Project Nim (2011)–How Much Are Animals Like Us?

Project Nim is a biographical documentary about Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000), a rather famous chimpanzee, cruelly stolen from his mother, and who was taught sign language while growing up living in a family home with human children.  Sadly, and very painful to watch, Nim is taken from his human family, first to be cared for by graduate assistants who loved him, and then tragically after the experiment was over, to live in cages at various primate facilities around the country.  The documentary is both inspiring and heart breaking. 

We learn how human a chimpanzee can be, and how inhuman humans can be. 

The hero of this story, the human apes should measure us by, Nim’s friend with the biggest heart, is Bob Ingersoll, who worked tirelessly to rescue Nim, and to a minor degree offers some release for the suffering viewer – not a happy ending, but something.  I tell you this not to spoil the ending, but hopefully convince the kind of people who avoid any film where an animal might suffer to give it a try.

I highly recommend seeing this film is you can handle the animal cruelty and suffering.  And if you’re the sensitive type that can’t, I still recommend trying, because it will inspire you to fight even harder against animal cruelty.  I can understand that you don’t want to suffer too, but turning a blind eye is no help.   Even if you can’t watch the film, please visit the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Imagine being raised by a large loving family of privilege, given everything thing you needed and more, with lots of love, a fantastic education, and then being sent to prison, spending long stretches in solitary, always hoping you could return to the good life.  The documentary gives plenty of evidence that Nim remembered.  The documentary gives plenty of evidence that Nim is a truly sensitive being that knows far more than just being a dumb animal.  He should have hated all humans, but he didn’t. 

[Some YouTube uploaders promise the entire film – but I got it from Netflix.]

I think all pet owners who have loved their furry children have wished “If only they could speak.”  Project Nim is about an experiment where scientists try to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language (ASL).  The success of this project, to this day, is uncertain and controversial.  Many of Nim’s handlers believed he could sign, including simple sentences, and even made up his own signs.  Herbert S. Terrace, the project leader, eventually concluded that Nim was not using language, but could sign with very limited ability.

Chimpanzees are cute when little, but dangerous when grown, so they make very difficult subjects for life long experiments.  The tragedy of Nim’s wretched existence was sort of like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, he had a brief period of being much more aware of things, and then a fall from paradise into abject boredom of caged life with no intellectual stimulation.  Herbert Terrace should have foreseen the cruelty he was putting Nim through, and the defects of his experiment.  To me the obvious place to conduct such experiments is in the wild, in natural habitats of chimpanzees, and not American suburbs.   

I’m curious if any researcher has worked with wild chimps and gorillas to teach them sign language.  If apes were capable of using sign language it’s ability would persist, spread from ape to ape, and be passed on from generation to generation.  I need to research if any work has been done like that.  The article “Great ape language” at Wikipedia doesn’t mention such research, and its conclusions are rather pessimistic.

Part of the controversy is trying to define what language is, and the critics of ape language experiments think it’s more complicated than what apes can handle.  However, I think it’s obvious they are capable of a proto-language.  Many animals have ways to communicate warnings, but this isn’t the same as a grammatical language.  Terrace is quoted at Wikipedia as saying Nim’s longest sentence was “Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.”  We’ve all had pets that communicated specific wants with no words.  And as far as anyone knows, maybe Nim thought each and every hand sign he was making was a kind of hope that expressed “I want to eat that orange!”

Last month  the Nonhuman Rights Project tried to get legal person status for chimpanzees but failed.  I consider them a new kind of animal rights movement, and eventually they will prevail.  Back in 1947, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a story “Jerry Was A Man” about such a court case happening in a science fiction story.  Heinlein’s imagined future is now our present.  The basis of the tale was to convince a court that Jerry, an old circus chimp, was human, and thus deserved human rights.  Now there is a position between animal rights and human rights, which I think is well named with nonhuman rights.  We have to recognized that some animals are self-aware, have a kind of consciousness that is close to ours that we can empathize with, even if they lack our language ability, that should not suffer at our hands. 

Animals with certain levels of consciousness need a legal status.  If such a legal status had existed back in the 1970s, the experiment with Nim would never have taken place.  Nor would all the apes now being used in medical research.  Our research facilities, zoos, lives of exotic pets, circuses, animal attractions, would all have to be redesigned for their level of awareness.  I don’t know how far down the tree of life from the human branch this compassion would stretch, but it might be many branches below us.

I discovered the Project Kim documentary from an article in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013,  “The Last Distinction?” by Benjamin Hale from Harper’s Magazine.  Unfortunately, Harper’s is not generous with full text of copyrighted material.  The whole Best American volume is worth owning and reading though.  In fact, the next article in the book is “Talk to Me” by Tim Zimmerman.  That article is about communicating with dolphins in the wild.

As a plug for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 here’s some of the articles that are still online to read.  This gives you a sample of what the whole book is like, which is wonderful.

If you read only one, read “False Idyll” by J. R. MacKinnon.

JWH – 1/10/14

3 thoughts on “Project Nim (2011)–How Much Are Animals Like Us?”

  1. Maybe human notions of what constitutes grammar are too limited. The two cats I’m sharing a house with order me around like nobody’s business. I find it interesting that although they don’t use the same “words” as each other to communicate “let me out” or whatever, both do use consistent combinations of verbal + non-verbal + stuational/spatial cues to let me know exactly what they want from me. Of course I suspect that in their opinion, I’m the Charlie with the limited vocabulary.

    1. Anyone who lives with animals knows they communicate. My wife and I used to always joke about our cats talking to each other about dumb we were. We’d imitate their meows, and then say for the cat, “Why do these people always parrot what I say. Can’t they learn cat!”

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