The Science of Compassion in ‘Jane’

The documentary highlights the work of a caring female scientist we can all learn from.
By  · Published on March 12th, 2018

The documentary highlights the work of a caring female scientist we can all learn from.

It’s likely you’ve heard her name, but Brett Morgen‘s documentary Jane shows legendary primatologist Jane Goodall in a whole new light. Her work is some of the most famous scientific research in history, but you might not know how she learned more about chimpanzees than any other man that came before her.

The film follows Goodall and her research project studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat in Gombe, Nigeria, in the 1960s and 1970s. By observing their behavior, Goodall made history with her research, in part for it being the longest-running research program of any animal in its natural habitat. With never-before-seen footage from her trip shot by her ex-husband, Hugo van LawickJane gives a comprehensive look at her chimpanzee study, their married life, and everything in between.

Without a higher education or any preconceptions of the chimps before going into the research, Goodall’s compassion for animals and a curiosity for them wielded results that changed the course of science. Her patient understanding for the animals she observed and her philosophical approach is something even the least scientific viewer could learn from.

Remarkably, Goodall’s lack of college education and isolation from the science community, thanks to being a working-class woman, is what made Dr. Louis Leakey choose to send her to Africa to observe chimpanzees. This new perspective coupled with her genuine passion for animals is what separated her from the competition.

Footage of her observing the chimps from afar, patiently waiting for them to trust her enough for her to get closer, shows that it’s unlikely anyone without her state of mind could have survived the trip. Her will is tested when the animals refuse to get closer to her and later when they raid her camp, but her compassion for them is what keeps her from giving up. Goodall never loses sight of the fact that she is entering their home and their response to becoming violent and stealing food is a natural response. She reevaluates her approach to accommodate them, which someone without her open mind and respect for them as beings would not have done.

Goodall comes into the project without any preconceived notions on the chimpanzees’ behavior or theses to prove; she just wants to learn everything she can about these animals. She had no idea what to expect from them, but she was in awe of them when she finally saw them in Africa. Her observations were certainly scientific as we see with the animated charts and notes she took while observing, but what she narrates in the film shows how she applied the information she collected was rather philosophical. One example is how she interpreted their need to pick bugs from each other daily. Goodall sees this as a need for friendly contact and reassurance every day, things people only associated with humans.

Once the chimps produced even more characteristics similar to humans, Goodall’s introspective observations became revolutionary. Universities had been teaching that what made humans superior beings to any other animals was our ability to make tools, but Goodall had never been to university so she didn’t know this. The chimps she observed displayed tools used to capture bugs and didn’t question what it meant for the validity of mankind, just understood it within the research of her subjects. Her approach used her comparisons to human knowledge to help understand the animals, but she wasn’t threatened by how similar they were to us. She was fascinated by it.

Goodall’s lack of formal education is just one part of what made her the perfect person for this research project. Her perspective as a woman helped her intuitively look at how the female chimpanzees acted as mothers and far better understand their behavior. Again, we see her applying her observations to the knowledge of human nature that she knows to better understand these animals. What’s even more remarkable is that she uses what she learns from the chimpanzee mother Flo to help her become a better mother when she has her baby later on. Goodall’s female perspective is what separated her from the scientific field for so long, but in the project, it put her at an advantage to better understand these animals.

Goodall knew that we could learn a lot about chimps from her observations, but we could also better understand humankind too. She found so many similarities between chimpanzees and humans, but that wasn’t bad information like some critics of her work claim. She was wise enough to know that knowing more about species around us help us better understand our place in the world.

Morgen allows Goodall to tell her own story through narration, allowing us to hear everything through an incredibly smart person. He never puts too much emphasis on her womanhood, showing that it is only one aspect of her as a person and as a scientist. Goodall’s compassion is at the forefront of the documentary.

Goodall’s quest for knowledge, led by pure curiosity and a compassion for her subject, is something we can all learn from. She teaches us that you have to come into anything with an open mind and, in order to understand our world, we must treat it with respect.

Jane airs on Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild on Monday at 8 pm EST.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_