Imagine, as you might often do, crouching down next to a young Jane Goodall amidst the brush of the forests of Gombe, hearing the crunching of leaves in the human-like hands of our closest living relatives, the wild chimpanzees. For John Crocker, this is not an exercise of imagination, it is the story of his life. In his youth, John Crocker was a student under Dr. Jane Goodall observing the internationally recognized chimp families of Gombe at all hours to gain integral insights into the behaviors of our great ape cousins. His depth of valuable insight from only an eight month period of research was tremendous, and shaped his work and life forever.
This experience was an incredible one for several reasons, including precious time with Jane and the chimps, but also as contributing to the Jane Goodall Institute’s long term study of wild chimpanzees in Gombe. The work in Gombe, which spans nearly 60 years as one of the world’s longest running wild mammal studies ever, is still going strong. For Crocker, his time with Jane and the wild chimpanzees was not only about the remarkable knowledge gained regarding their lives; it was also very much about how to be a better human, and help create a better society, which he explores in his book, Following Fifi.
Read our interview with John below:
Ashley Sullivan: What did you learn from chimpanzees that you applied to your life and how do you think others could do the same?
John Crocker: I learned about the importance of patience. Chimp mothers are very patient with their young, which allows the developing primate to learn survival and social behaviors in a close and calm setting. In raising my two sons, I constantly reminded myself of Fifi’s (one particular Gombe chimp) tolerant and reassuring manner. I also learned how important strong bonds are between parent and child which last, in both chimps and humans, into adulthood and old age.
From the male chimps, I learned the importance of being physically active to counteract the adrenaline bursts occurring from stressful situations we all encounter on a daily basis. Crucial to overall health, I witnessed how the alpha male Figan, after becoming stressed or agitated, could quickly reach a calm state by charging (running full-tilt) and then relaxing with grooming and reassuring embraces with other chimps.
As a physician, I also have a better understanding of anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) from an evolutionary perspective from my study of chimp families at Gombe. For example, Frodo had classic characteristics of ADD/ADHD, and simultaneously was a very successful alpha male because of some of these traits. Additionally, as an interesting fact, Dr. David Hamburg, who advised several past presidents on counter-terrorism, learned about human aggression through his understanding of non-human primate aggression, including studies of the Gombe males.
AS: With the new JANE documentary by Brett Morgen out, many people are getting a vision of what Jane Goodall was really like and how she experienced Gombe as a magical, truly life-shaping place. What did you learn the most from young Jane Goodall and why do you think her story and the stories of the chimpanzees are so important to share?
JC: Jane was relaxed at Gombe. Seeing her taking in all the nature around her and feeling at home in the forest was a lesson in itself. I learned about the importance of having a strong connection to our natural surroundings throughout life. In my medical practice, I used this notion to encourage my patients, especially during stressful times, to get out into the mountains or woods or city parks to find calm and beauty. I learned how human survival depends on our caring for all living things in our environment and about the crucial interconnection of the ecosystems on earth, and the need to protect them. The chimp stories allow us to see ourselves in our closest living cousins and motivates us to find our unique purpose in life to make a difference. Also, Jane’s perseverance influenced me to keep writing the book, even when it seemed like an impossible task.
AS: What gives you hope in terms of both what we can learn from chimpanzees and what we can do to build a more harmonious world for chimps, other species, and between humans?
JC: Learning from the chimps, I have hope that collaboration and problem solving will be more valued in human society, and become more widely implemented, especially at this moment in history. “Chest beating” to show who’s boss is no longer effective. Richard Wrangham, Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, studied Gombe male chimps while I was there. In his book Demonic Males, he describes how human males likely inherited tendencies toward aggression and violence from our chimp-like ancestors five million years ago. He argues that since these behaviors are no longer beneficial for human survival today, supporting more women in leadership would be beneficial, as their genetics have likely been shaped for more collaboration and less for violence in general. In addition, striving for greater gender equality in leadership is necessary to introduce a greater array of viewpoints and experiences influencing our governing and thinking for a more harmonious world.
For our survival, it is incumbent on the human species with our big brains and technology to create policies and practices based on science and evidence to help curb human impacts on all species with whom we share the planet.
John Crocker has been practicing family medicine in Seattle for thirty-five years. He attended Stanford University, where he met Jane Goodall. He received his MD from Case Western School of Medicine in Cleveland. Dr. Crocker is a popular speaker on primate behavior and has written for the Huffington Post about lessons learned from our closest living relatives. His first book, Following Fifi, discusses how his insights gained in Gombe have impacted the rest of his work and life, and what we can all gain from these findings.
The Jane Goodall Institute is a global community conservation organization that advances the vision and work of Dr. Jane Goodall. By protecting chimpanzees and inspiring people to conserve the natural world we all share, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment. Everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.