Picks and Pans Review: The Chimpanzees of Gombe

updated 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1986 01:00AM

by Jane Goodall

Goodall has achieved an extraordinary synthesis with this book. It is on the one hand a very sober scientific study of the same community of chimpanzees in western Tanzania that she has observed for 26 years. It is also a vivid, fascinating dramatic narrative with enough sex, violence, conspiracy and familial devotion to please the Dynasty-Dallas crowd. Goodall never romanticizes the chimpanzees. She recognizes that they can be capricious, brutal, murderous animals. Her book is filled, too, with masses of data the casual reader can skim past: a chart showing how often male chimpanzees were successful in their hunts for red colobus monkeys from 1973 to 1981, a report showing it takes a male chimp an average of 8.8 pelvic thrusts to achieve ejaculation in mating. Yet Goodall has always responded to the chimpanzees as individuals. In an early chapter she provides profiles of the major chimpanzee characters she studied. There is Gigi, considered very sexy by males despite her unusual (for a female) size and aggressiveness. There was Figan, ousted as dominant male by his former protégé, Goblin. He regained his position when he and four other males ganged up on Goblin. There was Passion, a psychotic primate who with her daughter Pom stole infants from other chimp mothers and ate them. There was Honey Bee, who stayed with her mortally wounded mother for five days, grooming her and shooing away flies, after the two were attacked by a group of males. Goodall's empathy with the chimpanzees is all the more striking because she has maintained a very human existence—she has married twice and has a son, now 19. It is in fact the interplay involving her sense of the scientific and her human curiosity and compassion that make this such a touching book as well as a memorable document. (Belknap/Harvard, $30)

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