WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Pioneer Primatologist Jane Goodall, one of “The Paradigm Shifters” of Science

Pioneer Primatologist Jane Goodall, one of

“The Paradigm Shifters” of Science [1]

In 1912 a Middle Eastern traveler to the United States by the name of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made some farsighted pronouncements concerning the role of women. He had spent his life mentoring both Eastern and Western women to achieve their full capacities and render great services to humanity. In a talk in Boston, Massachusetts, he specifically encouraged women to “devote their energies and abilities toward the industrial and agricultural sciences” and seek to assist humankind “in that which is most needful.”[2]

Abdu'l-Baha in 1912

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s thesis was that women could bring a unique dimension to these fields, due to qualities of character in which they excel. Among these qualities are intuition and receptiveness, mental alertness, “abundance of mercy and sympathy,” concern for “the needy and suffering,” and “greater moral courage.” [3]

A survey of the contributions women have made in some of these fields reveals women scientists who have, indeed, exemplified qualities in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says women excel. When entering previously male-dominated fields they have evinced ground-breaking influence not only by their accomplishments but also by methods and motivations that contrasted those of previous practitioners.


When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserted that women’s “hearts are more tender and susceptible than the hearts of men,” He may have been referring to women’s capacity for empathy.[1] Webster’s New World Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings.”[2] History attributes the first use of empathy as a scientific research tool in the field of primatology to Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, who are considered to have revolutionized this previously male-dominated field by their “female approach” to the study of chimpanzees and gorillas. [3]

Jane Goodall

In 1960 Goodall’s patience and persistence in habituating the animals to her presence and her perceptive-ness in observation led to ground-breaking discoveries. Among other things, she found that chimpanzees were omnivorous (not herbivores as previously thought) and that they made tools from twigs and used them to extract termites from their nests. The latter discovery prompted a redefinition of the long-held belief that humans were the only toolmakers.

Jane Goodall studying chimps

Contrasting the previous research methods to Goodall’s approach, researchers now agree “the payoff came from the women’s capacity to empathize with their subjects, seeing them as individuals, whose life histories influenced the structure of the group.”Instead of numbering the chimpanzees, Goodall! “named the animals and used words like ‘individual,’ ’emotion,’ and ‘personality.’”[4]

Leaders in the field at the time considered Goodall’s approach unscientific and sentimental, ostracizing her and insinuating that what she was doing was not appropriate science. Goodall persisted in this female approach to science against the discouragement of the male scientific culture. Now scientists admit, “empathy is very important in primatology. It helps you to ask questions and to predict what your animals are going to do.”[5] Empathy has now become part of the scientific method in primatological research.

[1]  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation 284.

[2]  Webster’s NewWorld Dictionary, ed. Victoria Neufeldt (New York: Warner, 1990).

[3]  Sec Virginia Morell, “Called ‘Trimates,’ Three Bold Women Shaped Their Field,” Science,260 (1993): 420-25, and Nini Bloch, “Mothers of Invention: What Are Women Doing to Science,” Earthwatch (Oct./Nov.1995), 16-22. For a more detailed description of Jane Goodall’s discoveries, see Jane Goodall, Through a Window, My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe (Boston: Houghton,1990). For a more complete treatment of Diane Fossey’s work, see Farley Mowat, Woman in the Mists: The Story of Diane Fossey and the Mountain Gorillas of Africa (New York: Warner, 1987) 380.

[4] Morell, “Called ‘Trimates,” Science, 260(1993):422.

[5]Morell, “Called ‘Trimates,” Science, 260 (1993):423.


Stay tuned for more during WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH. This was Part 2 of 5 from Science in the Hands of Women – The Paradigm Shifters

Also check out my novel about a working scientist, Maddie Hawkins, and see what kinds of trouble she gets herself into.


About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
This entry was posted in agriculture, bahai, educators, equality, female professors, food security, genetic engineering, Jane Goodall, national discussion, Paradigm shift, science and religion, social justice, technology, Uncategorized, women in science, women's history and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Pioneer Primatologist Jane Goodall, one of “The Paradigm Shifters” of Science

  1. Frances E Klippel says:

    Thank you, Rhea for bringing the stories of women’s and how they contribute to the advancement of our planet during women’s month.

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