Who Are We?

In these exclusive interviews, we speak with Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE (Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace), Prof. Yuval Noah Harari (Author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) and Dr. Carl Safina (Prize-winning author, ecologist and MacArthur Fellow).  We look at the fundamental nature of humanity, how our species has grown to become dominant, and what the future holds for mankind.


For the first time since life began,” writes Mark Lynas, “…a single animal is utterly dominant: the ape speciesHomo sapiens. Evolution has equipped us with huge brains, stunning adaptability and brilliantly successful technical prowess.” He adds that “…humans are now more numerous than any large land animal ever to walk the Earth, and the combined weight of our fleshy biomass outstrips that of most other larger animals put together, with the single exception of our own livestock…. In sum, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the entire planetary ‘net primary productivity’ (everything produced by plants using the power of the sun) is today devoted to sustaining this one species- us….

As if these achievements were (in some way) underselling our species, Lyons also notes how, “…in May 2010, for only the second time in 3.7 billion years, a life-form was created on planet Earth with no biological parent. Out of a collection of inanimate chemicals an animate being was forged. This transformation from non-living to living took place not in some primordial soup, still less the biblical Garden of Eden, but in a Californian laboratory …this creator and his colleagues announced to the world that they had made a self-replicating life-form out of the memory of a computer. A bacterial genome had been sequenced, digitised, modified, printed out and booted up inside an empty cell to create the first human organism.” (The God Instinct, 2011)

It is perhaps these astonishing capacities that have captivated humanity in its own image, separating our species (in our own minds) from the rest of the animal kingdom. We feel, perhaps inevitably, that with our faculties and capabilities – that we must be ‘something more’, that we cannot just be a highly adapted and evolved bald-ape.

As Prof. Robin Dunbar notes however, appearances can be deceiving. “…As the genetic revolution unfolded through the 1980s, it became increasingly obvious that, no matter how different we might appear from the other apes, our genetic make-up was rather similar. In fact, more than just similar: it was all but identical. By the end of the decade, our whole understanding of ape evolutionary history had been turned on its head. So far from being a separate evolutionary lineage with deep roots, we humans were in fact embedded within the great ape family. Indeed we were not just embedded within the great ape family, we were kith and kin to thechimpanzees… The universally accepted position is now that the big split in the great ape family is not between humans and other great apes, but between the Asian orang-utan and the four (or should it be five?) species of African great apes (one of which is us humans). Humans are now, strictly speaking, firmly ensconced within the chimpanzee family.” (What Makes us Human – Pasternak, 2007)

With every advance in modern understanding comes a form of creative destruction as humanity ceases to be able to define itself. A fact that has led many to muse that “Monkeys are superior to men in this: When a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey. ” (Malcolm de Chazal). So what is the true nature of humanity?

In these exclusive interviews, we speak with Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE (Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace), Prof. Yuval Noah Harari (Author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) and Dr. Carl Safina (Prize-winning author, ecologist and MacArthur Fellow). We look at the fundamental nature of humanity, how our species has grown to become dominant, and what the future holds for mankind.


View Interviewee Biographies

Dame Jane Morris Goodall, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. She is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, Goodall is best known for her 45-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

In July 1960, Jane Goodall began her landmark study of chimpanzee behavior in what is now Tanzania. Her work at Gombe Stream would become the foundation of future primatological research and redefine the relationship between humans and animals.

In 1977, Dr. Goodall established the Jane Goodall Institute, which continues the Gombe research and is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats. The Institute is widely recognized for innovative, community-centred conservation and development programs in Africa, and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, the global environmental and humanitarian youth program.

Dr. Goodall founded Roots & Shoots with a group of Tanzanian students in 1991. Today, Roots & Shoots connects hundreds of thousands of youth in more than 120 countries who take action to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment.
Dr. Goodall travels an average 300 days per year, speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees, other environmental crises, and her reasons for hope that humankind will solve the problems it has imposed on the earth.

Dr. Goodall’s honours include the French Legion of Honour, the Medal of Tanzania and Japan’s prestigious Kyoto Prize. In 2002, Dr. Goodall was appointed to serve as a United Nations Messenger of Peace and in 2003, she was named a Dame of the British Empire.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari is the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

He was born in Haifa, Israel, in 1976. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 2002, and is now a lecturer at the Department of History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He specialized in World History, medieval history and military history. His current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

Prof. Harari also teaches a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) titled A Brief History of Humankind. More than 80,000 students from throughout the world have participated in the first run of the course in 2013. The second run began in August 2014, and in its first three weeks 30,000 students joined it.

Prof. Harari twice won the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality, in 2009 and 2012. In 2011 he won the Society for Military History’s Moncado Award for outstanding articles in military history. In 2012 he was elected to the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences.

He has published numerous books and articles, among which are: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (London: Harvill Secker, 2014).  Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007); The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008); “The Concept of ‘Decisive Battles’ in World History”, The Journal of World History 18:3 (2007), 251-266; “Military Memoirs: A Historical Overview of the Genre from the Middle Ages to the Late Modern Era”, War in History 14:3 (2007), pp. 289-309. “Combat Flow: Military, Political and Ethical Dimensions of Subjective Well-Being in War”, Review of General Psychology 12:3 (September, 2008), and “Armchairs, Coffee and Authority: Eye-witnesses and Flesh-witnesses Speak about War, 1100-2000”, The Journal of Military History 74:1 (January 2010), pp. 53-78.

Dr Carl Safina is Board Member & Founding President of the Safina Centre.

Carl Safina’s childhood by the shore launched a life-long passion that led to his bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies at SUNY Purchase, then to scientific studies of seabirds and fish for his PhD in Ecology from Rutgers University. During his research and his recreational and part-time-commercial fishing, he noticed rapid declines in sea turtles, marlin, sharks, tunas, and many other fishes. It seemed to him as though a kind of “last buffalo hunt” was occurring in the seas.

Dr. Safina saw fish as wildlife and brought ocean conservation issues into the wildlife conservation mainstream. He has helped lead campaigns to ban high-seas driftnets, re-write U.S.fisheries law, use international agreements toward restoring tunas, sharks, and other fishes, achieve a United Nations fisheries treaty, and reduce albatross and sea turtle drownings on commercial fishing lines.

Dr. Safina co-founded Blue Ocean Institute in 2003. (Blue Ocean Institute became The Safina Center in May of 2014.) He now works mainly to help highlight and explain how the ocean is changing and what that means for wildlife and for people. Safina lectures extensively in the United States and is author of over one hundred publications.

His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, Nina Delmar: The Great Whale Rescue, The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, and A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout.

His new TV series, Saving the Ocean, aired on PBS in 2013 and was broadcast to over 90 million households. It remains available 24/7 on PBS.org.

Carl Safina’s conservation work has been profiled in the New York Times, on Nightline, and in the Bill Moyers television special “Earth on Edge.”

He is a recipient of the Pew Scholar’s Award in Conservation and the Environment, the Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction, the John Burroughs Medal for literature, the National Academies Communications Award, Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo’s Rabb Medal, and a MacArthur Prize. Safina is the inaugural holder of the Carl Safina Endowed Research Professorship in Nature and Humanity at SUNY’s Stony Brook University (SBU) in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. He also teaches in SBU’s innovative Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science as a visiting professor.


Q: When did humanity gain importance on this planet?

[Prof. Yuval Noah Harari] Until about 70,000 years ago, humans were just another kind of animal. They weren’t particularly important. Their impact on the world was not greater than that of jellyfish, fireflies, or woodpeckers. However, 70,000 years ago humans evolved new cognitive abilities that turned them into the most powerful force on the planet. Humans began to create and believe things that exist only in their own imagination. Things such as gods, nations, money and human rights. This enabled humans to start cooperating on an unprecedented scale.

Hitherto, humans could cooperate only on the basis of intimate acquaintance. In order to cooperate with you, I needed to know you personally. Humans therefore lived in small tribes, numbering 150 individuals at most. Yet once humans began to believe in imaginary entities such as gods, they began to cooperate in much larger numbers. Today, billions of people cooperate effectively. This is the secret of success of our species. All the great achievements of humankind – from building the pyramids to reaching the Moon – are based on large scale cooperation. And all large scale human cooperation is based on belief in fictions such as gods, nations, money and human rights.

You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will go to chimpanzee Heaven, and there receive countless bananas for his good deeds. No chimpanzee will ever believe that.

Only humans believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, whereas the chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Q: How do humans perceive their place in the animal kingdom?

[Carl Safina] Mostly, we [humans] don’t perceive ourselves as being within the animal kingdom, we perceive ourselves as having been specially created- and that we are categorically different, above and better.  We’ve been able to think that because most of the intermediate species between the currently surviving other great apes and ourselves- between gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans and humans- simply don’t exist now.   There were dozens of other species on the way to becoming who we became, and those were swept away.  I have a feeling we had something to do with at least two or three of them.   As a result of this, we don’t see any of the intermediate steps- we don’t see those species that would be much more like us than a gorilla or an orang-utan- the ones that would have better tools than those apes, but not as good as ours…. The ones that would have more complex language than others, but less complicated than ours…. We would have seen ourselves within a progression of steps- but we don’t see that anymore.

Humans made-up these stories [of superiority] based on our perception that there is something very different about us.  It was thousands of years later that we discovered that there were once other humans, and near-human species that are here no longer, and that gave us perspective- albeit, it hasn’t sunk deep.

I still get people asking me the perhaps logical question of, ‘why are we so different?’ – The reason? There’s a lot of pages torn out of the book of where we are from, and who was here before.

Q: How would the animal kingdom perceive us?

[Carl Safina] It’s not like there’s ‘us’ and ‘all of them,’ – we’re on a continuum, a big sliding scale with millions of species.  When people talk about the animal kingdom, what do they mean? Do they mean our dogs? Do they mean the fish of the sea? The insects in our gardens?

How do they perceive us? I think they perceive us mostly as dangerous… The greatest unifying thing about our relationship to other animals, is that we’re dangerous to most of them.   I think many also perceive us as having minds- they know that we can do things.  Often, they know we can do things that are harmful and sometimes rather mysteriously and touchingly, they seek our help.  In the rarest of occasions, they seek to help us.

Q: Why do humans feel a sense of difference from other species?

[Prof. Yuval Noah Harari] Because we dominate and exploit other species, we need to justify this to ourselves. So we tend to think that we are a superior life form, and that there is a huge gap separating us from all the other animals. This was not always so. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, hunter-gatherers did not feel very different from other animals. They saw themselves as part and parcel of the natural world, and constantly communicating and negotiated with the animals, plants and natural phenomena around them. However, once the Agricultural Revolution gave humans power over other animals, they began to see themselves as essentially different. So they invented various religions that elevated humans above the rest of creation. We normally think that religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam sanctified the great gods. We tend to forget that they sanctified humans, too. One of God’s main jobs is to account for the superiority of man over animal.

This is somewhat akin to what happened with European imperialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade in the early modern period. In the Middle Ages, Europeans often viewed Africans and Asians as their equals. In the modern age, when Europeans conquered, exploited and enslaved foreign populations, they created various theological and scientific theories that explained why Europeans are superior to everybody else, and why Europeans have the right to conquer and exploit them.

Q: What do you think about the relationship between humanity and the natural environment? 

[Carl Safina] It’s one thing to try to look for ways to try and overcome nature, when nature was a deadly series of forces that could starve us, or kill us with bad weather.  Once we acquired the power to hurt the world and other animals- which for tens of thousands of years we did not have- and which is now, just about absolute, we simply haven’t changed our thinking!

We still see the world as our opponent, and as a big trove of stuff to be taken.  That’s a catastrophe for life on Earth.  We’re plundering the world, and the evidence is clear.  For almost every other species, animal and plant, their numbers are at all time lows because of the damage we’ve done.

Q: How did the Agricultural Revolution aid our dominance? 

[Prof. Yuval Noah Harari] Agricultural made us collectively dominant, as a species, but it should be emphasized that it did not necessarily improve the lot of the individual. The Agricultural Revolution greatly increased the collective power of humankind. Thanks to agriculture, humans could begin building cities, kingdoms and empires. However, the daily life of ordinary peasants was harder than the daily lives of their ancestors, the hunter-gatherers. Peasants had to work harder, their job was more boring, their nutrition poorer, and they suffered far more from political oppression and economic exploitation. Even today there are hundreds of millions of people who live more miserable lives than the life of the average person 20,000 years ago.

Humans are very good in acquiring power, but they don’t really know how to translate power into happiness. Throughout history humankind has grown much stronger, but it is far from clear that humans have become much happier.

Q: How was humanity unified?

[Prof. Yuval Noah Harari] Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. “Us” was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and “them” was everyone else. In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs. No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail community, no lion alpha-male makes a bid for becoming the king of all lions, and at the entrance of no beehive can one find the slogan: “Worker bees of the world—Unite!”

So from a biological and evolutionary perspective the unification of humankind is a very strange phenomenon. It is very strange that people all over the world gradually began to cooperate on a regular basis. As noted earlier, the crucial factor that enabled people to do that is their imagination, and their belief in shared fictions. There were three kinds of shared fictions which were particularly important: money, empires, and universal religions.

Money, empires and universal religions are all based on the idea that the entire world is a single unit and that the entire human race is a single community. Merchants, conquerors, and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, “us vs. them,” and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers. They too tried to establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.

Over the centuries, people made more and more ambitious attempts to realize that global vision, and they eventually succeeded. Today, even people who hate each-other are still part of the same system, because they believe in the same fictions. Consider Osama bin-Laden. For all his hatred of American culture, American religion, and American politics, Osama bin-Laden was very fond of American dollars. The dollar is a fiction: it is just a piece of worthless paper. It has value only because people believe that it has value. Yet this fiction is so powerful and so ubiquitous, that even Osama bin-Laden believed in it.

Q: Do other species experience consciousness like we do? 

[Carl Safina] Consciousness is simply the thing that feels like something.  If you can feel or be aware of anything, that is consciousness!  When you get general-anaesthesia, and you’re completely knocked out and not aware of anything? That’s because you’re unconscious.

It strikes me as one of the symptoms of our chaotic confusion about the nature of the rest of the world and our relationship with the rest of the world that we don’t understand- and are continually confused over whether animals with eyes that can see, ears that can hear, noses that can smell and skin that can feel are ‘conscious.’  That’s a very strange thing to still be asking!

When I talk about consciousness, I mean that you’re aware of things.  Some people think consciousness means the ability to plan for the future, and things like that- that’s not consciousness, it’s something we learn to do, to the extent that we are capable of doing so.  We, in Western Society, are capable of thinking and planning years in advance.  We may say that in the next 5 years we would like to do certain things… but it took us centuries to develop a calendar to understand the progression of years, and to give numbers to time over the years.  Most early Humans who lived in tribal groups probably had a very circular understanding of time, they will have seen seasons that come and go and seasons that repeat- there would be no point in thinking about the world 2 years from now if all you did is hunt and plant.  The only thing that would be relevant at all would be the next planting season, or whether then next Moon would bring certain animals mysteriously into your world.

There are no agreed definitions for major experiences and capabilities such as intelligence, self-awareness, the mind, grief and even emotion.  For some reason, we have no trouble understanding that a cat may be frightened, or that a dog barking at a stranger may be feeling defensive or enraged… we have no difficulty in seeing the obviousness of this, but yet we still ask whether animals can feel? Fear is an emotion, territoriality is an emotion… I don’t understand how our species can still be so entirely confused about something so obvious.

Q: What were your observations about social hierarchies in chimpanzee and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] The structures of their hierarchies may- I suppose- mirror some of what we see in human culture but the method of attaining the hierarchy resembles very closely what we see as humans attempt to get up the social ladder.

Chimp society is very male dominated, and when you have a strong top ranking or alpha male- there seems to be order in the rest of the community. When he is reaching the end of his reign and a young individual (or coalition) challenge him- then there’s a lot more fighting and aggression as those beneath him vie to see who will take over. The stronger ones may do this alone, and the intelligent males have a strategy of forming alliances.

One thing that’s been really fascinating over the years is that very often the male who takes over may do so as a result of some quite fierce fighting. He will go on doing that until the former alpha is really subdued and fearful. Then he will reach out and they will become friends. The one who’s been deposed will then support the new leader- it’s very obvious this is a good tactic because the new alpha knows that the previous has been so scared by him- that he’ll never do anything bad. Getting support from the new alpha is also very beneficial to the previous alpha.

Q: What did you observe about the role (and treatment) of children, young adults and adolescents in chimp and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] First of all, we only recently have known who the fathers are. There are no long-term pair bonds between adult males and females unless it’s a mother and her son (in which case there’s no mating). In a way, all males act in a paternal way to all infants in their community and will- for example- go to their aid if they are in trouble. From the collection of faecal samples, we have been able to identify who the father’s of young are- and a new field of study is emerging about whether any special relationship exists between father and biological child and- of course- whether any of them even know there’s a relationship as females in these communities are promiscuous.

One of the things I have been fascinated with for a very long time is the fact that in chimp society- as in human society- there are good and bad mothers. It’s also very clear that good mothers in chimp communities are attentive, protective (not overly protective), playful and- perhaps most importantly- supportive. They will give a degree of freedom, but also impose discipline where needed. For example, even if you know you’re going to get attacked by a higher ranking female who is the mother of your child’s playmate… if the children are squabbling you will nevertheless go in- and even rescue your child if they’re in a meddle with one of the bigger males.

That element of support really seems to make a big difference. The offspring of good mothers tend to be more assertive with males reaching a higher position. The offspring of the less-good mothers have a more difficult time in their society and don’t do as well.

Q: Did you observe any familiar social structures in the chimp and great-ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There are siblings- brothers and sisters, who know they are their mother’s offspring (as they don’t know who their fathers are). The offspring of one female can form strong relationships- particularly brothers- for their entire lives (which can last 60 years or so). This also applies to mothers and their offspring.

The only thing that breaks these bonds is when a female emigrates to a neighbouring community as an adolescent. That’s the only time- as far as we know- that a chimp can move from one community to another. The relationship between neighbouring communities is otherwise extremely hostile- with males patrolling the boundary, taking any opportunity they can to enlarge their territory. There are also patrols where chimps may come across strangers- maybe hunters- and treat them like prey animals, leaving them to die of their wounds.

Within the community, it’s usually family and sibling bonds. There are temporary bonds between mothers and infants up-to a certain age. They sit and groom each other and just do nothing… and the young ones- instead of pestering their mothers, play with each other.

Q: Do other species experience anxiety, depression, grief and sadness?

[Carl Safina] There’s not any depression that I know of among free-living animals, that seems to happen only in captivity, with the exception of elephants that have been traumatised by seeing their family members killed.

There’s certainly misery in nature, many animals starve, lose their territory in a fight and so on.  The ‘free floating,’ vague, emotional debilitation that is the hallmark of true depression, where people feel unable to do things and incredibly sad- even though the events of their life would not necessarily lead most people to feel sad or paralysed- I don’t see that in other species other than maybe in captivity, where they cannot live life the way that their mind and body expect, and where their environments are not related to who they are.

If we look at something like grief, we need a definition. The author Barbara J. King defined grief as the behaviour that occurs when one individual disappears and another individual who had known them takes time away from their normal activities to specifically look for the other individual, or spends time with their corpse and so forth.  She defines that as evidence of grief.  You do see that in a whole variety of animals In humans, grief is when we badly miss somebody that we had in our lives.  For a little while or permanently, we can’t get beyond the fact that they are not there anymore.  We see this in some other animals too, like apes, elephants and dogs who are complicated and like us in many ways.

Less observed creatures can also show it, but you have to look and see it. We have some chickens, and we also had a pair of ducks.  The ducks were always inseparable, and one day- one of them got sick and died.  The remaining duck, for weeks, would wander around quacking, going to different parts of the yard, looking for the duck it had in mind, who it was missing.  Eventually the duck had to get on with life, and started to hang-out with the chickens.  That’s rather analogous to how we, as humans, would deal with the loss of a loved one too.

Q: Did you see examples of “love”, “compassion”, “respect” and “altruism”?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] Absolutely! True altruism occurs where an unrelated male will adopt an infant who’s mother has died. Usually it’s an older brother or sister who will adopt an infant, but if the infant is more than 3 years old- it will have a chance of survival independently. Usually between 3 and 5 years of age, infants are very gradually weaned off their mothers. Until this age (or until the next baby is born) they will not leave her nest, and may ride on her back when they are scared.

Between brothers and sisters we see very strong bonds, and even a male will be an excellent care-giver to an orphan who’s often his brother or sister. Unrelated males may do the same.

It is very clear that we see compassion in these communities- that’s very clear. When a mother was lying there dying of her wounds, her younger daughter came and groomed her, comforted her and did her best to keep her comfortable.

With regards love… There are so many ways you can describe love. In our language, love can mean many things! Copulation in chimps does not take long, it’s ever so short. Sometimes it can be quite a rash courtship where the male swaggers about swaying branches. He doesn’t force the female- it’s not rape- but nevertheless he does intimidate her, which is likely to make her accept his advances. The bond chimp’s share between mother and child, and even brother and sister… I guess you could call that love!

[Carl Safina] In a lot of social animals, there is a show of empathy if someone is hurt, or in trouble.  Often there is help, an attempt to help, or a show of concern.  We delude ourselves into thinking we are the perfection of these capacities that we show.   Humans do have empathy, but we are also the cruellest of any species, and our empathy is far from perfect.  We not only horrendously abuse other creatures, but we horrifically abuse one another, chronically.   We are the only species capable of sending aid to the victims of Fukushima.   Probably the people of Fukushima like us, the people of Hiroshima? Not so much.  We’re capable of both those things.   We can’t just cherry pick the aspects of us that we like, without owning how horrific we also are.   For every tremendous act of caring, we have chronic wars that we’re incapable of ending.  We’re demonstrably incapable of carrying out our greatest wish, peace.

There are aesthetic senses in other animals, but ours are the most extreme.  There are other creatures that seem to enjoy things that are the incipient level of music, sometimes chimpanzees drum on logs, and when hearing music many chimpanzees and parrots will dance rhythmically.  The physical beauty they have must evoke an aesthetic response- that’s why we see these decorations, colours, plumes- they evolved through preference, and that came from an emotional, aesthetic response.  It’s logical that these other creatures have aesthetics in their lives, but in humanity- it’s extreme, we create a lot of music and art- and other creatures seldom or never do.

What makes us human is that we’re the most extreme animal.  We are the most compassionate, the most violent, the most creative, the most destructive.

Q: What did you see with regards the ‘sex life’ of chimps and great apes?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] It’s a normal thing between males and females in just about every species. The male courts the female when she’s sexually receptive and not in between.

During this period, the males will sometimes line-up to mate with her… sometimes one after another… sometimes they fight. Sometimes they even sneak off for a little secret mating behind a bush!

Q: What did you observe in terms of individual personalities and sense of self in the chimp and great ape community?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There are extremely distinct personalities. You could identify individuals by reading their behaviour. Sense of self has been shown in captivity, although I don’t know how you could demonstrate this in the wild. In captivity, we know chimps (along with one or two other animals) can identify themselves in mirrors and respond to a mirror image.

In the past, some chimps were raised as human! A practice which- thankfully- is not done any more. Little Viki is the famous case. She grew up in a house, and was raised in the same way as a human infant. She loved sorting things. They gave her a pile of photographs of people from different cultures all over the world and different animals (ones she knew and ones she didn’t). She put them all perfectly in the right pile ‘animal’ or ‘person’ except for her own picture- that went to people! A picture of her father (who she never met) went to animal.

Q: What were your observations of communication in the chimp and great ape community?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There was no ‘verbal’ communication, that is- perhaps- what separates us from them. They communicate with touch, gesture and a whole series of calls (usually related to the emotion of the moment… so for example ‘here’s good food’, ‘I’m frightened’, ‘I’m hurting, please come and help me…’). In captivity they even learn sign language, allowing us to learn more about how their minds are working.

Q: What were your observations of war and conflict within the chimp and great ape communities?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] We have read an account of some people who went into an isolated forest in Uganda, where people and chimps came into contact in an aggressive way. The people were actually nearly as frightened as the chimps- who very obviously came at them with hair bristling and ready to chase them away. They [chimps] are so much stronger than us!

In the more natural situation and surroundings, you have a territory and a community of around 50 individuals. Within this, you have 6-10 adult males who patrol the territory and strangers will be attacked. If you meet a group that’s bigger than yours, you’d better retreat otherwise you will be attacked.

You also see a lot of conflict for dominance within the community between males, with losers often ostracised.

Q: Do chimp and great ape communities recognise any sense of mourning or loss for the dead?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] There’s an element of fear if they find a dead body, and a sense of urgency to try and find out what the cause of death was. They sniff the vegetation, and even high up in the trees….

Grief is often shown by a mother who loses her child. In this case you see her becoming very listless and apathetic. She may wander off somewhere, seem to forget why she went there and come back. When a mother dies, the offspring are devastated. They groom her, and sometimes there are unexplained observations. We once saw an adolescent daughter who lifted up her mother’s arm and appeared to put her ear to the chest. Whether she was listening to a heartbeat or not would be difficult to say…

Q: Did you note the existence of any cultural artefacts or behaviours?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] Chimps tend to do wild displays near falling water, such as waterfalls. They are very rhythmic and very different to a normal displays. You see them swaying from foot to foot, getting into the spray in the vines, and just watching the water. There are also times when they sit in the trees and appear to be observing a sunset- whether they are or not of course, we have no idea.

Q: How do chimps relate to other species (including man) and their natural environment?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] When I arrived, the chimps were initially frightened. They had never seen a white-ape before and they ran away. When the fear began to subside, they became belligerent and treated me as they would a predator- shaking branches, screaming and trying to make me go away. When I didn’t, they gradually moved on into a position of acceptance and- eventually- trust. It was a gradual change.

With other animals they may ignore them… the young ones may even try to play. The fact is, though, that those animals may eventually become prey- chimps are hunters after all.

They are very protective over their resources. They may attack if you try to take the fruit out of a fruit tree, but then you see sharing during times of abundance.

Q: Have your experiences of chimps in captivity yielded any surprising insights about their intelligence?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] In captivity, you can design tests to understand their intelligence. There is a 3 year old chimpanzee called ‘Ai’ in Japan who works with Professor Matsuzawa’s institute. She can do things with her touchpad, remembering the position of numbers on a screen in the most extraordinary way. Her son (who has never been taught by a human) has people coming from all over to try and defeat him! He can take one look at a screen of randomly arranged numbers from 0-9, and start to replicate it before you’ve even noticed where one of the numbers is! He has a total photographic memory! An enfant savant!

Chimpanzees love our technology- touchpads, computer screens and so on. They can also learn more than 400 signs of American sign-language. The Bonobo have quite long exchanges with their keepers! Things like asking to be let out…. (and when they’re told no), asking for food… (and when they’re told no), asking for a tickle! It’s extraordinary

Q: How has your work with chimpanzees and great apes changed your view of humanity?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] Louis Leakey wanted me to go and study chimps because he believed that 6 million years ago, we had a human-like common ancestor. He was interested in stone-age man, their skeletons, tools and so on- not behaviour. He felt that if there was similar behaviour exhibited between humans and chimps today, that perhaps that behaviour would also have been present in the common ancestor and- arguably- in stone-age men and women.

From my perspective, it was a bit of a shock to find that chimps can be brutal and violent and even have a lot of warfare. I had expected them to be like us but nicer. Because we send this tendency toward violence in certain situations, one can probably assume this trait [to be violent] has been with us in the long course of our evolution. Violence, at least some of it, is probably genetically based. You don’t have to think much about humankind to realise that we are a very violent species.

The difference between us and chimpanzees (with whom we share 98% or more of our DNA) is not a sharp line. It’s a blurry line. We are part of the continuum of evolution, and are not the only beings on the Earth with personalities, minds, thoughts and feelings. That observation has had a profound impact on science, as- when went to get my PhD, I was taught none of that was true.

We now realise how alike we are… kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting on the back, family bonds, war… but at the same time, we understand we are different. But what is it that’s made us different? If you’ve got something that is as like us as chimps, you have somewhere to stand and observe the biggest differences. For me, our sophisticated way of communicating- with words- is that crucial difference. It meant that for the first time, we could teach another about something that wasn’t present… whereas young chimps just learn by observing. We can read books about the distant past, and plan the distant future. Chimps can only plan the immediate future. As far as we know, they don’t have any concept of a distant future to plan for. Finally… we can bring together people from different walks of life, and backgrounds… bringing them together to discuss problems that may otherwise be difficult to solve.

For a long time, humanity thought there was a sharp line, with us on one side and the animals on the other… a line which is still used by radicals who believe it to be true- often to justify doing not-very-nice things to animals

Q: What is the role of the future generations in the study of humanity?

[Dr. Jane Goodall] In addition to the long-term study of chimps- which is exciting and on-going, we realised (back in the 1980’s) that the only way to protect chimpanzees (who were disappearing very fast due to loss of habitat) was to improve the lives of people who were living in abject poverty around these last wilderness areas.

Gombe was isolated, and when I flew over in 1991 I was utterly shocked to see bare hills around this national park… areas that had once been forest. Even in 1970 it was forest…. After around 6 years, and following the introduction of programmes such as microcredit and agricultural support, we sat down with local people and mapped out patches of land in such a way that they acted as a buffer to the Gombe. The Gombe chimps now have 3-4 times more forest than they had 10 years ago… it grows very fast. We have also created a corridor linking Gombe to another group, and in fact- 2 weeks ago- the first chimpanzee came from the outside into the Gombe community, very exciting!

We’re replicating this in Uganda, DRC, Congo, Senegal and elsewhere. The method is working… people are coming out of abject poverty, their children are getting better educated… family sizes have dropped… women are empowered and farming methods have restored fertility to farmland without the use of chemicals… So no GMOs!

There wouldn’t be much point doing any of this if we weren’t educating future generations to be better stewards than we’ve been. Our Roots & Shoots programme is now in about 130 countries. Young people from pre-school through to university are all choosing projects to make the world better for people and for the environment.

Every one of us makes a difference, every single day.

Q: How has science impacted our civilization?

[Prof. Yuval Noah Harari]   In most traditional cultures, people believed that they already have the answers to all the important questions of life. Christians believed that all the answers are in the Bible, Muslims believed that all the answers are in the Quran, Hindus believed that all the answers are in the Vedas, etc.

Modern culture is different. The great discovery that launched modern culture was the discovery of ignorance. The Scientific Revolution made modern people realize that they are ignorant about many of the most important questions of life, and that the answers are not in the Bible or in some other ancient scriptures. Nobody knows the answers – we need new observations and new research if we want to get these answers. Even today, whereas Christian priests or Jewish rabies insist that they have all the answers to life’s important questions, scientists are unique in admitting that their ignorance about many important questions. Science has thus made modern civilization far more skeptical, open and dynamic than any previous culture.

What our your views on our species’ relationship with other species and the environment?

Our treatment of other animals has been abysmal. For thousands of years, Homo sapiens has been driving most other big animals to extinction. This is not a novel modern phenomenon. When 45,000 years ago Homo sapiens first landed in Australia, it quickly drove to extinction more than 90% of its big animals. 15,000 years ago Sapiens arrived to America and wiped out more than 70% of its large creatures. Altogether, even before humans planted the first wheat field or wrote the first text, they had already caused the disappearance of about half the large terrestrial mammals.

Today, more than 90% of the big animals of planet earth are either Sapiens, or the farm animals we have domesticated and enslaved. Only 200,000 wild wolves have survived in the world – compared to 500 million domesticated dogs. There are only 900,000 wild bison – compared to 1.5 billion cattle. There are 50 million penguins – compared to 25 billion chickens.

These billions of domesticated animals are treated by the meat, dairy and egg industry not as living creatures that can feel pain and distress, but as machines. These animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. They pass their entire lives as cogs in a giant production line, and the length and quality of their existence is determined by the profits and losses of business corporations.

Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, this is probably one of the worst crimes in history. For as science now tells us, even chickens have a complex world of behavioral needs and drives. They feel strong urges to scout their environment, forage and peck around, determine social hierarchies, build nests, and groom themselves. They can feel pain and pleasure, and emotions such as fear. But the egg and meat industry treats them like lifeless machines. In the egg industry, chickens are often locked inside tiny coops, and it is not uncommon to squeeze four hens to a cage, each given a floor space of about 25 by 22 centimetres. The hens receive sufficient food, but they are unable to claim a territory, build a nest, or engage in other natural activities. Indeed, the cage is so small that hens are often unable even to flap their wings or stand fully erect.

Q: Could other species have more profound experiences of life than we do? 

[Carl Safina] Most other species are more keenly-aware, and vividly-perceptive of the world around them than we are.  Many people’s senses are dulled by the sameness of civilisation, and our daily lives.  We seem to have domesticated ourselves in a way that’s very similar to how we domesticated farm-animals.  We domesticated wild-animals to settle down, be tractable and to live in crowded spaces.  This led to a decline in awareness, reaction time and so on.  A wild sheep, or a wild relative of cattle aren’t as dull or plodding as these barnyard things who have simplified lives, not having to find food or shelter.  Whilst we were domesticating them, we were domesticating ourselves in the process.

Other animals strike me as being vastly more alert, and much more physically perceptive of what’s coming in through their senses.  We never care about the things that are superior in other animals however, because we’ve come to think of ourselves as superior in every way.  We demand that they be like us, and since they’re not us? We win that game every time.

Many of these beings, these animals, have been on earth much longer than we have- yet it comes as a surprise to us whenever we discover something about their mental or emotional capacities. We should be amazed not that these beings have lives and mental experiences, but that it’s taken us so long to realise that.

People studying free living animals, sitting there and really watching them live their lives, is a new phenomenon- less than a century old.  In the 1960s, Jane Goodall, Ian Douglas-Hamilton and their contemporaries went to look at lions, chimpanzees and elephants and tried to observe who was in the groups and how they related to each other.  Jane Goodall came back and said she observed different personalities in chimpanzees, much like us.  The people who had never gone to look at chimpanzees in their lives said, ‘no you’re wrong, and don’t you dare say things like that!’ and these were scientists, people who were supposed to believe what the evidence says- but yet who were so dense and closed off.  All of the people who made these discoveries are alive and still working, that’s how new this study is and only a tiny handful of people even make these observations.

When we see other animals, we seldom get any inkling about what their lives are about.  We can’t’ see them long enough, we don’t have the time, and we don’t have the skills.  I have actually studied the lives and behaviours of certain sea-birds and forest-birds, and I know what that is like.  As I am talking to you however, I’m at my kitchen window and there’s a blue jay here.  The blue-jays always come in a little group, and seem to call to each other when I put the food out, as if to say, ‘the food is here! Come and eat, it seems safe!’  I don’t know who these blue-jays are! I don’t know if they are two breeders and their young of the last year or so, or how many individuals there are; are they a family dynasty? How long are they living? They’re my neighbours, they come here every day.  But they’re a mystery.

We live as complete strangers in a land that is our entire planet.

Q: What do you fear and hope for the future of our species?

[Prof. Yuval Noah Harari] To put it bluntly, I think in the future humans will use technology to upgrade themselves into gods. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. Humans are going to acquire abilities that were traditionally thought to be divine abilities. Humans may soon be able to design and create living beings at will, to surf artificial realities directly with their minds, to radically extend their lifespans, and to change their own bodies and minds according to their wishes.

Throughout history there were many economic, social and political revolutions. But one thing remained constant: humanity itself. We still have the same body and mind as our ancestors in the Roman Empire or in ancient Egypt. Yet in the coming decades, for the first time in history, humanity itself will undergo a radical revolution. Not only our society and economy, but our bodies and minds will be transformed by genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces. Bodies and minds will be the main products of the 21st century economy.

When we think about the future we generally think about a world in which people who are identical to us in every important way enjoy better technology: laser guns, intelligent robots, and spaceships that travel at the speed of light. Yet the revolutionary potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our bodies and our minds, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. The most amazing thing about the future won’t be the spaceships, but the beings flying them.

Take death itself as a leading example. Throughout history, death was seen as a metaphysical phenomenon. We die because God decreed it, or the Cosmos, or Mother Nature. People accordingly believed that death could be defeated only by some grand metaphysical gesture such as Christ’s Second Coming. Yet lately we have come to redefine death as a technical problem. A very complicated problem, no doubt, but still only a technical problem. And science believes that every technical problem has some technical solution. We don’t need to wait for God, or Jesus Christ, or the Jewish Messiah in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab could do it. If traditionally death was the specialty of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over. Two years ago Google has established a sub-company called Calico, whose aim is to solve the problem of death.

This will result in enormous new opportunities, as well as frightful new dangers. There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic about it. We need to be realist. We need to understand that this is really happening – it is science rather than science fiction – and it is high-time we start thinking about this very seriously. Most of the problems that worry governments and private citizens alike are insignificant by comparison. The global economic crisis, the Islamic State, the situation in the Ukraine – these are all important problems, of course. But they are completely overshadowed by the question of human enhancement.

Q: What have you learned from observing the lives of different species?

[Carl Safina] From observing different species, I’ve learned that it is possible to live relatively peacefully and rationally.  As a species, humans don’t seem quite capable of accomplishing either of those things.

————————————————–

The implications of any investigation into what it means to be human are potentially immense.” writes Joanna Bourke…after all, two of the most distinguished traditions of modern times- theology and humanism- were founded on espousing hierarchies of humanity. According to ‘the great Chain of Being’, everything in the universe was ranked from the highest to the lowest- from Divine to human, then to the rest of the animal kingdom and finally incorporating inanimate objects… my point is not simply that there is a porous boundary between the human and the animal (although there certainly is), but that the distinction is both contested and policed with demonic precision. In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life. Perhaps the very concept of ‘culture’ is an attempt to differentiate ourselves from our ‘creatureliness’… the compulsive inclination to demarcate the territory of human from that of the non-human, is one of the great driving forces of history.” (What it Means to be Human, 2011).

We have even seen such attitudes pervade within our species. If we look back at the first encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, you observe the viewpoint of the Europeans (exploring new worlds filled with valuable resources and exotic peoples) and the indigenous people (who see these encounters as deeply unsettling, and of apparent cosmological origin).

These were encounters not between individuals, but between cultural systems- embodied in culturally organised groups of people.” write Schieffelin and Crittenden. They go on to describe the moment of first-contact “…the raw shock of Otherness- a dimension of experiences that is present to some extent in all encounters with other people (Sartre 1966) but is especially poignant in first contact situations. Here one is confronted with a paradoxical familiarity of the alien: a being who appears human but is at the same time so radically unfamiliar that one is thrown into doubt- or senses that the ordinary categories for understanding human behaviour may be inadequate to the task of grasping the nature of this one. Such an encounter throws one’s own conception of humanity and hence of oneself into question… we momentarily glimpse the epistemological edges of our own social understanding, leaving us in dread and fascination.” (Like People You See in a Dream: First Contact in Six Papuan Societies, 1991)

Even in more contemporary versions of society, these essentialist attitudes have pervaded.

Industrialising America needed to explain the calamities created by unbridled westward, overseas, and industrial expansion….” wrote Lee D. Baker , “Although expansion created wealth and prosperity for some, it contributed to conditions that fostered rampant child labour, infectious disease, and desperate poverty. The daily experience of squalid conditions and sheer terror made many Americans realise the contradictions between industrial capitalism and the democratic ideals of equality, freedom, and justice for all. Legislators, university boards, and magazine moguls found it useful to explain this ideological crisis in terms of a natural hierarchy of class and race caused by a struggle for existence wherein the fittest individuals or races advanced while the inferior became eclipsed.” Baker continues by describing how this hierarchy became a science. “Professional anthropology emerged in the midst of this crisis, and the people who used anthropology to justify racism, in turn, provided the institutional foundations for the field. The study of ‘primitive races of mankind’ became comparable to geology and physics. These institutional apparatuses, along with powerful representatives in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), prestigious universities, and the Smithsonian Institution, gave anthropology its academic credentials as a discipline in the United States. In January 1896, Daniel G. Brinton, the president of the AAAS and the first professor of anthropology in the United States, wrote in Popular Science Monthly that ‘the black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white… that even with equal cerebral capacity they could never rival its results by equal efforts’.”

We are not an ancient species. If you were to condense the history of the Earth (around 4.54 billion years) into one year, modern humans have only been here for around 1400 seconds. Our nearest ancestors (chimpanzee’s) have been around for almost a day and a half.

We are the youngest explorers of an ancient and unblinking environment that we do not fully understand. AsCharles Pasternak notes, “we seek scientific explanations for natural phenomena, we search to create works of art. There is no need to find the source of the Nile or journey to the Moon, to comprehend the nature of fundamental particles or the structure of proteins, to compose The Trout Quintet or to paint The Girl with the Pearl Earring, to write Hamlet or Madame Bovary..

Being young and naive, we selected arbitrary criteria to differentiate ourselves from the rest of existence , but our actions mean that we have to now grow up. Humanity is more than partially culpable- for example- in creating what is now being described as the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, “The worst since the ecological calamity that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago“.

Primatologist Roger Fouts writes that maybe the time has now come for us to “accept the reality that our species is not outside of nature and that we are not gods. We might lose the illusory heights of being demiurges, but this new perspective would offer us something greater, the full realization of our place in this great orchestra we call nature.” (The God Instinct, 2011)

For us to grow up, the first step is to gain a true understanding of where we come from- our heritage. And for that we must look back down the tree of life towards the wonderful extended family whom we have treated so badly in our short time with them.

When it comes to the role of humanity in nature, we are the only species arrogant enough to suppose that we are elevated above natural order, by virtue of being blind to it.


Recent Articles

A Conversation with Jameela Jamil – Actress, Writer, Host & Activist
My interview with Jameela Jamil, actress, writer, host and activist, about the immense damage done by media and brand portrayals of women- and how she's fighting back through the launch of @i_weigh which encourages women to feel valuable and look beyond the flesh on their bones.
How Technology Stole Our Minds
To learn more about how technology has stolen our attention; and what we can do to get it back, I spoke to James Williams (Writer & researcher on the philosophy and ethics of technology, author of ‘Stand out of Our Light’),  Jamie Bartlett (Author and Director of the...
Poverty in the UK – A Conversation with Darren “Loki” McGarvey
By any measure, the United Kingdom is a rich country.  We are a nation with over £10 trillion in assets (£6 trillion of which is privately held), and depending on your measure – we are the 5th or 9th largest economy in the world.  From the outside, we are...

Speaker