Exploring Evolution and Spirituality in Chimpanzees and Humans

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Last January, I traveled to Tanzania with National Geographic presenter Justin Hall to shoot a segment for Explorer about the spiritual nature of chimpanzees and the blurry line between the emotional capacities of non-human animals and humans.  In the pieces’ introduction, author and scientist Barbara King notes that “We see examples of empathy, imagination, and meaning making in the animal world.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Bill Nat Geo 5impsml

This segment was inspired by the early observations of chimpanzee waterfall displays and rain dances by Dr. Jane Goodall, who wrote of these behaviors over 40 years ago.  Some of my earliest recordings (and most fascinating footage) were of Freud, Fifi’s eldest son, exhibiting these ritualistic and rhythmic dances.  My first reaction in the early 1990’s was of course, ‘This is phenomenal! What is he doing, and why…?’

I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by (the same) feelings of awe and wonder that we feel – Dr. Jane Goodall

It is clear in watching these behaviors, either first hand or through the many examples from our video archive, that the chimpanzees are experiencing an emotional reaction to forces of nature. How similar that is to our own spirituality; who among us is not stirred by the power of a towering, roaring waterfall, or energized and emotionally charged by a close bolt of lightning followed by a clap of thunder? Chimpanzees (and in my opinion, many other species) clearly are.

Bill Nat Geo 6impsml

Not long ago, the idea that another animal species is capable of true reverence was totally unacceptable in both scientific and theological circles. This episode of Explorer delves into the idea that we are less ‘unique’ in our emotional and spiritual capacities than most people are willing to admit. Hopefully this episode, and indeed the chimpanzee behavior you will see, will bring you closer to the animals with whom we share the planet.  When we realize and admit that all of us share the ability to feel joy, experience loss, suffer pain, and are connected in very fundamental ways, we may as a species and culture re-evaluate our treatment of all life on earth.


Watch the episode featured on NatGeo here, and learn more about our continued Primate Research shaped by the legacy of Dr. Jane Goodall’s work here.

About Author

Bill Wallauer offers a unique and fascinating view of life among wild chimpanzees. For 15 years, Bill spent just about every day following the wild chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, capturing the intimate details of their daily life. He has commented that, during those years, he spent more time with chimpanzees than with humans. Bill has served as camera operator and scientific adviser for more than 30 productions, including BBC/Animal Planet’s “Chimp Week” and BBC/Discovery’s 10-part series, “Planet Earth”, Disneynature’s “Chimpanzee.”, and is working on three National Geographic films for 2014/15. Bill became part of the life at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Gombe Stream Research Center in 1989 while on assignment for the U.S. Peace Corps in southern Tanzania. After he successfully captured a wild chimpanzee birth on videotape, Dr. Goodall asked Bill to follow the chimps and record their daily activities and behavior—which he did for the next 15 years. Today, Bill is a sought-after speaker for adults and youth. He speaks about chimpanzee's behavior and emotional capacity and the similarities and differences between chimpanzees and humans.

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    The ancestors of “domestic livestock” animals were once free-living in the wild. In fact, elephant society reminds me of the social relationships of cows, when rescued cows are allowed to live with dignity on sanctuaries and develop close caring bonds with the other animals. We seem to care more about apes and elephants than the billions of “livestock” animals we’ve enslaved and diminished, so that now they are regarded with contempt. Apes and elephants deserve respect, but chickens, pigs, cows, sheep? They don’t count, it seems. Jane Goodall is to chimps what Karen Davis (of United Poultry Concerns) is to chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Where I live, we have Gambel’s quail, they are like chickens. I sometimes see little quail families consisting of a flock of little chicks following their parents. i once saw a little chick go astray, while Pop waited for him to reunite him with Mom and siblings.