A Spiritual Journey

By Jane Goodall with Phillip Berman

Warner. 282 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by David Guy

I began to worry as I read Jane Goodall's new book that I, as an inveterate bookworm who seldom watches even PBS, was the only person in the world who didn't know her story. In her book, Goodall keeps running into people who do, a bellhop, a cab driver, an angry woman at a cocktail party. Even this volume is slated for a PBS special, as attested by a sticker on the cover.

A remarkable story it is. As a naive secretary in her early twenties who hadn't been to university and whose primary knowledge of Africa came from Tarzan books, Goodall was invited by an old high school friend to visit her newly acquired family farm in Kenya. Not only did Goodall instantly know she wanted to go, she knew she wanted to stay there, and eventually she found a job with the famous paleontologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey.

Leakey's interest was in primitive man, but he knew chimpanzees had something to tell him and managed to fund a project in which he sent this untutored young woman to study chimps in the wilds of Tanzania. The government insisted she be accompanied by another adult, and she chose (can you imagine a woman making this choice today?) her mother.

Goodall had a naturalist's bent for quiet observation, was willing to sit for hours just to see a chimp and for many days of such hours to see something significant. Eventually her patience was rewarded: She observed chimps devising and using simple tools, which were thought to be the exclusive province of humans. "We must now redefine man," Leakey famously remarked, "redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!" This remarkable discovery enabled Goodall to be funded for much longer stays, later to attend university, and eventually to found a nonprofit agency in her name to continue observing chimps.

Reason for Hope is billed as a religious book, in which Goodall has added a spiritual message to her story as a scientist, but she has an on-again off-again history as a believer. She was raised in a Christian household and led a devout youth, when she had a terrific crush on her family pastor. Later she flirted with Theosophy, and as an adult had moments -- especially after her second husband died of cancer -- when she abandoned belief altogether.

She has also had mystical experiences. After her husband's death, for instance, she returned to the Gompe preserve, where she had done her original work with chimps, and, as an act of healing, went out to do the same kind of observation again. There, in the depths of the jungle, she had the kind of timeless moment that many people have described: "It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was entirely absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself."

I don't question Goodall's experiences or convictions in the least, but as a book of theological speculation Reason for Hope is disappointingly sophomoric, full of the sappy affirmations that one expects from Sunday school or at the religious bookstore (where many copies will no doubt be sold). It is especially surprising that so important a scientist could have composed this book's early chapters, which describe a Pollyanna-ish childhood the likes of which we haven't seen since Booth Tarkington, and which seem especially quaint in this age of body piercings and garish tattoos (and I'm not talking about Africa). And her poetry! I can't believe a major publisher allowed this drivel to go between covers:

I don't remember when first I heard

Them calling, with their silvery voices,

The little angels of the trees and flowers.

Yet Goodall is passionate and convincing when she talks about her work to save the environment (especially the habitat of her beloved chimpanzees), to reform medical research with live animals, and to eradicate intensive farming where animals are raised for food in inhumane and grotesque conditions. She works tirelessly for these causes, and at the end of her book briefly profiles other people doing similar work. She is all over the map in these closing chapters, but her heart is in the right place.

Seldom have I felt so schizophrenic a reaction to a book. When Goodall describes her work as a scientist and her sincere efforts to make the world a better place, I stand in awe. But when she mentions the spiritual convictions behind her work, or -- God help us all -- renders them in verse, it's enough to make me turn on the television. Except that I'd probably see her there, too.

David Guy's most recent book is "The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex."