Published: Oct. 2, 2015 By

Humanist Blog

Like 8,000 others, I attended Jane Goodall’s Gamow Memorial Lecture Series two nights ago. Her status is legendary and well deserved. Through the almost two hours of her lecture, she held the crowd’s attention by talking about her past growing up poor in London, loving animals, having a dream of one day going to Africa, reaching her destination, making an impression on the right people, and then skyrocketing to fame with her observations about chimpanzees.

The second half of her talk was spent advocating on behalf not only of the animals to whom she has devoted her life, but for Planet Earth and its need for love and tending to, for environmental decisions that might preserve it for future generations, for an increased social effort to ensure that we, its citizens, teach ourselves and future generations the respect and love that, so clearly, exudes from this small but still incredibly energetic woman of 81!

While Professor Goodall’s talk focused on the wonders of science and the need for social policies during most of her talk, as a humanist, I could not but notice that the mainstays of her life’s ambitions are grounded firmly in Humanism: “wonder” and “hope.”

The first, as was clear from the beginning of her talk, emerged from her wide-eyed wonder at the world around her, and the role that books and stories (Tarzan of the Apes) played in fueling her desire to explore the lives and behaviors of animals around and far away from her. It is that wonder that the humanistic spirit can feed when it teaches us about beauty and the way that beauty emerges from the continuous relationship between our direct experience of the world and its indirect appraisal through books, artistic renditions, and the exchanges that our social communities promote.

Wanting to see the good in others is what spurs someone like Jane Goodall to ‘hope’ that we might still save the planet from the destruction that we have wrought upon it.”

Professor Goodall’s focus on “hope” as the reason she is still propelled to travel the corners of the earth 300 days a year struck me even more as being tied, conceptually, to the scope of humanism. “Hope” is a sentiment/quality that has its origins in an ethical (and in many cases spiritual) understanding of the world. Indeed, at least as I see it, “hope” is tied to the binomial good/evil (there is no hope unless one sees the possibilities for a moral engagement toward positive change), especially as it pertains to how we relate to our fellow human beings. Wanting to see the good in others is what spurs someone like Jane Goodall to ‘hope’ that we might still save the planet from the destruction that we have wrought upon it.

As she mentioned in her closing statements, we need to communicate the urgency of this desire to each other. But equally importantly, we should embrace this respect for the world around us because we understand the scientific and social consequences that not doing so will cause, but also because centuries of sharing (humanistic) ethical values should ensure that beauty and good remain the central qualities that we bequeath to future generations together with the planet we inhabit.


Valerio Ferme
Oct. 2, 2015