July 1, 2000
Dr. Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall Institute
P.O. Box 727
Dar es Salaam
Re: The Truth about Chimps
Dear Dr. Goodall:
Thank you for your reply. You are one of my heroes, and I treasure my contact with you, both in person (at the "for the Love of Nature" conference in Findhorn, Scotland last year) and through your writings.
Of all people in the world, you can best deliver this message. You have the ear of the world. You are respected and loved, worldwide. Therefore it is extremely important that you tell the truth about the chimps and other wildlife: they don't want us around! They "told" you that clearly and unequivocally when you first contacted them, as did the orangutans to Birute Galdikas, and the gorillas to Dian Fossey. The chimps desperately need you to deliver their message to the rest of humanity. Although the message is impossible to miss, most humans ignore it.
This is perhaps a bitter pill, but one that the world urgently needs to take. With our population increasing rapidly, it is more important than ever to give wildlife what they want, which is also, therefore, what they need: freedom from the pressure, irritation, infection with diseases, and outright danger of the presence of humans. It is utterly inexcusable that we continue extending our hegemony into every square inch of the Earth -- and soon, other defenseless planets as well.
This is a tall order? Very well, then it is a tall order. But I do not see why we shouldn't aim for what is needed, instead of pretending that less is adequate. Do you?
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
P.S. You mentioned that humans are part of the animal kingdom, as though that could excuse our behavior. That we are a part of the animal kingdom is undeniable, but trivial -- it has no moral or behavioral implications, like the fact that we are made of atoms. The real question is what part? We are obviously the most destructive part!
What makes a species a native? A native species is basically one that has been in a given location for a long time. However, every species is a newcomer at some time, so how long does it take to become a "native"? I think that the most sensible answer is: the length of time that it takes the other species in that ecosystem to evolve to adapt to it. That (successful mutations) happens on the evolutionary time scale, hence on the order of millions of years. That would make humans native only to Africa, and everywhere else an exotic species (newcomer). That is not a value judgement, merely a biological description of our place in the ecosystem.
However, even in Africa, the rate at which human behavior changes implies that the only organisms that can really keep up with us are viruses and bacteria. I think that this implies that we should act as if we are an exotic species: i.e., with great restraint! We are simply too powerful a force to be able to coexist with any other species. There are a few that have been able to coexist with us to some degree, but in general, we are a bull in their china closet (or, as I like to say, the ants at every other species's picnic).
To see the effects of humans on wildlife, it is not very useful to look at the "steady-state" situation that obtains after long cohabitation. The most definitive test is to look at what happens when humans first arrive at a given location. In every case, we have decimated the local species (e.g. see The End of Evolution, by Peter Ward). I think it is time to stop pining for a romantic past that never existed (except in the Old Testament of the Bible), face the reality, as unpleasant as that might be, and start listening to what the wildlife are really telling us. If anyone can do that, I think it is you! (See, I have you on a pedestal -- or at least a stump! J )
It is certainly amazing and inspiring to learn about wildlife, but we have placed artificial limits on that knowledge, so that the unpleasant, "inconvenient" facts are filtered out (even by scientists, who should know better -- or have I idealized them too much?).
As you say, "an experience of wilderness changes people for ever". Yes, sometimes, but not always in a positive way. It could just as easily open their eyes to more resources to exploit. It is not guaranteed to make them an environmentalist or deep ecologist, and we shouldn't assume that it does! Sure, it is necessary to experience wilderness, in order to appreciate it. But that needn't be often, nor need it be pristine wilderness. There is a degree of wildness on every leaf!
By the way, I think that children grow up loving the type of surroundings they experience when young. If they grow up on concrete, they will tend to love concrete. So I think that every time a child is born, we should execute a ceremony: they should first be introduced to their mother, then to their father, and then taken to see some wilderness. Where else can they learn the way the world is supposed to be? Of course, they should also be taught to respect and stay out of that wilderness, as much as possible.
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