A Lesson from David Greybeard

Back in the beginning of global pandemic, I subscribed to Masterclass when it went on a 2-for-1 sale. As a rule, I enjoy documentaries and learning about nearly any subject when paired with beautiful cinematography and a captivating story. Masterclass promised this, with a very personal presentation style to learn topics from a Master in the field, and they did not disappoint. I’ve been able to watch and hear firsthand stories, observations, and lessons from Garry Kasparov on chess, James Suckling on wine, Thomas Keller on cooking, Robin Roberts on effective communication, Neil deGrasse Tyson on scientific thinking and communication, and Jane Goodall on conservation.

While I’ve been enjoying the subscription, this is not an advertisement for Masterclass and you won’t find a referral link here (mostly because they suspended their referral program!) but I did find one Masterclass story to be quite perfect for what I like to write about.

For those who don’t know Jane Goodall (now in her 80s), she’s known for her study of chimpanzees, advocacy for conservation, and animal welfare. She’s best known for being the first woman (and the first human) to thoroughly study chimps in the wild. She wanted to observe them in their natural habitat and learn their habits. And she did this in the 1950s and 60s. Remember from a few weeks ago discussing the N95 mask, this was a time when many women were still homemakers and they really had to push to be heard in a world dominated by men.

When Jane wanted to travel to Africa alone to study chimpanzees in a very dangerous environment, it was a shock to many. Yet Jane became one of the most significant contributors to the field of primatology. Jane Goodall’s story itself is inspiring and very fitting for this blog in telling stories of overcoming adversity and others’ expectations of us, but what really intrigued me was the story of David Greybeard.

Mr. David Greybeard

While Jane Goodall spent years in the jungle, observing and reporting on the actions and interactions of scores of chimpanzees, David Greybeard was the first who lost his fear of humans. David Greybeard was the chimpanzee to first communicate with Jane Goodall.

This didn’t happen upon Jane’s arrival in the jungle, of course. David Greybeard had already contributed to many of Jane’s discoveries studying in Africa. He was one of several chimpanzees she observed using tools early on, a trait previously thought to be exclusive to humans. He was in the families in which Goodall observed personalities, emotions, and even grudges held; all features that had been uniquely human. She observed the social structure and hierarchies in the chimpanzee families… and they knew she was there.

Obviously all of the chimpanzees were distant and cautious with these new creatures near their habitat. All of the chimpanzees were aware of her presence and cautious while she was around. They were uncomfortable with this intruder and didn’t understand what she was doing there. Some alphas would display their dominance. Most would sheepishly keep a cautious eye on this strange white ape watching them. Only after months of distanced observations and meticulous records of the daily activities of the several families of chimpanzees did this lone actor approach her and begin to interact.

But what does this have to do with my blog?

The majority of the chimpanzees were used to their world how it was before Jane intruded. Even aware of her existence, most would try to ignore the fact that she was there and quite frankly would have preferred if she wasn’t there. Sure there were some curious juveniles who would want to explore a little bit, but they had watchful mothers making sure they didn’t explore too much or get too close! They were comfortable with their limited worldview, just as humans often are.

I never thought I would write about an inspirational chimpanzee, but David Greybeard was able to initiate a connection to a different species. He pushed aside apprehension about some quite dramatic differences and engaged with someone not only of different skin color, gender, and background but also a difference species to make a new connection!

Ok, I know this example is wild (pardon the pun). A chimpanzee, you might argue, isn’t a human. They don’t have the same intellect. They won’t have the same upbringing as humans of course. You might say that they won’t have the same biases or prejudices. And you’re absolutely right. But I would counter that in a sense, it makes David Greybeard’s actions even more incredible. If he could allow the curiosity and interest of this strange woman to overcome his primal, animal instincts to avoid danger in the unknown then shouldn’t it be a non-issue for the more evolved humans we claim to be?

We all have so much to gain from exploring someone else’s world. Sharing and discovering our differences and those of others expands our own worldview. What we learn about others’ experiences is added to our own knowledge and we all become better for it. Seeking out those who have had experiences different from our own (sometimes narrow) experiences is taking that bold step David Greybeard did. If a chimpanzee can bridge the divide between species, can’t we as humans explore our own differences whether religious, cultural, financial background, or (gasp) even political?!

With David Greybeard’s brave and bold steps, Jane the peculiar white ape became accepted among the chimpanzees and two very different worlds suddenly intersected. That small area of intersection expanded each world to be vastly larger than it had been before. Surely if a chimpanzee can get out of his comfort zone to interact with a new species, we can accept and embrace the differences that exist between us all.

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