Pitzer Professor Daniel A. Segal Questions the Validity of Jane Goodall’s Link Between Chimpanzees’ Tool-Making Skills and Human Characteristics

Professor of Anthropology Daniel A. Segal
Professor Daniel A. Segal

Claremont, Calif. (March 2, 2018)—In a new article in Anthropological Quarterly, “Witnessing Chimpanzee-Human Closeness: Jane Goodall at Gombe and Since,” Pitzer College Professor Daniel A. Segal challenges primatologist Jane Goodall’s claim that her early observations of chimpanzee “tool-making” revealed a fundamental similarity between chimpanzees and humans. For several decades, this claim about the near humanness of chimpanzees as tool-makers has been identified as Goodall’s most important contribution to science.

In her 1971 bestseller, In the Shadow of Man, Goodall wrote that she had observed chimpanzees making tools in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park more than a decade earlier—an activity, she said, that had previously been seen as a distinctly human characteristic. In his article, Segal offers three criticisms of this claim.

First, comparing the 1971 book with Goodall’s field notes from 1960, Segal finds notable divergences between them. Goodall misrepresents ideas crucial to her conclusion as simply what she had observed, Segal argues, rather than acknowledging these ideas as an analysis she had provided after the fact—and for which reasoned arguments were needed, but not given. Instead of explaining why the behaviors she had observed starting in 1960 should be identified as making tools, and as making human-like tools specifically, Goodall in 1971 simply reported that this was what she had observed 11 years earlier—thus keeping her analysis, and its conceptual assumptions, away from critical scrutiny.

In addition, says Segal, Goodall’s assertion in 1971 that tool-making had, before her observations, been an accepted “clause” in “the definition of man” misrepresented the prior scientific consensus. Goodall, in short, fostered the mistaken view that such a definition had been a staple in the scientific literature regarding the boundary between human and non-human animals, prior to her own research, Segal says.

Lastly, Segal contends that in treating the notion of a “tool” as a simple and observable fact, rather than as a complex idea requiring careful argument, Goodall overlooked a fundamental difference between human tools and chimpanzee tools. The chimpanzees Goodall observed did fashion plant materials into tools to pull termites—a chimpanzee food staple—from termite mounds. But, Segal argues, in chimpanzees’ tool-making and tool-using, the goal or end—obtaining sustenance—is not something the chimpanzees themselves fashioned or produced.

“Humans,” says Segal, “are distinctive because they fashion or invent the purposes of their tools, rather than just fashioning tools as a means to meet needs imposed on us by nature.”

In explaining this difference, Segal discusses the example of a fork. This everyday utensil’s purpose, he notes, is not a means to bring food into the mouth—hands serve just as well, if not better, for that, he says. Instead, the fork, Segal writes, is a tool “that serves the cultural purpose of eating in a proper manner.”

“Our notion of eating in a proper manner is entirely our own fabrication. It has no basis in an actual or objective need,” Segal says. “This may seem a trivial case, but such invented purposes or projects pervade our lives as humans—they are, in fact, culture. Nothing in the chimpanzee tool use or tool-making Goodall observed had anything cultural about it. On this crucial basis, chimpanzee tool-making, as impressive as it is, is decisively unlike the tool-making characteristic of human beings.”

Anthropological Quarterly features peer-reviewed articles in ethnography and anthropological theory and serves as a forum for scholars within and outside the discipline of anthropology to add their voices to contemporary public debates.

Daniel A. Segal is an anthropologist and historian whose courses at Pitzer College include a two-semester world history sequence and a seminar on Donald Trump’s America. In 2017, he was awarded a Fulbright US Scholar research fellowship to examine the entry of the Brazilian state into the northern Amazon. He was the inaugural director of Pitzer’s Munroe Center for Social Inquiry and is a former fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, as well as the past secretary of the American Anthropological Association and past president of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. He received his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago and his BA, with highest honors, from Cornell University.

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