“A Searching Member of Homo sapiens”: Dale Peterson

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

Dale Peterson RI ’14, a lecturer in English at Tufts University, has written books on nature, conservation, evolutionary theory, animals, and people who work with animals. He cowrote a book about chimpanzees with the primatologist Jane Goodall (Visions of Caliban, 1993) and then wrote the definitive biography of Goodall. He also edited two volumes of her personal letters to produce an “epistolary autobiography.” At Radcliffe, he’s writing an account of several young people who worked at Goodall’s research site in East Africa during the late 1960s; one of them, Ruth Davis, died tragically while she was following chimpanzees.

Who are your heroes?
John Donne, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, and Jane Goodall—for starters.

Which trait do you most admire in yourself?
The trait I most admire is also the one I always have to work on: kindness.

Tell us your favorite memory.
Of my daughter being born.

Describe yourself in six words or fewer.
A searching member of Homo sapiens.

What is your most treasured possession?
The arrowheads I found as a boy.

What inspires you?
True love, brilliant writing, wild animals, great wilderness.

Name a pet peeve.
I’ve had a lot of pets and a lot of peeves but never one combined.

Were your life to become a motion picture, who would portray you?
You’re asking whether the core drama of my life has been action, emotion, or intellection, and I think: all of the above. Meryl Streep? I would leave the casting to a professional.

Where in the world would you like to spend a month?
Egypt 2,100 years ago—but not as a member of the oppressed classes.

What is your greatest triumph so far?
Being a Radcliffe fellow. Other than that, perhaps writing the biography of Jane Goodall.

What is your fantasy career?
To write books that people recommend to their friends.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a Radcliffe fellow?
To remain always open to the tremendous diversity of perspectives and talents.

You started out writing about computers in Silicon Valley. What made you turn from chips to chimps?
I wrote about computers because publishers wanted books on the subject. I write about animals because I want books on the subject. The change happened once I gained a necessary level of confidence.

How did you meet Jane Goodall?
I had just finished traveling around the world by myself and on the cheap, going through rain forests (South America, Africa—including Madagascar—southern India, Southeast Asia) and looking for the world’s dozen most endangered primate species. That was my education in primates and the start of my education in primatology. I thought my next book would concentrate on a single primate species—chimps—and I was looking around to find an expert who could help me. Jane, meanwhile, had been looking for a writer who could help her.

You’ve written about primates, elephants, and giraffes. Who’s next?
You’re thinking of books that have focused on single species or groups of species, but I’ve also written more broadly and theoretically (Moral Lives of Animals, for example, and—with Harvard’s Richard Wrangham—Demonic Males). I think my next book might broadly consider extinctions. I just have to figure out how to keep it from being depressing.


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