Hope as a Survival Trait
Reflections on Jane Goodall's Call to Hope
In her 2021 book The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, author Jane Goodall tells us she has “hope in the ultimate goodness of this strange, conflicted human animal that evolved from an apelike creature some six million years ago.”
In the mid-1990s I worked at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., where I had the great good fortune to meet Jane Goodall (who was then already in her sixties). I didn’t fully understand the significance of her work at the time, knowing only that as a primatologist she had done pioneering research among chimpanzees. She was every bit the “spiritual force” that you imagine her to be.
It was only later that I began to understand how thoroughly she had challenged and changed the landscape of modern science with her research. In a 2020 OnBeing interview, podcast host Krista Tippett explains her influence this way: “The science [Jane Goodall] proceeded to do . . . ended up shaping the self-understanding of our species. She recalled modern Western science to the fact that we are a part of nature, not separate from it” (emphasis added).
And yet, many of the collective problems we face today are the direct result of adherence to an obsolete notion we still operate under – that we are separate from the natural world, we are separate from one another, and have separate fates. It is more than discouraging that we persist in this short-sightedness. It’s downright depressing.
Like me, I am sure you have also encountered some very compelling scientific research that concludes our world may be beyond Hope. According to the sources I seek out, the odds are overwhelmingly not in our favor. The reasoning goes something like: if climate events don’t take us out, massive economic or political unrest might, and if we somehow survive that, then another pandemic might thin us out, or………..
So where does Hope fit into the bleakness of all this? In The Book of Hope, Jane Goodall gives us an important piece of the evolutionary puzzle:
“[Hope] is a crucial survival trait that has sustained our species from the time of our Stone Age ancestors.”
Hope, a survival trait? If that’s true, then everything that’s here with us now has likely been able to hold onto Hope. Everything – “the good,” and “the bad.”
Letting this sink in leads me to a new awareness: what if it’s not about me holding onto my vision of the way things should be, but more about me being differently, holding myself in a new context of inter-relatedness, and even more to the point, holding our collective future in an active field of Hope?
As a scientist known for her intuition about the threads that bind us to the historic past of our species, Jane Goodall calling us to Hope is instructional. She might argue that our conscious evolution depends on it. She makes it clear she’s not talking about naive Hope but an informed, active kind of Hope.
To riff on Jane’s enormous contribution, I’d like to propose that the kind of Hope needed is one in which we essentially abide the tension between current circumstances and what we know is possible, in our bodies and beings, without devolving into judgment or other mental acts of separation, while making our own joyful way forward.
Hope is a survival trait that we would do well to cultivate.
In service of true, conscious evolution, we would cultivate an informed, active kind of Hope.
Conjuring this Hope involves abiding the deeply uncomfortable tension between current circumstances and what we know is possible, in our bodies and beings.
We lean into this Hope without devolving into judgment or other acts of mental separation.
Hope facilitates us making our own joyful way forward.
We choose Hope because our survival depends on it.