UNESCO award primatologist Jane Goodall in Paris

Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primates expert, said on Tuesday that the growing debate in some quarters over the origins of humanity is "much less important" than working to save the planet. The 71-year-old Goodall spoke during a ceremony by UNESCO honoring her life's work, which the U.N. organization's chief said has altered the basic understanding of apes and humans.

Goodall received the 60th Anniversary Medal of the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural organization. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was later presenting her with France's prestigious Legion of Honor. "It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge your outstanding contribution to the field of education, science and culture," said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said, calling Goodall "remarkable."

"Your findings would eventually alter the basic understanding of apes and human beings," he said. Goodall was among the first people to sound the alarm about dangers to Africa's great apes, the UNESCO chief said in a statement earlier. At the award ceremony, she tackled the thorny debate over Darwinism and creationism which is gaining steam in some places, particularly the United States.

The debate, she said, responding to a question, "is much less important than getting together now and getting ourselves out of the mess that we've made," Goodall said. "We've got to pull ourselves together and stop destroying our planet."

Dressed in a Chinese-style shirt and carrying a stuffed monkey she calls "Mr. Ape," Goodall said that she always considered Darwinism and evolution as a "perfectly sensible way of understanding human beings." "I grew up in a Christian family believing in God," Goodall said. "For me, there's never been a conflict between science and religion."

In 1960, the British-born Goodall, then 26, arrived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in east Africa in what is now Tanzania to study the area's chimpanzee population. She has observed and defended primates ever since. The Jane Goodall Institute, a global nonprofit organization she founded in California in 1977, has been a patron of the Great Apes Survival Project of UNESCO and the U.N. Environmental Program.

Juma Mwapacho, the Tanzanian ambassador to France, attending the ceremony, thanked Goodall for her devotion to the understanding and preservation of his country's primates. "To us, she's the embodiment of a good Tanzanian," Mwapacho said. "She's a protector of ecology", reports the AP. N.U.