Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Through a Window

For now we see as through a glass, darkly...

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe
© 1990 Jane Goodall
267 pages

I've always been fascinated by the behavior of our fellow apes. Unlike ants or birds, they behave in ways similar to us -- in ways we can understand. And because of their similarities to us genetically, their behavior can give us insight into our own history. I realized this latter observation in reading Carl Sagan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Jane Goodall is a name I've heard of many times before, but have never been able to read until now. As you may be able to discern from the title, the book is her account of the thirty years she has spent observing a chimpanzee community in Tanzania.

She begins it frankly in "The Mind of the Chimpanzee" by commenting on the difficulties in analyzing chimpanzee behavior.We can't know chimpanzees are experiencing anger or depression: we can only allow their responses to what happens to them to guide us, giving us information that we can infer such a conclusion from. The same is true -- although she does not use this as an example -- of hierarchies within chimpanzee communities. From here she comments in general on chimpanzee intelligence as we have been able to detect it. Next she introduces "The Research Centre", describing how she came to Gombe and what she and her fellows attended to accomplish.

The bulk of the book consists of chapters on a particular subject -- "Mothers and Daughters", "War", "Sex", "Mothers and Son" -- as well as chapters concentrating on particular individuals within the chimpanzee community that contributed much to its history. As the book covers thirty years, we see leaders rise and fall -- some to rise again. Goodall, through these various chapters, not only relates information about the structure of their community, but gives it a history, as well. There was sense of time passing as I read, bringing with it highs and lows. This is supplemented by pictures -- mostly black and white, but some in color. The black and white pictures generally accompany the timeframe of the chapter they are set in, but the color photographs -- set in the middle of the book -- reflect a much broader period. Goodall writes very well: the praise I've heard about her is duly given.

In the antepenultimate* chapter, Goodall uses her observations to reflect on similarities and differences between humans and chimpanzees in regard to war, compassion, parenting,and other social issues. Next, in "Our Shame", she informs the reader of the dire state of chimpanzees in the world today: not only are their habitats receding rabidly, but they are being poached in the wild. Many are stolen and subject to severe mistreatment. This reminds me of the Primates of the World book I read back in the summer, with almost every chapter ending with a section on how that chapter's animal was in grave peril. The last chapter includes finishing thoughts, including musings by Goodall on how chimpanzees might write their own history.

And so to end: the book was well-written, quite interesting, and entirely worthy of reccommendation.

* I read today that this word -- meaning second-to-last -- is no longer used. Because it's such an interesting word, I'm going to use it when I can.


  1. I was going to say that you're using that word wrong, but then I realized that penultimate is the next-to-last, so antepenultimate would indeed be the second-to-last. Thanks for making my head twist a little--I don't get that much anymore. ;)

  2. I received that information (initially) from TvTropes, one of my favorite "vices". :-p

  3. Not only am I impressed by the speed you read these books - but by the variety of the subjects you cover.

  4. It's deliberate, I must confess -- I try to maintain a balance most of the time. The mix I seem to be using lately is history/philosophy/science/fiction.


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