Jane Says

Jane Goodall’s Troubling, Error-Filled New Book, ‘Seeds of Hope’

The famed primatologist admitted to plagiarizing parts of her new book, but a deeper look reveals even more disturbing flaws. By Michael Moynihan.

Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

No one wants to criticize Jane Goodall—Dame Goodall—the soft-spoken, white-haired doyenne of primatology. She cares deeply about animals and the health of the planet. How could one object to that? Her list of awards and honorary degrees are too numerous to mention. She was tasked by Kofi Annan to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace, an appropriately meaningless, but distinguished, gong. In 2010, a Guardian writer noted that Goodall’s book Hope for Animals and Their World had a “written-by-committee feel of which must of course be forgiven because of its subject matter.” He felt “doubly guilty for criticising the book” when she generously inscribed his copy.

You see, everyone is willing to forgive Jane Goodall. When it was revealed last week in The Washington Post that Goodall’s latest book, Seeds of Hope, a fluffy treatise on plant life, contained passages that were “borrowed” from other authors, the reaction was surprisingly muted. The writer who discovered the plagiarism—an unnamed academic reviewing the book for the Post—alerted the newspaper and backed out of the assignment. When the Post and the New York Times reported his findings, both avoided saying that Goodall had plagiarized—which, even by the strictest definition of the word, she did—instead writing that she “borrowed” passages, fully intending, apparently, to return them upon publication.

The entire controversy has been clouded in euphemism. The Post presented a half-dozen examples of plagiarism (which can be viewed here) but downplayed their significance. “Appropriating another author’s ideas as one’s own and inventing material and presenting it as fact are among the gravest literary lapses,” wrote Steven Levingston, the newspaper’s nonfiction editor. “Neither appears to have occurred in Seeds of Hope.” The Christian Science Monitor stated that “in Goodall’s case, there is no suggestion that her intent was to pass off the ideas of others as her own.” Writer Marjorie Ingall argued that Goodall (or the book’s co-author, Gail Hudson) “didn’t commit the most hellacious sin associated with plagiarism—she didn’t pass off other people’s ideas as her own.”

This is both a bizarre redefining of plagiarism and a semantic sleight of hand: Goodall quite clearly passed off the words of others as her own (and presented interview quotes said to other journalists as having been said to her). But embedded in those words is both the original author’s accumulated knowledge and, in context and arrangement, ideas. Regardless, Goodall’s offense is one that would precipitate firing from all of those publications that are rushing to provide an elastic definition of her faults.

A Jane Goodall Institute spokesman told The Guardian that the whole episode was being “blown out of proportion” and that Goodall was “heavily involved” in the book bearing her name and does “a vast amount of her own writing.” In a statement, Goodall said that the copying was “unintentional,” despite the large amount of “borrowing” she engaged in.

If anything, there has been an underreaction to Goodall’s offenses. Indeed, the most troubling finding in the Post’s investigation is a quote Goodall claims came from an interview she conducted with botanist Matt Daws, but appears to have been lifted from the website of his employer, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Daws told the Post that he has no recollection of ever having spoken to Goodall—a conversation one imagines he would remember.

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.

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.” (Nor does Goodall mention a large number of follow-up studies, which the Pew Charitable Trust describes as showing the risk of GM corn to butterflies as “fairly small, primarily because the larvae are exposed only to low levels of the corn’s pollen in the real-world conditions of the field.” More on this in a moment.)

Here is Goodall and Hudson on the herbicide glyphosate: “In 2002, the global sales for glyphosate amounted to around $4.705 billion. There are more than seventy glyphosate producers in the world, but Monsanto is by far the biggest, with more than an 80-percent share of the market.”

And The Ecologist on the same subject: “In 2002, the global sales for glyphosate amounted to around $4.705 billion … There are more than 70 glyphosate producers in the world (excluding China). With more than an 80 per cent share of the market, Monsanto is the biggest.”

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Describing the travails of French naturalist Philibert Commerçon, Goodall writes, “… he heard the roar of an avalanche above him. He escaped by instantly drawing up his knees to his chin and clasping his legs close, forming himself into a human ball that rolled at breakneck speed down a fiercely steep gradient.”

In 1970, historian Michael Sidney Tyler-Whittle described the same incident this way: “… he heard the roar of an avalanche above him and, not waiting an instant … he hunched his knees to his chin and rolled like a ball down a fiercely steep gradient to safety.”

Even if one forgives these “borrowings,” Seeds of Hope is a remarkably sloppy work, punctuated by a number of errors, great and small. Goodall writes of “Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous autobiographical book Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” a book that she found to be a “very harrowing read.” Goodall was apparently so moved by the book that she failed to notice that it was, in fact, famously written by Thomas de Quincey. The Chinese “century of humiliation,” which ended with Mao’s seizure of power, is a common descriptor among Sinologists and is not a phrase used by “one of their [sic] historians.” In the very next sentence, Goodall writes that “by the 1890s, nine hundred tons of opium per year were being imported into China.” The correct year is 1820. And so on.

And even in copying passages from other sources, mistakes are made. According to a 2011 article in USA Today, “In Salt Lake City, the City Council voted this spring to allow the sale of produce without a business license and eased rules for greenhouses and plastic-covered ‘hoop houses.’” Goodall cribs this—and changes the legal provision slightly, making it incorrect: “Salt Lake City has voted to allow the sale of food [sic] without a business license, and eased rules for prohibiting greenhouses and plastic hoop houses in the city.” Other examples cited from the USA Today article—which, naturally, isn’t mentioned or cited in Seeds of Hope—contain similar factual inaccuracies.

One of the more troubling aspects of Seeds of Hope is Goodall’s embrace of dubious science on genetically modified organisms (GMO). On the website of the Jane Goodall Foundation, readers are told—correctly—that “there is scientific consensus” that climate change is being driven by human activity. But Goodall has little time for scientific consensus on the issue of GMO crops, dedicating the book to those who “dare speak out” against scientific consensus. Indeed, her chapter on the subject is riddled with unsupportable claims backed by dubious studies.

Writing in Scientific American in 2011, UC Davis plant geneticist Pamela Ronald summed up the “broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops” (I should lead by example here and note that Keith Kloor’s terrific article in Slate guided me to the Ronald quote).

When asked by The Guardian whom she most despised, Goodall responded, “The agricultural company Monsanto, because I know too much about GM organisms and crops.” She might know too much, but what if what she knows is completely wrong?

Many of the claims in Seeds of Hope can also be found in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, a book by “consumer advocate” Jeffrey Smith. Goodall generously blurbed the book (“If you care about your health and that of your children, buy this book, become aware of the potential problems, and take action”) and in Seeds of Hope cites a “study” on GMO conducted by Smith’s “think tank,” the Institute for Responsible Technology.

Like Goodall, Smith isn’t a genetic scientist. According to New Yorker writer Michael Specter, he “has no experience in genetics or agriculture, and has no scientific degree from any institution” but did study “business at the Maharishi International University, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” (In Seeds of Hope, Goodall also recommends a book on GM by founding faculty member and former Maharishi International University executive vice president Steven M. Druker, who is not a trained scientist but did take several science courses in college while majoring in philosophy.). As Professor Bruce Chassy, an emeritus food scientist at the University of Illinois, told Specter, “His only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.” Along with fellow food scientist Dr. David Tribe, Chassy runs an entire website devoted to debunking Smith’s pseudoscience.

And it apparently escaped Goodall’s notice that Smith’s most recent book—the one that she fulsomely endorsed—features a foreword by British politician Michael Meacher, who, after being kicked out of the Tony Blair's government in 2003, has devoted a significant amount of time to furthering 9/11 conspiracy theories.

To buck the established scientific consensus often requires both the embrace of dodgy studies and the dishonest presentation of credible ones. For instance, Goodall writes that “In 2001, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found twenty-eight subjects had experienced apparent allergic reactions after ingesting GM corn.” But what she doesn’t tell readers is that the CDC report clearly states that its results “do not provide any evidence that the reactions that the affected people experienced were associated with hypersensitivity” to GM corn, an important detail easily located on Wikipedia, a source she frequently and duplicitly employs.

According to Goodall, another study conducted by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine found, its authors claimed, “serious health risks associated with GM food.” Again, if Goodall had simply consulted Wikipedia—and scientists who have evaluated these “studies”—she would have read this: “Quackwatch lists the American Academy of Environmental Medicine as a questionable organization, and its certifying board, the American Board of Environmental Medicine, as a dubious certifying board. They are not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.”

There isn’t much here that stands up to the most basic scientific scrutiny, and Goodall acknowledges, in loaded language, that “the results of these studies are challenged by the biotech industry and their supporters” and hedges that she is “not in a position to enter this particular debate, not having scientific or medical knowledge,” despite having just entered—and spread dubious information—about the GM debate.

There is a sense in many of the reported accounts that Goodall’s co-author, Gail Hudson, is to blame. This is, of course, possible (Hudson did not respond to an email request for comment), but if Goodall had read her own manuscript—the one with her name on it—would she not have noticed the quotes from interviews with people she hadn’t spoken to? Wouldn’t a noted scientist double-check her source material? She is, after all, the person who accepted the publisher’s check and Seeds of Hope is written in the first person.

An email to the Jane Goodall Institute elicited a response from the PR department at Grand Central, her publisher, with a statement from Goodall. She would be fixing “unintentional errors”—and presumably leaving undisturbed the intentional ones—so a “meaningful conversation can resume about the harm we are inflicting on our natural environment and how we can all act together to ensure our children and grandchildren inherit a healthy planet.” It’s an important conversation to have, but, sorry to say, let’s leave Jane Goodall out of it.

Editor’s Note: The following sentence “(In Seeds of Hope, Goodall also recommends a book on GM by Maharishi Institute executive vice president Steven M. Druker, who also has no scientific training).” has been changed to reflect an error to this: "In Seeds of Hope, Goodall also recommends a book on GM by founding faculty member and former Maharishi International University executive vice president Steven M. Druker, who is not a trained scientist but did take several science courses in college while majoring in philosophy." We regret the error.