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Books: Scientists need faith

Books | Chimp expert Jane Goodall's spiritual autobiography shows the limits of science alone

Issue: "More clay than Potter," Oct. 30, 1999

Jane Goodall's new autobiography is beginning to ascend the bestseller lists. This account of the spiritual development of the naturalist famed for her studies of chimpanzees and animal behavior is more than just an autobiography. Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey clearly and unashamedly shows the subjectivity of what Francis Schaeffer has called "modern modern science." It demonstrates just how ill-equipped our new high priests--susperstar scientists--are to provide any real answers.

"So here we are," Mrs. Goodall concludes, after struggling with the question of evil. "Half human ape, half sinner, half saint, with two opposing tendencies inherited from our ancient past pulling us now toward violence, now toward compassion and love."

Born to a comfortably middle-class family in pre-war England, Jane Goodall describes a childhood colored by a mostly watered-down Christianity. She writes of her grandmother, "She believed deeply in God ... she wanted Judy and me to share her belief for the comfort it would bring."

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But by the time she reached her teen years, she was happy to set aside the tenets of Christianity she didn't like and the comfort she did not then need: "I came to realize that my belief in God and in Christ had its own meaning for me, personally, outside the words of the Bible."

Part of that personal meaning was Hindu in origin: "I had never been able to believe that God would give us poor frail humans only one chance at making it ... so the concepts of karma and reincarnation made logical sense to me."

Another part was her willingness to depict chimps as man-like: She writes of her first scientific study of chimpanzees, "Just two weeks before I had been told that if only I could observe a chimpanzee using a tool, then the whole study would be more than worthwhile."

Would objective science--observational science--go in with such a predilection? She reveals even more when she writes about the pain of publishing her findings on primate violence. "It was my first experience with the politics of science.... One colleague said you should never publish this because it will give irresponsible scientists and writers the data they need to prove that our human tendency to engage in conflict is innate, that war is, therefore, inevitable--an unfortunate and regrettable legacy from our brutal ape-like ancestors."

Still, Reason for Hope shines in numerous places. Mrs. Goodall has lived an exciting life, studying chimpanzees in the wilds of Tanzania. She comes across as a loving but slightly preoccupied wife and mother. And the book does list four reasons for hope: the human brain, the resilience of nature, the energy and enthusiasm of young people, and the indomitable human spirit.

Those are all great things, of course, but unrestrained by the grace and mercy of God, they are also the source of, in order, criminal geniuses, earthquakes, youth gangs, and totalitarianism.

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