Ard: So, Jane, it’s an enormous pleasure for me to meet you. I’ve admired you from a distance for a long time. I want to tell you a little bit about my own story with chimpanzees. So I grew up in Gabon, in Central Africa, and my parents are biologists, and when I was about two – we lived in the jungle – the local hunters had shot a chimpanzee without realising that it had a little baby, a few weeks old, still clinging to its mother. So they brought it to us and my father bought it for its weight in sardines, and so we raised it with a bottle that was at home. You know, gave it a bottle and kind of raised it. He was like a brother to me. His name was Bertje. Here’s a picture of us in the back garden.
JG: You and Bertja?
Ard: Bertje, yeah.
JG: Bertje? Bertie?
Ard: Yeah, Bertie. Bertje is in Dutch. And he was like a brother to my sister and I. He’s just about two. I think he’s about two when I was about four, or maybe three. And it was just amazing having a chimpanzee.
JG: They’re so like children.
Ard: They’re so like children.
JG: But then what happened to him?
Ard: He lived with us for a few years and then when he was about five years old we brought him to a nature reserve where they tried to bring him back into the wild. But unfortunately he got ill at some point and he…
JG: This is the tragedy of these young chimps: very cute, very sweet and… There’s a pet trade in them now. It’s happened in the US where a man, a scientist, Kellogg, he actually brought up a chimp with his son, Donald, as an experiment. But then when the chimp stopped being cute and sweet, he was thrown into a lab and…
Ard: Oh, that’s really sad.
JG: The end is always sad.
Ard: Yeah, I was very sad. I mean, for us it wasn’t because he wasn’t… He was still cute and sweet. We were moving on, and so we…
JG: Yeah, well that’s the problem, and these humanised chimps, they can almost never be reintroduced.
JG: No, unless they’re with a whole group.
Ard: Unless they’re brought in as a group?
Ard: So this was the President’s reserve, and the hope was that they would be able to reintroduce him back. I mean, he was a particularly intelligent… It doesn’t work?
JG: Very doubtful.
Ard: So what should we have done, then? Because he was a few weeks old and he would have died.
JG: Well, no. You did the right thing: you took him and you looked after him. There was nowhere for you to put that little chimp.
Ard: No, I felt very attached to it. I really thought he was like a brother, and we played and he was very… He liked to play hide-and-seek and… Here I have a photo of he and I playing together in the sand pit. He was just very, very, playful and… Here he is with my sister. He and my sister were exactly the same age, and they had a very close bond that I was actually a little jealous of.
So my mother says although we look different, we behaved remarkably similarly. You know, in the morning we fed him porridge and he’d eat with a spoon, which he didn’t actually really like. So if you turned around, he would eat with his hands.
Ard: And when you looked back he’d grab the spoon as if, ‘Of course, I’ve been eating with my spoon the entire time.’
David: That’s quite clever, isn’t it?
Ard: It’s really clever, yeah. He knew what was going on; he could sense things. One of his favourite things of all was to untie knots. So here we have a photo of him untying a shoe.
JG: Oh, yes, well that’s very typical chimp. Many, many zoo chimps, if they get the chance, they’ll spend a lot of time untying your shoes and trying to knot them again.
Ard: It’s amazing. In fact it used to bother me. I didn’t wear shoes that often, but if I did, he would grab them. And then I remember my mother said I once came in very upset because I said, ‘He’s taken my shoes off, but he has hands and feet.’ So I grabbed his hands and pulled them off, but he’d grab them with his feet and then… ‘It’s not fair! He’s got four hands.’
JG: Four hands, yes. But he couldn’t tie the lace, could he?
Ard: I don’t think he could, no.
Ard: His favourite game, in fact, was my father would take a big piece of string and tie him up. He’d just be giggling and giggling and giggling, and my father would make these fisherman’s knots and in no time he would untie himself. And then he’d bring the string to you, like, ‘Do it again, do it again.’ It was amazing.
He was just funny. He liked to make jokes. There’s one story that I remember. We had a kind of rain barrel that he would hide in when it rained, and so my sister – who was then about one and could just walk – crawled into the barrel, and he would sit in front, and so my mother couldn’t find her. My mother panicked, you know. It’s the jungle, there are snakes, there are all kinds of animals and she couldn’t find… And she went yelling and screaming, and he sat in the front and kind of blocked the view for a long, long time until the whole village just went in a panic and eventually they found her hiding behind. They were colluding together – thought it was very funny.
David: I bet your mother didn’t think it was very funny?
Ard: No, she didn’t think it was funny, but they somehow – my sister and he – they were playing a game and hiding from the adults. Yeah, it’s amazing.
JG: That’s how human they are.
David: Did you regard them as very human from early on? Because, of course, mainstream science was at pains for a long time to say, ‘No, no, they’re not human. We mustn’t anthropomorphise…’
JG: Anthropomorphise them.
David: That’s what I was taught when I went to university.
JG: When I got to Cambridge to do a PhD, I hadn’t been to university at all, and I was pretty scared. I got there and was told by these erudite professors I’d done everything wrong. I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names.
JG: Some of them said it’s scientific to give them numbers, and I couldn’t talk about personality, mind capable of thinking and certainly not emotions, because those were unique to humans. And at that time – we’re going back now to ’61 – it was still believed by mainstream science that there was a difference of kind between us and the rest of the animals, whereas, of course, it’s a difference of degree.
David: I was taught the same thing in the ‘80s.
JG: Yes. My son was as well. I said, ‘Well why…’
David: I was told off if I said it intended to do something.
JG: Yeah. Intentionality is just linked to us.
David: Yes, for them it had to be some kind of clockwork instinct or something. It just did this, it didn’t intend to.
Ard: That’s so interesting. So do you think the fact that you were, in some sense, unhampered by convention? It sounds like… well, they were telling you to be a spectator, outsider, and not be involved.
JG: Not be involved emotionally at all, yes.
Ard: But in fact that spectator distance would have prevented people from seeing what was true.
JG: Yes, of course. But in those days there were no tools to dissect animal emotion. Now you can do a degree in it. Now it’s mainstream.
Ard: Do you think it was a kind of dogma holding them down?
JG: It was, yes. As I went on with my career I found there was always something which somebody said, ‘Well, at least, we’re the only ones doing this.’ It was desperate. People were desperate to find something which made us truly unique. And so for a long time people talked to me about death and grief, and that, surely, mourning was uniquely human. But, of course, we now know it’s not: elephants mourn and dogs grieve and all sorts of things.
David: Did you see that behaviour in the chimpanzees?
JG: Oh, yes.
David: What? You saw them mourning for the loss of a friend or a…?
JG: The young ones can actually die of grief if their mother…
JG: …if they lose their mother. Even at eight years old. We had one…
Ard: Just of grief? Just being sad?
JG: Just depression. Depression.
David: Crikey! We’d call that a broken heart, if it happened in humans, wouldn’t we?
Ard: I wonder if that’s what happened to Bertje when he…
JG: It could well be. I mean, he lost his whole family.
JG: You know, he was abandoned.
Ard: Oh, man… oh, man.
JG: That’s the trouble. And…
Ard: That’s really tough. I hadn’t thought of that.
JG: But we interfere in animals’ lives, but we interfere in each other’s lives too.
Ard: Yeah, yeah, well...
JG: But you were… you were his family.
Ard: Yeah, and we left him… we left him behind. I felt abandoned when we left him, but I never, until today, thought that that might have happened to him. Maybe he died of grief.
JG: They get the immune system weakened in that depressed state, same as with us.
JG: And that’s what happened to little Flint. He just fell sick in that weakened state. I’ll never forget. This was the saddest thing. His mother was very old and she died. Actually, she was about to cross a stream and she just… Her heart gave out, I think, and first he set off and he travelled with the others, but then he came back – came back to where his mother had been. We’d moved the body by then, and he just sat there. And then he climbed up into a tree where they had made a nest, a night nest, about five days before, and very slowly he walked along the branch. And he got to this nest and he stood there and he looked at it. And then he turned around and walked back, walked down and curled up close to where she’d been and died.
Ard: Uh-huh. Just died of grief?
JG: Died of a broken heart. There’s nothing else you can say, really.
Ard: That’s really sad.
JG: There are a lot of sad things.
David: You all right?
Ard: Yeah. I really loved Bertje. He was like a brother. And, you know…
JG: Well, this is the thing. They are so human.
Ard: Yeah, they’re so human.
Ard: So when Bertje showed real, what I would consider loving behaviour, and he would hug you and be very affectionate, very loving. So they have a loving side.
JG: Absolutely: love, compassion, true altruism. I mean, there are wonderful stories of chimpanzee altruism. Like a young male at Gombe, a twelve-year-old adolescent, and he adopted a motherless three-year-old who had no older brother or sister who would normally look after an orphan.
But little Mel didn’t have an older brother or sister, and we thought he’d die. Three, just beginning to be able to survive without his mother’s milk, just. But we didn’t think he’d make it, and then Spindle waited for him and let him travel on his back, even clinging below if it was cold or Mel was frightened. And then Mel would creep up to his nest at night, and Spindle was lying in the nest and Mel was always a little bit apprehensive. And he’d, ‘Ooh, Ooh,’ and Spindle would reach out and draw him close.
David: And they weren’t related?
JG: Not at all.
David: So this was just genuine care and generosity?
JG: Yes. I think when you have the long-term family supportive bonds they have, which can last through a life of up to 70 years in captivity, then all of that behaviour – of nurturing and caring for another – is kind of, now, inbuilt, so you can extend it, like we do, out beyond the immediate family.
David: Do you feel that because we are related, chimps and us, that when you see that we have the ability for empathy, and they do that… Does that then say to you that this is something that is in our nature?
JG: Yes, I think so. You know, Louis Leakey sent me just to learn about the chimps because he was digging up the remains of early humans, and a lot fossilises. You can tell a lot about what the creature was eating from the tooth wear, whether it’s upright or not from the bone, the muscle attachment, and so forth, but behaviour doesn’t fossilise.
So he believed in a common ancestor about six million years ago. Louis Leakey believed in a common ancestor: ape-like, human-like, maybe six million years ago, something like that, and he argued that if I would find behaviour that was similar, or maybe the same, in modern chimp and modern human, then possibly we had brought this along our separate evolutionary pathways from that common ancestor, and therefore he could then imagine his early humans behaving like that. That was his whole theory, and, of course, it turned out even better than he might have dreamed, all the different things I was seeing: kissing, embracing, holding hands, using tools, making tools – all of these things.
Ard: Yeah, it’s amazing.
David: Which does suggest that, somehow, you’ve got to find an evolutionary theory which says how this can have happened, because it has happened.
Ard: Here’s another thing I was wondering that really struck me when I was a child. So we had some pet goats that also ran around the area.
Ard: They were goats, actually quite cute little goats. And one day, one little goat was wandering close to him, and he jumped up and grabbed it, ran up into the tree and just wrung its neck and killed it. And then he started poking out its eyeballs, and it was just… It was cruel. It was mean. And the other goats were bleating and he just, kind of… It was actually cruel behaviour. And I remember looking at that and thinking, ‘That’s bad. That’s evil.’
And later, I’ve thought about it and thought, was he morally responsible for that kind of gratuitous killing? What do you think?
JG: I’ve personally decided that only humans are capable of true evil…
JG: …because we can deliberate and do it, knowing the harm we’re inflicting. For him it was just, sort of, curiosity: ‘what is this creature?’
Ard: So I’ll tell you another story of our chimpanzee. We had chickens as well, and one day there was a mother hen with little chicks, and he kind of sat there pretending to mind his own business until they got very close and he grabbed the chick. And, of course, he was playing with it, and his hands were so strong, he just killed it, and then he got bored because it wasn’t doing anything. And then he noticed that the mother hen was coming, very protectively, trying to get the chick. So what he did is, he would hold the little chick out like this and entice her to come. And then when she got close, he tried to grab her: bang! And so this poor mother hen was trying to get her chick back – her dead chick – and he was just teasing her with it. And I was shocked by that behaviour. I thought, that’s morally outrageous: you take someone’s young and you basically used it as a game.
David: And how old were you at that time?
Ard: Four… three or four – I was small enough to realise that that was a bad thing. I was morally outraged. I thought that was…
JG: I’m sure you were.
Ard: …a bad thing to do.
JG: And I’m sure in your upbringing there was enough that you’d been taught, that you would have that feeling.
Ard: Yeah. I just felt it was evil, it was wrong. But he just thought it was a funny game.
JG: Yeah, a funny game.
Ard: Did you see any of this in the wild as well? What we might call cruel behaviour.
JG: Yes. Well, they can… I mean, they have a very dark, aggressive, brutal side, just like us: their intercommunity conflicts; these gang attacks, horrendous... leaving the victim to die of the wounds inflicted.
Ard: Oh, wow!
JG: You know, descriptions of twisting around a leg. I mean, really awful, awful stuff.
Ard: While the animal is still alive?
JG: While the chimp is… This is another chimp…
JG: And this was one who they had known, because the community split, and so seven of the males who had split away and two of the females were savagely attacked like this once they had taken up part of the range that previously all had shared.
And it was the most horrifying thing. I mean, it’s bad enough when they’re attacking a stranger, but to attack somebody who you groomed with, and fed with, and travelled with, was horrifying.
David: Yes. So you saw that –your description of the little baby chimp – they were capable of tremendous empathy and, I don't know, maybe love, but then also capable of a much darker set of emotions as well.
JG: Yes, they share that with us. I used to think they were like us, but nicer, and then I realised that, just like us, they have this terrible, dark streak.
Ard: But you would say they’re not morally responsible for that behaviour, even…
JG: I don’t believe so. I don’t think chimpanzees, or probably any animal, is capable of torture, which I would define as premeditated, planned intention to inflict pain, mental or physical. That’s torture, and that’s evil.
Ard: Sometimes hey show what we might call evil behaviour, but it’s not… We are much more evil?
JG: It’s cruel behaviour.
Ard: Cruel behaviour, sorry. Cruel behaviour.
JG: We have the true evil, which is the premeditation, the plan, the knowing, the completely understanding. We have greater capacity for understanding the effect of our actions, I believe.
Ard: I have another story about the chimpanzee, which is that, at some point, as he got bigger, sometimes we had to chain him, if we weren’t around. So we had him on a chain, and some of the local villagers… He would love shiny things, like watches, and so this day, when a lot of people were around, one of the guys had a watch, which was an enormous luxury. So the guy took it in front of him, just at the edge of his chain. So, he was jumping up and down and getting very angry because he couldn’t reach it, and then he went back. He took up part of the chain and held it behind his back…
David: To shorten the chain?
Ard: Shorten the chain. Then he jumped up and down until they got too close and let the chain go. He had this much chain. Out he went, grabbed the watch, ran up into the tree and refused to come down. So, it was a… Everybody was yelling and screaming.
David: That’s clever, isn’t it?
Ard: He sat up there, looked at everybody. My mother went out. He never… In his pecking order, my father came first, he came second and then came everybody else. So he just looked at my mother and ignored her. So they finally called my father, and he saw my father coming round the corner. He put the watch in his mouth.
David: That’s excellent.
Ard: Just like nothing. As if, you know, ‘What watch?’ My father called him down and he finally, grudgingly, came down and pulled the watch out of his mouth.
David: That’s great.
Ard: But I think that story is like… He had theory of mind because he was able to… He realised that he would fool the people with the watches: that they would think he was at the end of the… I’ve asked animal psychologists did he have theory of mind, and they said, ‘Well, we always hear these anecdotal stories, but it’s hard to prove in the lab.’
JG: This is the thing. To me a collection of anecdotes gives you a better feeling for the true nature. And you can’t prove, in a scientific way, every single anecdote, but when you gather them all together, then you start really seeing the flexibility of the behaviour.
Ard: Yeah. It’s amazing behaviour.
JG: We have this lovely story. Pom was about nine years old and her little brother, Prof, was around three – should be riding Mum, but Mum was a bad mother. She was away in the back, and suddenly Pom stops and stares at something on the trail ahead. And she gives a little, ‘Ooh, oh’. Her hair stands up. She rushes up a tree. Little Prof, maybe he doesn’t hear the sound, maybe he doesn’t know what it means, carries on along the trail. And as he gets closer to this place, Pom’s hair stands completely on end and she gets this huge grin of fear, which people think is smiling: fear. And finally she can’t bear it anymore, and she rushes down, she grabs her little brother and rushes up a tree, and there’s this big poisonous snake coiled up at the side of the trail.
David: That’s fascinating, because that suggests that she’s imagining what might happen in the future.
JG: Yes, of course she is.
David: She has a scenario ahead.
Ard: And she’s protecting her brother.
JG: Yes, yes.
David: But it’s that, it’s that notion that… So often the scientists say, ‘Well, we look ahead, but animals live in the moment.’ But that’s a clear example of…
JG: Yeah, and even better, there was another young female, about the same age as Pom, and her little brother, and they were with the mother. And the mother was leading, and then came the adolescent daughter and then the little one following.
So the mother went through, the adolescent daughter started through and then turned back and grabbed the little one, who started screaming because he wanted to follow his mother, and she dragged him around. That clump of grass was absolutely stiff with little tiny ticks. And the mother, who’d been through, spent a long time pulling them off herself. So that, to me, is even more amazing than the snake.
David: Yes, because she’s already played out the whole scenario of the consequence of going through and getting the ticks. The ticks will be on…
David: So she’s got a whole scenario of the future.
JG: I think that’s amazing, quite honestly.
David: So do I.
Ard: Did you ever see chimpanzees doing some kind of, maybe, religious-type behaviour or dances or…?
JG: Let’s say pre-religious.
Ard: Pre-religious, okay.
JG: We have this amazing waterfall at Gombe, and sometimes when, usually the males… You can hear it roaring. It falls down 80 feet and through hundreds and hundreds of years it’s worn itself a groove in the solid rock. So when you go near, there’s always breeze as the air is displaced by the falling water, and there’s a thundering noise as this rather narrow stream lands in the rocks below. And the chimpanzees sometimes do these amazing 20-minute displays. I call it a waterfall dance.
JG: More scientific to call it a display, but they are upright and they are swaying from foot to foot. They pick up big rocks in the stream and hurl them, and sometimes they… They used to climb up the vines growing down and push off into the spray.
The vines aren’t there anymore. Anyway, the time I remember vividly was when I actually was able to see the eyes of this male, and he’d finished his display, his dance, and he was sitting on a rock and I was watching his eyes, and he was watching the water falling, and he was watching the water flowing away, and I thought to myself, this pinpoints the biggest difference them and us: that we, ‘What is this? What is this stuff that’s always coming and always going and it’s always here?’ Might that not lead to some primitive, early religion, worship of the elements? You know, early man’s curiosity as to what these things are and what they meant. But we can discuss it, therefore we could turn it into that early primitive religion. The chimpanzee has the same, perhaps, feelings, although we don’t know.
David: Not quite able?
JG: But that he can’t discuss.
Ard: That’s fascinating.
JG: So although their brain, cognitively, is capable of learning: they can learn sign language – they can learn up to 600 signs or more; they can use a computer; they can paint; they can tell you what they’ve painted; they have a sense of humour – but, as far as we know, they can’t discuss something.
David: It’s almost as if they’re on the cusp of that. They might have intimations of something, but it’s just out of reach for them.
JG: Yes. And these guys, like Bertje, they become different, because they’re with us. Because they’re in a different type of society where we do use language all the time, and they can understand what we’re saying.
Ard: Some scientists say that one day we’ll explain everything in terms of, kind of, mechanical properties of the atoms and molecules in your head, and that seems to take away any sense of purpose or spirituality or the soul. What’s your response to that kind of approach?
JG: I sincerely hope it’s not true, because, for me, it’s the unknown out there. It’s the fact that we’re always being surprised; that we’ll never know it all. I don’t believe it’s possible for us ever to mechanise the whole of the life force, and that’s just my belief. I feel a very strong sense of spirituality out in the forest where everything is interconnected. It’s as though there’s this life force that is so powerful, and there’s little specks of this life force in everything and in us, we call it a soul.
JG: At least, unless we believe that we only have a mechanised body. I don’t believe it. I certainly don’t want to believe it.
Ard: Do you believe in God?
JG: I believe in a great spiritual power. What it is, I don't know. We call it God, other people call it Brahman or Allah or Jehovah, whatever it is. But it’s so universal: it’s just everywhere, every people. And, of course, it’s especially strong in people living closest to the land, like the Pygmies and the Native Americans and the Australian Aboriginals. They have this sense of connectedness.
Ard: Do you think we’ve lost that sense?
JG: I think it’s still there, but we’re rapidly making it very difficult, in the Western world, for our children to ever feel it. We’re denying them the opportunity to grow up in nature like you did, like I did. I don't know, did you also?
David: No, no, I didn’t.
Ard: Maybe this explains why you don’t believe in God and I do.
David: Because I didn’t spend enough time in nature.
Ard: Maybe, yeah.
JG: See, I don't know if I call it God, but that’s the name we have. But there’s certainly something. There’s something out there. There’s something, even a guiding force. I mean, I used to spend hours as a child, I think many children do, thinking what was before space? What was before time? How could there be no time? How could there be no space?’ There couldn’t.
David: Does there have to be a God for you to justify the spiritual feeling or those feelings that there’s something outside of us? Because I think I share some of those feelings, but for me, I don’t feel that there’s a God. So, for me, they’re not… One doesn’t need the other.
Ard: They’re just feelings?
David: Well, it’s trite to say it, but I’ve always felt that the spiritual was far too important to leave to God.
JG: I think you have a different concept of this spiritual power from mine.
David: Very probably. But for you two, does it depend on there being a God or not?
JG: Well, as I say, I don’t think of it as a God. It’s just the spiritual power – and I don't know what it is – but embedded in nature.
Ard: I think it has to be something that is somehow different from nature, and that’s what these things are pointing to – something transcendent. Just like when you ask yourself, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ You’re asking yourself, ‘What was it that made time and space in the first place?’ And there has to be something outside of time and space.
David: Are you saying something supernatural, though?
Ard: Yeah, if you want to use that word.
Ard: Something supernatural. I think that’s…
David: That’s weird for a scientist, a physicist as well.
Ard: For a physicist, a theoretical physicist to say? No, I don’t think it’s weird at all. I think the great power of science is its ability to ask very specific questions about constrained things. But the minute you think about it for a little while, there are many really important questions that science can’t answer and no conceivable advance of science could answer. Like, what’s the value of a human being? And if you think that science answers all questions, then you’ve evacuated hugely important parts of life.
JG: I agree completely. You know, science should be a tool, and for many, it’s become a god.
Ard: Exactly, that’s right.