‘Wow, Jane Goodall is coming to Tübingen! Jane Goodall! I gotta go!’ Most of the 700+ people in the audience will probably have thought something like this when they first saw the announcement. She was to be here on December 7th, at the largest lecture hall, talking about herself and “Jane’s Journey”, about her research on chimpanzee behaviour and about turning from a scientist into an activist. Somebody like her visiting your town is hard to beat in academia: it’s hard to say whether Stephen Hawking, or Richard Dawkins, or James Watson, or Noam Chomsky would have attracted a larger audience.
Just like these, Jane Goodall is a living legend, an icon, a rock star. She doesn’t so much have adherents as fans. Jane, as she likes to let herself be called, is far more than just a famous scientist. It’s hard to imagine an activist more intensely advocating on behalf of their cause, despite her 82 years. She travels 300 days out of every 365, giving talks like the one in Tübingen, raising funds, fighting for her agenda: educate people, protect wildlife and – stop animal experimentation. Being one of the most famous researchers on earth makes her an extremely visible and successful activist.
To this end, she can make use of an asset that neither Hawking nor Dawkins, neither Watson nor Chomsky can boast of: she is perceived as a fundamentally good person in the public eye. Jane may not be Mother Theresa, but she isn’t that far removed from her, either. Hawking? Good at explaining about physics. Dawkins? Aggressively preaching his atheism. Chomsky? Wallowing in political controversy. Watson? Making racist remarks proved a career-ender. Jane, on the other hand, is just that animal-loving woman.
And what an impressive woman she is. It’s about 20 past 8 when Jane walks down the stairs in lecture hall N6 on the Tübingen Morgenstelle campus. She’s wearing a practical outdoor jacket. Her hands are a little overburdened with three plush animals, a briefcase and a bunch of small format paper notes. When she predictably loses some of these, the audience laughs along with her rueful smile: what a likable show of human weakness.
Then she starts talking, voice low, words well-chosen (she’s probably said a lot of this on multiple occasions). She gets personal, warm-hearted, inspired and inspiring. She talks of her mother, who made “Jane’s Journey” possible by bolstering her wishes and ambitions, not even complaining when young Jane wanted to hide a handful of earthworms in her bed. She talks of influential books – like Tarzan of the Apes, who unfortunately ‘married the wrong Jane’ – and of important people in her life – like her mentor Louis Leakey. She talks of her research, conveying the incredible emotion when she first saw chimpanzees in Gombe using tools – like a twig to fish termites out of their hiding places –, and even making these tools themselves – such as by picking leaves off the twig beforehand.
This, Jane says today, was the point where she realised that apes are just like us, and that humans don’t hold a special place on the planet. Jane goes on to ask the crunch question: ‘How can we live with ourselves if we’re inflicting pain and torture on these other thinking feeling beings?’ That’s a good question! There are good answers, but they are not self-evident. It is important and worthwhile to discuss this question openly, emotionally honest, on the basis of true fact and solid ethical debate.
But this is where it turns a bit ugly.
Because Jane does not discuss it like this. She doesn’t pose her question in order to get us to think; to her, it is purely rhetorical. She uses it to stress a point. She doesn’t truly want to know how one can live with oneself if one is engaged in animal experiments. She hasn’t truly been wanting to know ever since the eighties, when she first talked to scientists who performed chimpanzee experiments for the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Has Jane asked them why they perform these experiments? Has she tried to understand the hopes and insights behind this research? Possibly. But listening to her, you barely hear that she understands what drives scientists to do animal research.
She complains of anti-animal research people despising her for even talking to ‘those people’. She protests that one needs to talk to them, not avoid communication. But she doesn’t acknowledge certain truths, painful as they might be. When one of the scientists giving her a tour of the animal holding facility at NIH offered her a chimpanzee young to pet and hold, she refused. Until this day, she cannot fathom this scientist’s behaviour. To her, performing experiments on animals on one hand, and feeling empathy towards the same animals on the other, are a case of total cognitive dissonance.
Why does Jane find it so hard to believe that scientists can feel empathy and still do animal research? People are complicated and often contradictory. Jane was married and has a daughter; the absurdity of human emotional logic ought to be sufficiently familiar to her, who has lived a long, full life. But in those she considers her opponents, she doesn’t acknowledge empathy and care. ‘They could hardly admit that they weren’t caring, concerned human beings’, she says about the NIH scientists she talked to. She also juxtaposes those people who care for primates with the medical research community. Now how does one contradict the other?
To Jane it does. She doesn’t talk about an animal researcher as a person she is looking to understand. Instead, she serves up a popular but lame cliché: ‘the man in his white coat’ is what she consistently calls the researcher showing her around his institute’s animal holding facility. Now that’s a stereotype that couldn’t be laid on much thicker – and that demonstrates how Jane likes to see and show herself: one who may have become famous as a researcher, but who was never part of the “system”. In this, she comes full circle from where she started out: her peculiar mixture of humility and pride in her lack of formal education before getting a PhD from the renowned University of Cambridge.
Is that so bad? Jane is an activist and convinced of her cause. Cannot she fight for it? And can she not find her opponents in the animal research debate strange and impossible to understand? Sure she can! But while I’m telling myself that – wrinkling my brow on the balcony of the lecture hall; that is one charismatic woman, you really don’t want to not agree with her, even in your thoughts! – she is already going on.
Now she’s talking about NIH director Francis Collins’ decision to abort experiments in chimpanzees. She’s saying that there had been an impartial study at the NIH, trying to find which experiments in chimps had delivered or promised to deliver health benefits for humans. The result had been that ‘None. Not one of them!’ had been found useful for humans. As a consequence, chimp experiments had been stopped.
That, however, is not quite correct. The question asked by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its 2011 report was not, as Jane puts it: ‘Which of these experiments is beneficial to human health, or potentially beneficial?’ Instead, the IOM investigated what research was fundamentally dependent on chimpanzees instead of a different model!
So what actually happened was that the IOM reminded the NIH of good scientific procedure and the 3R principle. The NIH readily complied. Political and practical considerations will probably have played a large role, as can be seen from the latest NIH statement on the topic from 2015, when they closed down their chimpanzee projects. Another clear declaration can be found in this statement: the NIH avows the necessity of primate experiments in biomedical research – just not in chimpanzees.
Jane giving the whole affair a different spin is understandable, especially since she quite stresses her own role as the one who gave Francis Collins the idea in the first place. I can almost live with that just fine. After all, from the perspective of a proponent of animal research I still believe that it’s great and a big success for science when an animal model can be replaced by different models!
But along comes the part of the evening that really gives my a headache:
‘We face today the problem that so many people have been taught to believe that without experiments on animals, particularly primates, then, we’ll never find cures for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or any of these diseases which attack the human brain. […] And the more you read, the more you learn, the more you realise: it’s not true!’
Did I hear that properly? Ayup, I did. And it goes on:
‘It wasn’t true that primates were useful at all in developing a polio vaccine. It hasn’t been true that they were useful for Alzheimer’s or anything like that.’
But seriously, such sentences lay bare an astounding lack of knowledge. At the least. Can it be that Jane, Jane Goodall, is pulling our leg here? Well, we can probably excuse the “brain in a petri dish” one, this was probably what it said in the press release, it’s not exactly uncommon. But it’s the one with the polio vaccine that I find so hard to swallow (no pun intended). Has Jane Goodall not faced accusations from multiple directions over saving her chimp colony at Gombe from a polio outbreak using oral vaccination in 1966? Is she closing her eyes to the fact that for saving her chimps other primates, rhesus macaques in this case, had to die?
It was Jonas Salk who cultivated and isolated the poliomyelitis virus in monkeys. The first studies from Salks lab investigated the properties of the virus that had been cultured in monkey testicles (Younger et al. 1952, 3 studies). The first tests to see whether the newly developed vaccine, which is now used in most countries of the world, were also conducted in monkeys. Only after that, starting in 1953, were human test subjects involved, until 1954 saw the “greatest public health experiment in history”, with 2 million human test subjects. Maybe Jane Goodall used a different vaccine for saving her chimps; the competing one developed by Albert Sabin had been taken up more quickly than Salk’s, but Sabin’s vaccine was also developed with the help of monkey experiments.
Also, one shouldn’t forget just why Salk and Sabin both developed a vaccine within a relatively short timeframe, getting their hands on hundreds of experimental animals and thousands of probands without problem. Their alacrity was due to a massive polio outbreak in the US in 1952, when almost 58,000 persons were infected. The following year, another 35,000 patients were recorded. Even at a time when 20,000 humans contracted poliomyelitis each year, this was perceived as a major threat. So what would have been the result of even a short delay in the vaccine’s development? 20,000 people every single year in the US alone, threatened by crippling disability or even death, all from a disease which we hardly know anymore! I challenge you to find a more compelling example of the need for animal experiments in biomedical research.
I contend: Jane Goodall doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she says, poliomyelitis hadn’t been vanquished through primate experiments. Maybe she just wants to suggest that other paths could have led to equal results? That Salk and Sabin could have done without monkey test subjects? Perhaps. Would they have been equally quick about it? Hardly. Could success have been delayed indefinitely? Possibly.
The poliomyelitis one is not the only statement by Jane Goodall that I see as highly problematic. But I don’t want to close out this article by simply answering ‘Yes’ to the question I put into the title. I don’t wish to simply disavow Jane Goodall’s competence or even credibility, and leave it at that. For she reminds us how hard it is to keep a debate such as the animal research debate – which has been so hard-fought over such a long time, on so many levels, with so many arguments – firmly rooted in factuality by sheer force of will.
Not all of us are polio specialists, or specialists in anything really. When I listened to the talk, I kept thinking ‘this can’t be, she’s talking bullshit!’ I was firmly convinced of that, I couldn’t and didn’t want to believe what Jane Goodall had just told me. Sadly, I think most of the audience had the opposite feeling: they felt affirmed in their secure “knowledge” that animal research was useless. People easily fall victim to confirmation bias! We so love to find proof of what we believe, failing to recognise evidence to the contrary.
To write this text, I hunkered down and did some research, as well as I could, being a layman in NIH- and polio-related issues. I’m not confident that many members of the audience did so. But one disturbing thought is still plaguing me: I must admit, I was extremely relieved when my research seemed to confirm what I thought I knew beforehand. But as a scholar I get leery of exactly this feeling: did I dig deeply enough? Have I done sufficient research? Where did I cut corners, because I didn’t actually want to know in too much detail? Have I fallen victim to confirmation bias myself, because I so wanted to uncover Jane Goodall’s prejudice?
Unlike my title suggests, this is no longer about who is lying, be they famous or not, scientist or layperson, for what reason and under what circumstances. It’s about doublechecking your intel. It’s about not just believing we have knowledge that happens to support what we want to be true. Let’s stay open-minded, and open to being proven wrong. Let’s admit our mistakes. Even, and especially, while we fight for our cause.