In order to explore some of the issues touched upon in the documentary Jane and to improve our understanding of Jane Goodall's pioneering achievement as a primatologist, I have sought out a special interview with Professor Jae Choe (Choe Jae Chun), one of the best-known scientists currently working in South Korea and a powerful voice for environmental conservation, biodiversity and animal rights.
Professor Choe received a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Harvard University under the supervision of Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, and had taught at Harvard as well as University of Michigan before returning to Seoul National University in 1994 as a professor of biological sciences. Since 2006 he has been in charge of the newly created EcoScience program at Ewha University as Distinguished Professor of EcoScience at Ewha Woman's University.
Professor Choe has also been one of the most successful popular advocates of science in South Korea, having authored and translated more than fifty Korean-language books on the topics ranging from evolutionary biology, ecology, and life sciences, in addition to six academic books and countless articles in English, including The Evolution of Social Behavior in Insects and Arachnids (Cambridge University Press, 1997), The Secret Lives of Ants (Johns Hopkins Press, 2012) and Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (Second Edition, Academic Press, forthcoming in 2019), for which he served as the Editor-in-Chief.
Finally, as the first director of the National Institute of Ecology, he has extended multiple invitations to Jane Goodall (the country is now one of the regular stop-overs for her global itinerary) for a series of highly successful conscious-raising programs of public lecture and forum.
The interview was conducted in July 30, 2018, at the EcoScience Laboratory located in the Ewha Woman's University campus, Seoul, Korea. The version uploaded here has been edited for clarity and brevity, but the conversational, informal tone of the actual discussion is preserved. The contents of the interview herein are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Jae Choe, and may not be reproduced without their explicit permission.
| Professor Jae Choe (left) with the interviewer,|
at his EcoScience Laboratory at Ewha.
Abbreviation: Q indicates the interviewer (Kyu Hyun Kim) and J refers to Professor Choe.
Q: I am honored to have you as the interviewee in discussing the National Geographic documentary Jane, Jane Goodall's life, and questions about primatology and animal sciences in general. Aside from Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey studied gorillas and Birute Galdikas worked on orangutans. Perhaps this is a politically insensitive question, but why were the acknowledged pioneers of primate studies all women?
J: You are correct, we must be careful about answering this question, given we are in the Me Too era. Having cautioned you, though, Irven DeVore (1934-2014), one of the first American anthropologists appointed in Anthropology Department (at Harvard University) for studying primates (in his case, baboons), once claimed that male scientists in the field were actively constrained by the primate males.
Goodall's great achievement was that she studied the chimpanzees up close. As someone who had studied primates myself-- our team has been studying Javan gibbons in Indonesia for ten years now--, I can vouch for just how difficult and frustrating studying primates could be.
By the way, the documentary does not show in detail the process of Goodall struggling to obtain the Ph.D. degree, but she did receive much criticism for her "intimate" and "close" studies of chimpanzees, that her approach lacked objectivity and scholarly distance. This criticism might have made sense applied to studying insects or other animals, but for primates whose social behavior was so complex, without the kind of up-close approach that she employed, all we could learn would have been their basic behavioral patterns, what food they eat, under what circumstances they mate, and so on. And then based on those raw data, we would have had to speculate on the meaning of their behaviors anyway, and that would not have been in any way more "accurate" or "objective" than what she accomplished.
Q: I see. It would have been like an alien ethnologist recording human behavioral patterns, like when we brush our teeth, how many minutes a day we make noises into our smartphones, and so on, and based on those observations trying to figure out what we "think." (Laughter)
Q: So at that time, no one even thought of primates as the creatures who could be so much like us, with "minds" of their own?
J: That's right, no one did. Anyway, going back to your initial question, and seriously answering it beyond Professor DeVore's initial suggestion, the consensus among us primatologists is that female researchers in these circumstances have patience-- knowing how to wait--, and commitment-- their capacity for paying less attention to matters other than the object of their observation. I was actually unhappy about the latter view, thinking that it was vaguely putting down female scholars. But, as you know, I was conducting fieldworks in Central American jungles, and I have never lasted longer than six months at any given point. All of my female graduate students for primate studies at Ewha had lasted longer than eleven months.
Q: In the jungle?!
Q: That's amazing.
J: As mentioned in the documentary, the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972) was the one who had sent Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas to study primates. It is clear that he had an idea that studying primates would help us understand early humans. Moreover, I think he knew that female researchers could get the works done, whether he openly acknowledged it or not.
When Goodall finally discovered the now-famous episode of chimps using hay straws to capture the ants, she sent the report to Leakey. His response to her findings was that "We now have to redefine what tools are, or what humans are, or accept chimpanzees as humans." So that was the breakthrough moment in her research.
Leakey was also instrumental in guiding her, who did not even have a bachelor's degree, to get the Ph.D. so that she could get her own research funds. The grueling "vetting" process Goodall had to endure to qualify for the Ph.D. degree from Cambridge is, I suppose, less cinematic for the purpose of the documentary, but the fact that she successfully defended all of her research in an academic setting, despite the relentlessly denigrating and skeptical treatment it had received, is a stupendous feat in my opinion.
Q: Her evaluation committee members, I suppose, were sticklers for the proper protocol for research and so forth…
J: Right. And Goodall was told that nothing she had done was "right" by those standards. One of her advisers, the zoologist Robert Hinde (1923-2016), later visited Gombe and had the opportunity to observe Goodall's work firsthand, and he came around to acknowledge how little he and his generation of scholars knew about the chimps.
Q: It is very moving to listen to this story, as it is indeed one of those moments in which science makes an advance, as the guardians of the old paradigm admits that it is time for new ideas to come to the fore.
Q: We have already broached this subject above through discussing how Goodall came to receive Ph.D. degree, but what is your thought about the problem of anthropomorphism, of projecting human qualities to other species of animals?
J: Oh, it is a serious problem, no doubt. If you are a dog or cat owner, you are convinced that your dog or cat is a genius who perfectly understands everything you tell it. (Laughter) However, this problem is by no means confined to the lay people. Academic researchers must be careful about letting "wishful thinking" intervene in interpreting animal behavior.
At the same time, it is only in the astonishingly recent years-- a few decades ago, really-- that we have come to even consider that non-human animals are capable of thought. Robert Hinde was careful to tell Goodall to modulate her statements. For instance, Goodall was describing the behavior of a young chimp "Fifi" toward its infant sibling as "being jealous," and Hinde advised her to state, "Fifi behaved in such a way that if she had been a human child, we would say she was jealous."
The field of studying animal behavior, ethology, gained much legitimacy since its pioneers, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) and Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
Q: When was this?
Q: Holly Molly! It was really recent.
J: That's right. Von Frisch is most famous for studying the "dance" communications of the bees, and his premier disciple was Martin Lindauer (1918-2008), whose student was in turn my adviser at Harvard, Bert Hölldobler. Lindauer was supposed to have met von Frisch as the latter was about to pass on, and the former supposedly asked his teacher, "Do you really believe that animals think?" And von Frisch's response was, allegedly, "You know as well as I know that animals think. Our mission is to find the ways to tell the rest of the world that they do."
J: Since then our technologies and methods have progressed so much that this type of once-challenging way of thinking has become more widely accepted. I must also point out that the students these days are very sensitive about anthropomorphism. I certainly have been subject to accusations of "excessive anthropomorphism" in my Korean-language books, especially popular books for the general readers. Yet, I am fully convinced that the readers for these books do not take my "metaphoric" uses of human terms for the ants at face value. Regrettably, some of these criticisms tend to be just showing off that they know the score, rather than thoughtful responses to the contents or approaches of my books.
Q: I believe I am not wrong to believe that the proportion of the South Korean population who accept and love animals has greatly increased in the last decade and a half or so. In your view, has this development helped or hindered the growth of various fields studying animals?
J: Talking about South Korea, we are not quite there yet in terms of this newfound sensitivity and awareness actually helping the scientific research on animals. But there is no question that the general awareness has been greatly expanded. My student's generation might benefit from this.
As you probably have heard about it, we have successfully returned to the sea five dolphins then confined in major entertainment facilities [in 2013], Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon getting actively involved, despite political criticisms. From the viewpoint of the environmental and animal-rights activism, it was a stunning success. Jedol and other four dolphins are still alive and well in the sea near the Jeju Island, and tourists flock to the island to see them. I think Korean people, especially those of younger generation, increasingly refuse to consider it their "rights" to keep these beautiful, intelligent animals in miserable conditions, only so that the latter could serve as a small component of their family entertainment.
Q: It is an incredibly heartening development.
J: Yes indeed.
Q: As the documentary shows, chimpanzees are in many ways "like us" but not necessarily in a benevolent, idealized way. Goodall had to protect her son, Grub, from other chimps because they were known to grab the young of other families and eat them. And yet "Flo" could be such a patient, loving and devoted mother to her own children. So the messages that these primates send us are in fact much more complex than we initially might think.
J: Yes, Goodall herself went through a period of agonizing re-thinking once she had encountered the evidence of a vicious intra-species warfare.
Ultimately, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of Goodall's innovation to the way we scientifically think of animals and human beings by implication. Let me branch off a bit into the territory of "what would it have been like without her contribution?"
Japan is one of the five major nations dominating the field of primate studies-- U.S.A., Germany, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan-- and their team began studying chimpanzees in East Africa only a year or so later than Goodall. They have a long tradition of studying apes because Japan is the only nation among the five that has native species they could study within their own territories. Yet, it has taken longer for them to adapt their research to evolutionary sciences and other global trends. Psychological approach to the animal behavior was predominant in the early phases of ethology, and this tradition survived much stronger in Japan, until recently.
Seen in this context , Goodall's innovation becomes apparent. She did not approach the chimps as "just like other animals," or try to study them confined in a lab. What Japan did not have then was a fresh perspective provided by someone like Goodall. Of course, we must not forget that Japanese researches, especially those based on decades of patient, meticulous observation and data accumulation, have since made enormous contributions to the primate studies.
Q: Can you tell us some of the most interesting directions in ethology/animal sciences?
J: This might surprise you, but many among the primate studies are turning toward studying… dogs.
J: Yes. If you point a finger toward a certain direction, a dog gets that we are pointing toward that direction, right?
J: Well, chimpanzees don't. They just look at the tip of your finger.
Q: Really?! (Laughter)
J: The interesting thing about the dogs is not their IQ, or their brain capacity, but they understand us. The latest theories about the human-canine relationship suggest that, instead of humans domesticating dogs, dogs approached us on their own. We still do not know that how our inherently "obscure" communications make sense to dogs but not to other supposedly more intelligent animals. This line of inquiry has new implications about the way we understand "intelligence," helping us move away from the simplistic approach that tries to assign, for instance, the equivalence of human age to animals in terms of intelligence, as in, say, "a chimpanzee has the equivalent IQ of a six year old human."
Q: The last question I would like to ask you is, what is your new book project? (Laughter)
J: Well, I have an excellent title (Laughter). It's called They Know. "They" here refer to animals, of course. The book is about the animal-human relations, focusing on my argument that animals are aware of human beings, and our behavior. When we purposefully hurt them, when they know their lives are in jeopardy due to human action, animals do show awareness of that fact, sometimes in startlingly direct, and heartbreaking ways.
Q: God, I will be so looking forward to reading it.
J: We shall see how it turns out.
Q: Thank you for a mind-bogglingly educational interview!