Great discoveries: Jane Goodall's achievements have made her a household name. Photo: Stuart Clark
Primatologist Jane Goodall has been studying chimpanzees for 50 years, which is long enough, you would have thought, to have seen almost everything and be surprised by almost nothing, but you would be wrong. Talking on the phone from her hotel room in New York, Goodall is talking excitedly in an impeccably polite, English way, about an alternative mating strategy called consortship, which her research team has been studying in the wilds of Tanzania.
''The male chimp basically frightens the female chimp,'' she says. ''He shakes branches; he carries on. He must be brutally persuasive.''
For a lower-ranking male chimpanzee, consortship can be the only way of securing a mate, who he must lure away from the alpha males, to a remote part of the range.
Goodall with a chimp called Panhoot.
''He must do this before the female comes into estrous, because once she does so, a pink swelling on her backside attracts all the other more dominant males.''
If he is too brutal and she screams, the other males come running. So he must inveigle and intimidate, connive and co-opt. ''The interesting thing is that once she is out of her comfort zone, she will stay with him and mate.''
Goodall, who turned 80 in April, is one of a select number of contemporary scientists who have become household names, figures such as Stephen Hawking, whose impact has eclipsed their expertise, transforming them from niche players into cultural phenomena.
Jane Goodall observing chimpanzees in the 1960s.
Goodall's legend is enhanced by her ripping, Tarzan-esque backstory, but her principal achievements remain truly epochal, particularly her discovery, in 1960, that chimpanzees make and use tools, a skill previously thought to be uniquely human. (''Now we must redefine 'tool', redefine 'man', or accept chimpanzees as humans,'' wrote her patron at the time, Louis Leakey.)
Such discoveries have afforded Goodall an enviably broad brief. Having left fieldwork years ago, she now travels 300 days of the year, pursuing an ever-expanding array of pet projects, from reforestation to mobile-phone recycling and the movement against genetically modified crops. In Australia, where she is visiting this month, perhaps for her last time, she has spoken out against live exports, the treatment of dingoes and the culling of bats. No doubt she will touch on these topics again, as well as what she describes as her most recent ''chimp work'' and Roots and Shoots, her global youth program that now has chapters in more than 130 countries.
Despite her age and grandmotherly demeanour, Goodall remains more than capable of stirring the pot. In February, during an interview with Agence France-Press, she accused China of exploiting Africa for its natural resources, saying that ''in Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialists did. They want raw materials for their economic growth, just as the colonialists were going into Africa and taking the natural resources, leaving people poorer.''
The Chinese were not impressed. ''It's not only insulting, it's wrong,'' the Chinese Communist Party newspaper replied.
''I didn't say they were any worse than us,'' Goodall tells me, in a delicious half-apology. ''The Chinese are only doing what we did, only there are more of them and their technology is better.''
Goodall was born in 1934, in London. She dates her interest in animals to the age of one, when her father gave her a soft-toy chimpanzee called Jubilee, which still sits on a chair in her home in England. As a child, she read Doctor Dolittle, Tarzan and a book called The Miracle of Life, which her grandmother had got for free by saving up coupons from cereal packets. Field research came naturally. As a four-year-old girl, she hid for five hours in a chicken coop, waiting to see how a hen laid an egg. Later, she would spend her spare time soaking up the exhibits in London's Natural History Museum.
In 1957, Goodall headed to Africa at the invitation of a friend, who lived on a farm in Kenya. Once there, she met famed anthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey, who was then looking for an assistant. Leakey invited Goodall to accompany him and his wife on a fossil expedition in the Olduvai Gorge. ''One day another woman and I were followed by a two-year-old lion that was the length of a cricket pitch,'' Goodall says. ''My companion said we should go into the thickets, but I said we should climb up the side of the gorge, in plain view. Later that night, sitting around the campfire, Louis said that's exactly what you should have done.''
It was Leakey who proposed the chimpanzee project, sending 26-year-old Goodall to Gombe, on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, with little more than a tent, a pair of binoculars, an African cook named Dominic and her mother, the latter a concession to the authorities, who insisted she take a companion.
Much of what Goodall observed shocked the establishment: chimpanzees not only using and making tools, such as poking pieces of grass into a termite mound to feed, but eating meat (they were previously thought to be vegetarian) and practising cannibalism. She watched female chimpanzees killing and eating other chimpanzees' babies, ripping them from their mother's arms. In one instance, she observed a group of chimpanzees hunting a colobus monkey, which they trapped high in a tree. She made the first record of long-term warfare in non-human primates - the ''four-year war'', which began at Gombe in 1974 and only ended when one group had been wiped out.
''It's like gang warfare,'' she explains. ''Chimps are always on the lookout, not only defending territory, but also if your neighbour is weaker, if the alpha male has died, then you take the opportunity to enlarge your territory. When I first observed this, there were scientists who told me I shouldn't report it much, because if we assume that it has come down the evolutionary pathway from a common ancestor 6 or 7 million years ago, then it suggests that violence is inevitable.''
But there was also remarkable kindness. ''Kissing, embracing,'' Goodall says, together with what she calls the ''compassion gene''. One of the chimpanzees, a 12-year-old male called Spindle (Goodall named all her primates), even adopted a three-year-old orphan named Mel.
''Spindle should have just begun his rise up in the hierarchy, and here he was letting Mel cling to his belly, sharing food with him and even running in to rescue Mel when he got too close to other adult males. Spindle actually saved Mel's life several times, and he often got beaten for it.''
Goodall's achievements were all the more incredible for the fact that she was untrained. The furthest she had gone was secretarial school. To remedy this, Leakey sent her, in 1962, to Cambridge, where she studied animal behaviour (ethology). It was not easy. Many of her findings were mocked by the academy, along with her methodology. (Her habit of naming animals, rather than numbering them, was anathema to her superiors, who accused her of anthropomorphism.) Some scientists said she must have coached her chimpanzees. After a presentation to the Zoological Society of London, anatomist and monkey researcher Sir Solly Zuckerman implied that Goodall's work amounted to little more than ''anecdote'' and ''unbounded speculation''.
Goodall earned her PhD in 1966, by which time she and her then husband, Hugo van Lawick, had begun the Gombe Stream Research Centre, to accommodate other student primatologists, but as the local and global environment changed, so did Goodall's work.
In 1991, shocked by the deforestation around Gombe, she secured a small grant from the European Union for a program to ''improve the lives of the locals'' through better health and water, using micro-loans and restoring soil fertility. ''Now the chimps have three times as much forest as they had 10 years ago,'' says Goodall, who is replicating the program in Uganda, Senegal and the Republic of Congo.
A powerful cult of personality has grown up around Goodall. Her website features lists such as ''Jane's favourite music'' (Dvorak, Bach), ''Jane's favourite authors'' (Tolkien, T. S.Eliot), and even ''Jane's favourite quotations'' (several of her own, plus Jimi Hendrix's ''When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace''). She has been parodied in Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons, and on The Simpsons, as a research scientist who secretly forces her chimpanzees to mine diamonds, all of which she takes in good humour.
''The only problem with this [cult of personality] is what happens after Jane is gone? So much of my work is fund-raising, concentrating on a global endowment.''
Goodall is a prodigious writer, authoring 15 books on the environment and animals and a further 11 children's titles. One gets the feeling she may, in fact, be too prodigious, with her latest book, Seeds of Hope, running into accusations of plagiarism and sloppy research. Together with several ''borrowed'' passages, Goodall appears to have quoted scientists with whom she never actually talked, and cites, in her section on genetically modified crops, sources that have since been discredited.
''It's all cleared up now,'' she tells me. ''What happened is that I'm on the road 300 days of the year and, doing the research, I was very keen to make it personal and talk to people, and I was also checking the internet, obviously, and I had all these notebooks filled with quotations and material and in just one case I ended up writing something that I thought had been said to me that had actually come from the internet.''
The ''errors'' cost her ''a lot of money'', she says. ''I had to pay for all the books to be reprinted, and I had to pay for all the fact checking, which people did for me half price, because they love me.'' She adds that ''if anyone believed I was deliberately trying to plagiarise, they only have to look at the gratitude section, where I thank everyone I can think of''.
Despite the controversy, Goodall remains upbeat. She says the book is actually better now. The reprinting allowed her to get everything right and even to insert some new material about, of all things, peas. ''Did you know that peas communicate with each other through their roots, and that trees do it as well?'' she says, sounding for all the world like that little girl in the henhouse, mesmerised by nature. ''Truly remarkable, don't you think?''
Jane Goodall will speak at the Sydney Town Hall on May 31.