5 distilld lessons on the meaning of being human from Jane Goodall x On Being

Here are the distilld lessons (extended) inspired by On Being with Krista Tippett's episode on “What It Means to be Human” featuring Jane Goodall.

5 distilld lessons on the meaning of being human from Jane Goodall x On Being

Here are the distilld lessons (extended) inspired by On Being with Krista Tippett's episode on “What It Means to be Human” featuring Jane Goodall.

In the episode “What It Means to be Human” on On Being with Krista Tippet, a primatologist and activist Jane Goodall talks about her encounters with animals and how they’re not much different from humans. In our interaction with animals and people, she emphasizes that we have to be curious, empathetic, and willing to talk to resolve conflicts. She also highlights how human intellect can be put to good use.

Read this if…

  • You want to know how humans are connected to animals
  • You’re curious about the nature of animals
  • You want to be more intellectual

Guest Bio

Jane Goodall is a primatologist, zoologist, ethologist, and activist. She is the author of several books including In the Shadow of Man, The Chimpanzees of Gombe, and Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. She is a renowned expert on chimpanzees, having studied them at the Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania from 1970. She is a conservation and animal rights advocate. She is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and its youth program, Roots & Shoot

the distilld lessons (extended)

Some of us have this notion that animals are distinct from us. Seeing how they look different,  jumping to this conclusion is easy. But in Jane Goodall’s interactions with chimpanzees, she realizes that they are not much different from us. They have personalities. They can think. They can feel emotions like we do.

In this episode of On Being, Jane shares how her encounters with animals made her realize the similarity of animals and humans. She also talks about the importance of curiosity, empathy, and willingness to talk. She also shares how we can make better use of our human intellect to better the world.

Here are the distilld lessons inspired by the “What It Means to be Human” episode of the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast:

1. Be curious

Jane grew up with curiosity, especially with animals. When she was just four and a half years old, she waited for four hours to see a hen lay an egg. She did this on her own without informing her family. Thinking that she went missing, Jane’s family became worried and even called the police. But when they found out what she did, they did not scold her. Her mother in particular was even willing to listen to her story. That experience made Jane realize how being curious shaped her in becoming the scientist that she is right now. Her curiosity, which was encouraged by her mother, taught her the value of asking questions, finding answers for herself, and learning patience along the way.

If we practice curiosity in everything we do and everything surrounding us, we can understand everything better and why they’re happening. This isn’t difficult to do. We’re biologically curious beings. Our curiosity has led us to great discoveries. We’ve invented and developed technology that has revealed more of ourselves and greatly influenced our way of living. Social media for one has magnified our need for social acceptance and belonging.

Because of our curiosity, we’re not only learning about what surrounds us, we’re also learning more about ourselves.

According to the Handbook of Positive Psychology, curious people can create a more fulfilling existence. This is because they always seek knowledge and new experiences. When we explore new things, we learn more about life. This can make us more fulfilled according to a studypublished in Motivation and Emotion.

When we embrace our need to know, when we continue asking questions, we stumble upon answers and perhaps even have more questions that can lead us to interesting experiences. When we stay curious, we gain knowledge and wisdom that can help us become in tune with what’s around us and with ourselves.

2. Sprinkle curiosity with empathy

Jane believes that animals should be treated as humans. In fact, she namedthe chimpanzees she was observing. They should be studied with empathy. The scientists at Cambridge, where she took her graduate studies, had a different opinion. They said she had to be objective when observing chimpanzees. They told her instead of names, she should have assigned the chimpanzees numbers as they are not capable of speech, thought, emotions, and even personalities.

Jane didn’t think so. For her, empathy is needed in understanding chimpanzees better. When they act unusually, Jane would try to understand the reason behind it by asking herself, “If that was done by a person, what would be the reason?” Using this mindset, Jane had more insight into the thought process of chimpanzees. Empathy enhances objectivity. It does not cloud it as what is conventionally believed.

We can adopt this approach in our personal lives. Often, we think that our emotions and subjectivity blind us from fully understanding a person or situation. Many of us are taught that to arrive at an unblemished truth, we should only interpret the raw facts and avoid emotionally interpreting them.

We can learn from Jane’s experience that empathy can help us understand why a certain thing happened or why someone did something. If we put ourselves in other people’s shoes, we can immerse ourselves in the experience. That can lead us to understand how they feel and why they feel that way. According to a study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, having empathy allows us to connect with others, which in turn is beneficial for our well-being.

When we are in situations in which we don’t understand the behavior of another person, we can just always ask ourselves, “If that were me, how would I react?” We might not get the complete answer from this question alone, but we can start from there.

3. People are similar to animals

Some people tend to believe that humans are not part of the animal kingdom. They believe that man is made to dominate animals and plants. But in Jane’s experience with chimpanzees in the wild, she saw how chimpanzees are not so different from us. In her book, In the Shadow of Man, Jane explainedhow chimpanzees interact with each other similar to how humans behave. They hold hands, kiss, and hug each other. They also exhibit the same gestures humans show when they’re being arrogant. They strut and they try to appear big and important. They’re capable of making tools and forming relationships with each other.

As humans share these traits with animals, Jane insists that we are part of the animal kingdom, not above or separate from it.

From this, we can realize that we have to be gentle in how we treating them. Like how we want to be treated, we should afford them respect and compassion. We tend to forget that we have this responsibility because we prize our developed intellect over theirs. What we don’t often realize though is our developed intellect only allows us to act as their “stewards,” as creatures in charge of taking care and nurturing them. Our developed intellect merely enables us to think for their welfare and not use it to rule over them. Sadly, though, we’ve been remiss in this duty. Animal cruelty and neglect have been on the rise for years. If we continue to behave this way, we perpetuate the inaccurate notion that we are the superior species.

4. Harmonize head and heart

What sets humans apart from animals and plants is our developed intellect. Jane believes though that we’re not using it properly because there is a disconnect between our brain and heart.

In her journeys to Africa, Jane witnessed how deforestation was severe there and how it impacted wildlife. The number of chimpanzees lowered and numerous were held in captive. Illegal animal trades and commercial hunting for wild animals were also rampant. For Jane, all these dreadful events only show the disconnect between our brain and heart. We used our intellect to inflict danger and pain to animals and nature. We harm our brothers and sisters and we destroy their habitat. Doing this to them illustrates how we pose as threats to our kin.

Jane emphasizes that intellect is best paired with love and compassion. As we are not only a thinking species but also a feeling species, we should not let our intellect be the only standard when we interact with animals. We have to treat them with kindness and compassion, and we can only do so if we see them with empathetic eyes. In an interview, Jane emphasizedthat when we harmonize our brain and heart, we can only reach our true potential as humans.

Being compassionate with animals can be done by simple acts such as being a responsible pet owner, adopting from the local impound, not intruding into the natural habitat of the animals in the wild, and just not inflicting any violence on them or to their homes.

Seeing ourselves as their stewards, we can realize that it is wrong to harm animals and their habitat just as it would be wrong if the same thing is done to us.

5. Engage with people

Jane is also an advocate of animal rights. She talked with people who have violated them in a way that wasn’t confrontational. This approach seemed unacceptable for the people who were also advancing animal welfare. They said that those violators didn’t deserve to be treated calmly. Jane believes that being confrontational and putting blame on others wouldn’t solve anything. For her, making them understand the impacts of their acts is more effective in convincing them to stop harming animals and nature.

From Jane’s experience, we can learn that peaceful dialogues may take time and effort but they can lead us to effective resolutions of conflicts. Whenever a problem arises, blaming one another can sometimes be a reflex reaction. Nobody wants to admit any fault because for some, doing so can be a sign of defeat. However, this approach also only makes us hostile and defensive. We get farther away from settling our differences. Instead of finding a solution, more conflicts might even occur. Keeping a cool head then and being open to a conversation can help us identify the problem and find proper solutions to it. Solving any disagreement calmly can then help us fix it faster. According to UC Berkeley, in resolving conflict situations, it’s necessary to acknowledge that there is a problem and allow the people involved to express their feelings about it.

When we communicate with people, instead of blaming them, we’re already a step closer to solving the problem.

For a more in depth conversation, the distilld lessons (extended) are here.


On Being

Hosted by Krista Tippett, On Being is a podcast which examines what it means to be human and how we want to live. The distilld lessons here.

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