Project Nim: A Chimp Raised Like A Human

Project Nim: A Chimp Raised Like A Human

Mar 19




By Rowan Hooper
New Scientist
July 4, 2011

Poor old Carolyn. Six of her previous babies have been taken away from her, and, as this film opens, men are coming to take her seventh. Her son, a chimpanzee named Nim, is two weeks old and is about to be transplanted from his birthplace at a primate research centre in Oklahoma into — wait for it — a large brownstone on the upper west side of Manhattan. There he will live with a human family and be raised as a human child.

Thus begins the stranger than fiction true story that’s explored in James March’s new documentary, Project Nim.

What on earth were they thinking of? Nim was put in diapers and dressed in clothes. He was breastfed by his human surrogate mother, Stephanie Lafarge. “It seemed natural,” she says.

Lafarge’s daughter, Jenny Lee, has a better explanation: “It was the seventies”. Jenny was 10-years-old when Nim came to live with her family. The film, assembled from archive footage shot at the time, recreated scenes and interviews with the main characters, tells the story of Nim’s chaotic life.

In the mid 1970s a scientific debate was raging over the origin of language. There were two camps: those who held that human language was part of a continuum, in which case we’d expect other primates to have the rudiments of language, and those who thought language was uniquely human and there would be no evolutionary trace of it in other apes.

Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York and one of the central figures in this film, believed in the continuity arguments. He started “Project Nim” to try and show that a chimp could learn language — in this case American Sign Language — and thereby tell us what he was thinking.

But Terrace’s project was a shambles. For a start, none of Nim’s surrogate family knew how to teach sign language. More seriously, no one had considered the consequences of raising a powerful wild animal in a human environment.

Laura-Ann Petitto says it best. She was a perky psychology undergraduate who took over responsibility for Nim after Lafarge was forced to give him up. “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you,” she says. To drive home the point, Pettito shows a scar on her arm caused by a bite from Nim. She needed 37 stitches.

This documentary from James March, who also directed the Academy Award winning Man on Wire, is ultimately remarkable for two reasons: the touching, sometimes comic, yet ultimately heartbreaking story of Nim himself; but also, inevitably, the insight it gives us into human behaviour and folly. Nim, we are told, mastered more than 120 words in sign language. But as the film makes clear, his true talent was for grasping the intentions of the humans around him, and using that understanding to manipulate them.

Terrace eventually realises this, and in 1979, after cancelling the project and sending Nim back to a prison-like primate centre, he published a paper in Science dismissing the idea that chimps can sign complete sentences.

Though the depth of language may not have been what Terrace anticipated, there was clearly deep understanding and emotion between Nim and his carers. Perhaps no more so than with Bob Ingersoll, who was working at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma when Nim was returned there. One of the most touching moments of the film is when Bob is reunited with Nim after a few years of separation. Nim immediately signs to Bob his favourite word, “play”, made by clapping his hands together, and the two start cavorting around together. Ingersoll, a dope-smoking Grateful Dead devotee, sums up the strength of their bond with the highest praise he can muster: “I’d rather be with Nim than with Jerry, and for me that’s saying something.”

The lasting impact of this film doesn’t come from some insight into the debate over nature-nurture or the origins of language. It is simply from the range and depth of human emotions showed by the characters — including Nim.



Wikipedia on Nim Chimpsky
Project Nim Documentary
Wikipedia on Washoe (another chimpanzee raised as a human)


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