Jane Goodall’s observations of the chimps at Gombe is perhaps the most famous work in primatology in the 20th century, and she’s rightly famous for her meticulous observations, her absolute dedication to her fieldwork, her discovery of many traits in our closest relatives that were thought unique to humans, and her tireless work on biological conservation (now 78, she still travels 300 days a year raising money and consciousness). My admiration was only slightly tempered when I found out recently that she was a goddie, and has spoken many times about her faith and the lack of conflict between science and religion.
But nobody, no matter how loved or revered, is immune from criticism; and in the case of Goodall, an iconic figure in primatology, the criticism has become particularly serious. She’s now accused of not only plagiarizing from other sources in her new book, Seeds of Hope (a book about the importance of plants, co-authored with Gail Hudson), but also of conveying inaccurate information about GMO food—serious accusations for a professional scientist.
The accusations were first leveled in an article by Steven Levingston in the March 19 “Book” section of The Washington Post, after a prospective reviewer (a botanist) noticed the problems and declined to review the book. Levingston highlights the following instances of plagiarism (i.e., unattributed copying):
- In the book, Goodall extols the benefits of sustainable farming. She expresses her shock at learning of dangerous conditions for workers who harvest tea.“According to Oxfam,” she writes, “a British nonprofit agency working to put an end to poverty worldwide, the spraying of pesticides on tea estates is often done by untrained casual daily-wage workers, sometimes even by children and adolescents.”That paragraph appears word for word on the Web site of Choice Organic Teas, a company dedicated to ethical labor practices. Choice Organic Teas was selected in 2010 to carry the Jane Goodall “Good for All” brand on a new line of products, and it donates a slice of its profits to the Jane Goodall Institute.
- Goodall explains the toxic dangers in some detail, writing: “Most of these chemicals — such as Aldrin 20E, Carbofuran 30, Endosulfan 35 EC, Malathion 50 EC, Tetradifon 8 EC, Calixin 80 EC — are listed as hazardous and toxic, and a number of them are banned in Western countries. Despite dangers of exposure to these poisons, the workers are frequently barefoot and in shorts rather than protected by recommended aprons.”
The following is especially bizarre. Wikipedia? Really?
- “Seeds of Hope” contains language from Wikipedia in its discussion of 18th-century Philadelphia botanist John Bartram, who shipped boxes of seeds to Europeans. Goodall writes: “ ‘Bartram’s Boxes,’ as they came to be known, were regularly sent to Peter Collinson for distribution to a wide list of European clients.”The Wikipedia entry reads: “Bartram’s Boxes as they then became known, were regularly sent to Peter Collinson every fall for distribution in England to a wide list of clients.”
Goodall marvels at the majesty of trees. “In ancient Egypt,” she notes, “the sycamore was especially revered — twin sycamores were believed to stand at the eastern gate of heaven through which Ra, the sun god[,] came each day.”
Nearly identical words are found on a Web site called “Find Your Fate,” which covers astrology, numerology, palm reading and matters relating to love and life.
- The phrasing Goodall uses to describe the tobacco habits of Indians in South and Central America is very similar to what is found on a Web site of tobacco history. The boldfaced words in this passage from the book echo language on the Web site: “In South and Central America the Indians smoked tobacco in pipes of many shapes and sizes, often elaborately decorated. It was sometimes chewed or used as snuff to ‘clear the head.’ Tobacco was also used as a remedy for such varied conditions as asthma, bites and stings, urinary and bowel complaints, fevers, convulsions, nervous ailments, sore eyes, and skin diseases. Some tribes cultivate tobacco as an insecticide to protect themselves against parasites.”
There’s also the possibility that Goodall, like Jonah Lehrer, made up quotations. As the Post reports:
“Seeds of Hope” tells the tale of botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London germinating 200-year-old seeds preserved in the Millennium Seed Bank. The seeds were shipped from Cape Town, were seized by the British and spent time in the Tower of London before winding up at the bank. Goodall concludes the story with a comment she says botanist Matt Daws made to her: “If seeds can survive that long in such poor conditions, then that’s good news for the ones that are stored under ideal conditions in the Millennium Seed Bank,’ Matt Daws said to me.”
Virtually the same quote from Daws appears on the Gardens Web site in a 2009 article with the headline “Plant story — 200 year old seeds spring to life”: “If seed can survive that long in poor conditions, then that’s good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions.” Asked in an e-mail whether he ever had a conversation with Goodall, Daws replied: “To be perfectly honest I have no recollection of speaking to her.”
An analysis of Goodall’s book by Michael Moynihan in The Daily Beast suggests there are many other plagiarized passages not uncovered by the Post, as well as another partially fabricated quote:
In my quick look through Seeds of Hope, I found what appears to be a similar example of plagiarism. Dave Aplin, a British botanist, is quoted telling Goodall of his discovery of seeds belonging to a long-extinct plant: “‘During my research,’ he told me, ‘I discovered a handful of preserved seeds hidden deep in the vaults of our seed bank.’ He felt a sense of awe.’ It was clear that I was probably looking at the last few seeds of this species in existence,’ he said.”
But here is Dave Aplin quoted in a 2005 article from BBC News: “It was clear that I was probably looking at the last few seeds of this species in existence, and so some of the seeds were also dispatched to Britain so that both institutes could try to germinate them.” An added sentence—possibly from an actual interview Goodall conducted with Aplin—followed by a pilfered (and truncated) one.
Remember that Jonah Lehrer was fired from The New Yorker and disgraced for similarly fabricating quotes.
- A quick check of other passages, randomly selected, suggest that there are many more instances of plagiarism that went undiscovered by the Post. Describing a study of genetically modified corn, Goodall writes: “A Cornell University study showed adverse effects of transgenic pollen (from Bt corn) on monarch butterﬂies: their caterpillars reared on milkweed leaves dusted with Bt corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly, and suffered higher mortality.”
A report from Navdaya.org puts it this way: “A 1999 Nature study showed adverse effects of transgenic pollen (from Bt corn) on monarch butterﬂies: butterﬂies reared on milkweed leaves dusted with bt corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly, and suffered higher mortality.”
The list of “unintentional borrowings” goes on, but you get the idea. Also disturbing are the many errors that Moynihan found, including attributing Confessions of an English Opium Eater to Samuel Taylor Coleridge instead of Thomas de Quincey.
That’s a small one, but there are several others. More serious is Goodall’s apparent dislike of GMO crops—which appear to be perfectly safe—and her citing of several dubious studies that appear to show their dangers (she cites, for instance, a CDC study as apparently showing that GM corn causes allergic reactions, but the CDC itself concluded that there was no effect).
As Moynihan notes, perhaps some of these errors and scientific distortions can be attributed to Goodall’s co-author, but that hardly applies to quotes from interviews supposedly conducted by Goodall—quotes that either were not uttered (since Goodall may not have spoken to the person indicated) or were partially fabricated. At any rate, Goodall is the book’s first author, and is responsible for the contents.
How bad is all this? Given the combination of distorted presentation of scientific studies, fabricated quotes, and plagiarism—and yes, by any standards it’s plagiarism—it looks pretty bad. In fact, if the book had been by a less revered person I suspect it would have been withdrawn from publication, as were two of Jonah Lehrer’s books that contained fabricated quotes or other unattributed material. Seeds of Hope was scheduled for release on April 2, but this has apparently been postponed indefinitely while the publisher, Hachette, allows Goodall to “correct any unintentional errors.”
“Unintentional errors” is the same excuse I’ve gotten in the past from students who copied material, but those students were still disciplined for plagiarism.
This is all very sad, and the scandal will surely dog Goodall as she treks around the world giving talks. It’s almost surely sloppiness and not cheating, but if we can’t trust Jane Goodall to report things accurately, who can we trust?