ElCicco #CBR5 review #50: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks


Primates is a kid-friendly graphic novel about three powerhouses of anthropology who also happen to be women. Ottaviani has written several acclaimed graphic novels  related to science (including Feynman). Wicks’ illustrations are bold and crisp. Together, the two manage to weave together the three women’s stories in a solid, detailed and clear narrative of the scientists’ groundbreaking work among primates.

Each of these three women is fascinating in her own right and demonstrated a singleness of purpose and lifelong commitment to her studies. And each got her start thanks to eminent anthropologist and pioneer of primate studies Richard Leakey. Jane Goodall of England was a bookish child enthralled by the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle. Although she couldn’t afford to attend college, a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Leakey gave her the opportunity to become his secretary and eventually go out into the field to observe chimpanzees. Her patience and perseverance led to the discovery that chimps use tools and eat meat — shocking news in 1960. Goodall became one of the foremost researchers and lecturers in her field. The American Dian Fossey was an occupational therapist by training and deeply interested in gorillas. Thanks to her encounter with Dr. Leakey on a trip to Africa, Fossey was invited to pursue this interest. Her patience and passion for the gorillas allowed her to uncover the intricacies of their social and communication systems. Her work led her to push for conservation and also made her an outspoken critic and enemy of poachers, who murdered her in 1982. Canadian Birute Galdakis was actually formally trained as an anthropologist when she met Dr. Leakey and discussed with him her interest in the study of orangutans. These primates were so reclusive that almost nothing was known of them until her pioneering work, which caused her physical hardship and took a toll on her marriage

I think any kid (not just girls) would find the work of these scientists interesting. They lived in huts, studied poop and animal calls, and learned to get animals to trust them. They were patient and were able to pursue dreams that had seemed closed off to them. The story doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of their stories, referencing the murder of Fossey in addition to Galdakis’ divorce. It also shows Leakey as a very human man. While he was generous and took chances on women who had passion but little to no training, his reputation as a bit of a rake is also alluded to. Apparently, he had affairs with some of his female students, but not Jane, Dian or Birute. (It looks like Jane and Dian might have rebuffed his advances.)

All in all, a good story that could get kids interested in science, research, conservation and history. Also a nice follow up to my last review.