THROUGH A WINDOW My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe By Jane Goodall Houghton Mifflin. 268 pp. $21.95

THIS IS both a humbling and exalting book, the result of 30 years of voyeurism that ranks with the great scientific achievements of the 20th century. Quite simply, it is the intimate history of several generations of an alien culture -- humanity's closest relatives. Only Rip Van Winkles could be unaware that Jane Goodall was sent forth in the 1960s by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study the behavior of chimpanzees in their natural habitat in a Tanzanian reserve called Gombe.

This is also a sinful book, for Goodall openly -- happily -- commits the scientific sin of anthropomorphism, the attribution to nonhuman creatures of human-like emotions. It's hard, however, to think of anyone more entitled to venture into this murky arena, the difference between humans and another species, an arena that in the case of chimpanzees is quantitatively defined by a mere 1 percent of our otherwise shared genetic code.

Meet Jomeo, the biggest male at the Gombe Reserve. The task befell Jomeo, as it does all adolescent male chimps, to establish dominance over others, beginning with the adult females. This is accomplished by mounting charges on them, often out of the blue, waving one's arms, thrashing branches or uprooted saplings at them, pounding the ground, and so forth. Even throwing rocks. But big Jomeo was a klutz, the guy who doesn't quite have the program. Starting a promising charge, he would trip over his feet and sprawl in the undergrowth. Once, in midcharge, he reached out to grab a sapling but it neither uprooted nor broke off. Instead of plummeting on, Jomeo interrupted his performance and spent half a minute pulling the sapling out of the ground. And once he resumed his onslaught, its branches got tangled in the undergrowth. Needless to say, the impact of Jomeo's charge was minimal.

"They are such complex beings," Goodall remarks, "their behavior so flexible, their individuality so pronounced."

It is the continuity of observations over decades that makes Goodall's work so scientifically valuable and, in this straightforward popular account, so uncannily affecting: the "respect" a female gets from the community once she has had a baby; the powerful effect of the mother's personality and child-rearing techniques on the "self-confidence" of her progeny; the disorientation and depression a young chimp experiences on losing its mother; the importance of long- and short-term coalitions (between males and sometimes males and females) in the endless power struggles that lead to what we, in our history books, call reigns.

"What a rich cast of characters," Goodall comments with a nice wonderment over her story, "each one moulded by the complex interplay of genetic inheritance and experience, family life and the historical era into which he or she was born." Here is a female named Gilka (presumably for the former head of photography at the National Geographic Society, long a Gombe angel), dying prematurely at 20 years of age: "Her life, begun with such promise, had unfolded into a tale of infinite sadness. She had been an enchanting infant, filled with fun and an irrepressible gaiety despite the rather staid and asocial character of her mother. As a child she had delighted in male society . . .{A} born show-off, she would twirl and pirouette and somersault in an ecstasy of joy . . . And this was the chimpanzee who, her elf-like face transformed into that of some gargoyle {by a disease}, had become a pitiful cripple, and, of all the chimpanzees at Gombe, the most lonely . . . Gilka, at last, had shed the body that had become nothing but a burden." IT WAS discovered at Gombe years ago that man was not the only tool-user: Early on chimps were found crafting twigs into tools for extracting tasty termites from their mounds. Here, Goodall goes on to calibrate more closely (and to narrow) the distance we have sought to put between ourselves and the beasts. Let one of many examples suffice. An old female dubbed Madame Bee, now near the end of her life, was so tired after a journey to a foraging area that she could not climb up into the trees to feed. Her oldest daughter (Little Bee: the names are often cloying) "climbed down with food in her mouth and food in one hand, then went and placed the food from her hand on the ground beside Madame Bee. The two sat side by side, eating companionably together. Little Bee's behavior was not only a demonstration of entirely voluntary giving, but it also showed that she understood the needs of her old mother. Without understanding of this sort there can be no empathy, no compassion."


Goodall knows this is chimp behavior and not some retarded form of human behavior. She exalts the differences between us and the chimps -- our special rationality and our greater capacity for altruism -- by asking with devastating evenhandedness for a reexamination of our ethical stance on the planet. Science and sentiment rarely mix well, and for good reason. Here they do, naturally and unavoidably, and the world may never again be quite the same. Or so one might hope.

Jake Page is a former editor of Natural History magazine. His books include "Zoo: the Modern Ark" and "Animal Talk."