Tristes Trimates: Lessons from Jane Goodall’s 2019 Beatty Lecture

By Damian Arteca (Philosophy, McGill University)

Also by Damian: This McGill poli sci undergrad runs an Anti-cafe (and is opening another)



Editor’s Note: Jane Goodall followed her passion for animals and Africa to Gombe, Tanzania, at the age of 26, where she began her pioneering research into the behaviour of wild chimpanzees. Her discovery in 1960 that chimpanzees make and use tools rocked the scientific world and redefined the relationship between humans and animals. In 1961, she entered Cambridge University as a Ph.D. candidate, one of the few people in history to be admitted there without a university degree. She earned her Ph.D. in ethology in 1966.

In 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) to advance her work around the world and for generations to come.  In 1991, she founded Roots & Shoots, a global program that guides young people in more than 50 countries in becoming conservation activists and leaders in their daily lives. Today, Dr. Goodall travels the world, speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees, environmental crises, and her reasons for hope. Dr. Goodall is a UN Messenger of Peace and Dame of the British Empire.

On September 26th, McGill welcomed Jane Goodall for the 2019 Beatty Lecture. This would be Goodall’s second lecture, the first being delivered forty years ago in 1979, and both beginning with the Chimpanzee call for “hello”. Goodall’s lecture detailed a short biography of her extraordinary life, from her mother (whom Goodall cites as one of her great influences and teachers) giving her a Chimpanzee in the place of a Teddy bear and encouraging her childhood interest in naturalism, to her inaugural trip to Africa in 1957. It would be on this trip -under the pretext to conduct secreterial work on a friend’s farm in Kenya- that she would meet Dr. Louis Leakey, eminent British Archeologist and husband to Mary Leakey, a notable paleoanthropologist. Leakey had been harbouring a pioneering hunch- that the study of primates might hold the secret to understanding early hominids, and, by extension, our own species. Goodall -then only in her early 20’s- would be sent to Tanzania to study Chimpanzees.

Goodall had little in the name of formal academic training, and so her methods proved to be unorthodox. She named Chimps when she was supposed to number them, she took notes on their personalities when she was supposed to avoid humanizing them, and she interacted with them when she was supposed to remain invisible. After a year in the field it became clear that the results were unprecedented- and so Leakey sent Goodall back to England to earn a PhD under the supervision of Osman Hill and John Napier, two giants in the field of primatology.

Leakey would go on to establish the so-called “Trimates”: a group of three young women sent to study the major primate groups. Goodall would continue her study of Chimpanzees in Tanzania. Diane Fossey would begin studying Gorillas in Rwanda and the Congo in 1967, and Birute Galdikas would begin studying Orangutangs in Borneo in 1971. These three women would reinvent the way primate ethology would be conducted. Little was known, but much assumed about primate ecology before the Trimates engaged in their pioneering brand of biology- one that involved imitating and participating in primate behaviour so as to better observe it. Prior to Goodall’s work, the social similarities between Chimps and humans were largely unknown: their violent, warlike and infanticidal tendencies, their use of tools, their cooperative hunting and their social distribution of food are all discoveries owed to Goodall’s work in the forest of Gombe. “Man the tool-maker” was redefined forever.

Galdikas is still a professor at Simon Frasier University, and all three have contributed immensely to the scientific literature, but their mark on the world has arguably been most centrally conservationist in nature. During the Beatty Lecture, Goodall recalls attending an academic conference in 1986 that would change her perspective forever. “I went in a biologist and emerged an activist” Goodall notes. She would go on to establish the Jane Goodall Institute- a global leader in Chimpanzee conservationism, as well as Roots and Shoots, a grassroots environmentalist initiative aimed at engaging youth. Likewise, Galdikas is now the president of the Orangutang Foundation International, and has been been an advocate against the destruction of Orangutang habity for over 30 years. A year before Goodall would decide to shift from science to advocacy, Diane Fossey would be murdered in her Rwandan fieldsite. Political instabilities had pushed her out of the Congo, and her opposition to poaching is considered a likely motive for her assasination. Her final diary entry reads:

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” (

This might be the lesson to take not just from Goodall’s Beatty lecture, but from the broader life and work of the Trimates. Their work didn’t just redefine the way that scientists differentiate humans from animals- in their social methodology, they oblige a recognition of our duty towards how human relate to and with animals. Speaking to a room full of future scholars, Goodall and the Trimates remind us that we cannot disentangle ourselves from our objects of study: that the production of knowledge is an inherently moral enterprise.