November 9, 2011 -- There is some ape in all of us, it seems, and human beings come off looking pretty bad when compared to the chimpanzees in the controversial educational experiment known as Project Nim, and a documentary film of the same name.
Nim Chimpsky (a mocking reference to linguist Noam Chomsky who argued animals cannot use language) was a captive chimpanzee raised as a child in a human family who taught him sign language. Nim was adept at learning sign language, and at using that language to manipulate people around him. Anyone who has been manipulated by a cat or dog knows how this works. Nim was also a dominant male who challenged the male humans around him, including Hebert Terrace of Columbia University, the project leader.
Terrace didn't like the family situation that Nim was in, so he moved him to a facility away from the family, where Nim was taught sign language by a succession of teachers. As Nim got older, he became more dangerous. He bit several of his teachers. He would grow to become several times stronger than most humans. After five years, Terrace stopped the experiment. Nim had become too dangerous to work with. He was taken back to Oklahoma where he had been born, then later was transferred to an animal testing laboratory over the objections of his former teachers and handlers. This wasn't the end, however. Nim's wanderings continued for some time. Where he finally ended up was a most curious place, and an interesting story.
The story of Nim is a story about the relationship between humans and animals. It is about how similar animals, particularly chimpanzees, are to humans, and how they are different. Chimpanzees are composed of a genetic structure which is 98.7 percent identical to humans. Their process of socialization is similar to ours. It is only natural that we anthropomorphize them, just as many people anthropomorphize their own pets. Nim's handlers in the film remark about how sensitive Nim was to the feelings of the people around him and how he exhibited sympathy, jealousy, anger, forgiveness and other emotions.
In addition to the film anthropomorphizing Nim, it also puts human emotions on display. The humans in the experiment exhibit jealousy, envy, rejection, sexual attraction for each other, love, fear and other emotions. These are not what I would call objective, emotionless, cooley rational scientists. They are more like the unstable, mercurial participants of some reality TV show. The humans in the film put on a pretty poor show and don't come off looking any better than Nim. Some of the people in the film, however, are actors portraying the real people who took part in the experiment years ago. When I saw the actors credits at the end of the film, I felt cheated.
So what is the upshot of all this? According to Terrance, the experiment failed to disprove Chomsky's theory about animal communication (as it was meant to do). There is no proof that animals can use language like humans do. Chimps can sign, parrots can talk, some dogs know more than 1,000 words, but there is still no proof any of them can put a sentence together and express themselves the way humans can. The experiment is disputed, of course, and if you watch this film you can see some reasons why it is disputed. The dispute over the nature of animals and their use of language is far from being over.
More than this, however, the film is about Nim and how he was treated, and how he treated people. We follow Nim's journey from birth to death and his travels around the country and his fear, his loneliness, his longing for companionship, longing for his old friends, his frustration, his anger, his malaise. In a way, Nim's life journey mirrors our own, particularly if we end up alone, no longer having much control over what happens to us. Let us hope we still have friends, like Nim did, who care about what happens to us down the road. This film rates a B.
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