Friday, July 08, 2011


Project Nim

The documentary Project Nim is about a bunch of humans who acted like wild animals in order to get a wild animal to be more human.

Okay, there is more to it than that but it is quite evident that the people who initiated the project - to teach a chimpanzee sign language - went about it the wrong way. It started when they forcibly tore him from his mother's arms when he was two weeks old. His journey from there was full of adventure, delight, destruction, sadness and sorrow. But not just for the chimp; for the people involved as well.

In 1973 a scientist named Herbert Terrace had a theory that a chimpanzee could learn sign language and communicate with humans in that way. They took a baby chimpanzee - who they named Nim Chimsky - and moved him in with a human family who raised him as one of their own. But the family did not attempt to teach him sign language enough so Terrace moved Nim out of the house to an estate with a young eager teacher. From there many other trainers and teachers came along to raise and teach Nim. But not much progress was made - although Nim did manage to learn around 100 signs as well as bite and scratch the teachers enough to make the sessions challenging for everyone involved.

After five years Nim could no longer be part of the human world because he was getting too big and strong. He posed a threat. Plus, it seems his learning days were over. But what happened next is really what the documentary is about. Essentially, Herbert Terrace had no real plan other than to just hand Nim to a chimpanzee farm [of sorts]. But, clearly, to do that to a chimp who was solely raised by humans was a tad inhumane. It got worse for Nim.

James Marsh, who directed the terrific, award winning Man On Wire and the fascinating and dark Wisconsin Death Trip here taps into his heartfelt side and for the most part succeeds. The movie, if anything, becomes a good place to start a debate about animal testing - which,  if done right, can yield important and useful results. But it is a debate that is very much with us today.

Of interest, no one in the documentary mentions that Nim was named after Noam Chomsky who is a highly influential linguist. And because of that they also don't get into the core of Chomsky's [at the time] controversial theory, which is that language is essentially an instinct. It is not something that can be taught. Humans are born with an innate ability to speak human language. Chimps are not. They speak chimp language - if one can call it that. They can learn a code but not the essential syntax of human language. So the idea that you can bridge the gap between species - even if it were somehow easier to deal with a chimp's wild-nature attitude - is not really possible. At least not in the way the scientist or trainers believed it to be possible.

Of course, it took Terrace's experiments to come to this conclusion.

This does not mean that Nim and his trainer/ teachers could not communicate or that there was not a strong bond. As is evident in the documentary these trainer /trainers had an emotional bond with Nim and he with them. So the documentary is in some ways a cautionary tale about how naïve the scientist was to pull Nim from his species, raise him among humans and then after five years throw him back to the chimpanzee world.

It's pretty easy to conclude that experiments and testing were not necessarily foolish but that the planning for how to end the project was.