From the July Shambhala Sun: Jane Goodall talks spirituality, animals, and compassion

Photo credit: Jeekc

An excerpt from “For Love of Nature,” Andrea Miller’s Q&A with famed anthropologist and primatolgist Jane Goodall — as found in our July 2013 magazine.

You use the word spiritual. How would you define spirituality?

It’s the opposite of being materialistic. Some people believe that everything is just there for its material value, or just as a thing. And then other people believe there’s something more than that, which I happen to believe. I don’t know if I can define spirituality—I’m not sure anybody really has—but it’s something that you either feel or you don’t. It’s an awareness of life that’s more than just the physical presence.

In your work as a primatologist and an ethologist, what anecdotal evidence have you discovered that demonstrates animals can feel compassion or love?

I’ll give you one story. There was an infant chimpanzee named Mel. He was three and should still have been riding on his mother’s back, sleeping with her at night, and suckling. But his mother died. If he’d had an older brother or sister, he would have been adopted by that individual, but he didn’t, so he was on his own and we thought he’d die. Then he was adopted by Spindle, an unrelated male who was twelve, which is about like being a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old human. Spindle let little Mel ride on his back. If it was cold or Mel was frightened, he let him cling to his belly as a mother would. If Mel crept up to his nest at night and made whimpering sounds, Spindle reached out and drew him in. They slept curled up together. When Mel begged, whimpering with his hand out, Spindle would share his food. And most dramatic of all, Spindle protected Mel. Adolescent males tend to be scapegoats. If one male is being dominated by another, he takes it out on somebody lower ranking, so the adolescents keep out of the way in times of social excitement. And the mother’s job is to keep her infant away, but of course, Little Mel didn’t have a mother, so Spindle took that job on, even though it meant that he himself often got bashed by the adult male. There is no question that Spindle saved Mel’s life.

To read the rest of Andrea Miller’s Q&A with Goodall, see the July 2013 Shambhala Sun.


  1. says

    (Some readers' comments, via FB)

    Howard K:
    I met her at a lecture here some 20 or so years ago, at about the time she was changing her views on eating animals and becoming a vegetarian. We had a brief but interesting conversation. She is definitely one of the good ones out there.

    Lesley L:
    Such a wonderful, insightful human being. I will never forget the absolutely incredible pant hoot she did many many years ago when I went to see her lecture at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver. Have admired her work for so very long.

    Joy M:
    My granddaughter, Mary, impersonated Jane Goodall in 3rd grade social studies this year. Jane Goodall is a great role model for all of us.

    Alex V:
    Always admired her.

  2. Tsoygal says

    A decade or more ago I was a volunteer at Performance Arts Center, Austin, Tx. Few volunteers signed up for Jane Goodall's lecture since it was during a mid day hour on a work day. (And she wasn't Philip Glass, Mercedes Sosa, etc) I went in out of curiosity & came out in tears and admiration as did others. Her intelligence, experience and compassion permeated the space and all who gathered.