goodall’s research center have found that chimpanzees are dying from what seems to be AIDS—at the same time answering the “so what?” question that should be part of any good science journalism:

But this gloomy discovery also carries huge potential significance for AIDS research in humans. Anthony Collins pointed out that although SIV has been found elsewhere in chimp communities, “none of them is a study population habituated to human observers; and certainly none of them is one which has genealogical information going right back in time; and none is so tame that you can take samples from every individual every month.” After a moment, he added, “It’s very sad that the virus is here, but a lot of knowledge can come out of it. And understanding.”

When I select a story for the weekend read, I don’t just pick one that I admire. I look for stories that would be appropriate in our pages. We have frequent occasion to publish an appreciation of the work of notable individuals connected to our institutions. We can do it badly—shallow summaries of a life’s work that are long on laudatory platitudes and short on the detail and depth of knowledge required to situate a life’s work in an actual lived life—or we can do it well, like Quammen has done here.

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