Exploring Evolution and Spirituality in Chimpanzees and Humans


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 is a public speaker, scientific advisor and filmmaker for the Jane Goodall Institute. 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 captured a wild chimpanzee birth on videotape, Dr. Goodall asked Bill to follow chimps and record their daily activities and behaviors, which he did for the next 15 years. Bill has served as camera operator and scientific advisor for more than 30 productions, including BBC/Animal Planet’s “Chimp Week,” BBC/Discovery’s 10-part series, “Planet Earth," and Disney Nature’s “Chimpanzee.” He also worked on three National Geographic films in 2014 and 15. He shot the closing sequence for the BBC/Discovery's 10-part series, "Planet Earth," and appeared in the Animal Planet special, "Almost Human," with Jane Goodall.