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

Who Are the Abolitionists of Our Times?

What peculiar institutions do we embrace today that modern abolitionists see as evil?

Humans are an evolving social species and in every era some people see further than others.  They understand that common assumptions are wrong.  19th century abolitionists could see that slavery was a vile institution where most were blind to its cruelty.  They wanted to abolish a long held practice that other people embraced dearly.  This brought about the war of America against itself that was so violent that no other enemy has ever come close to hurting us so much.  And even though the war came to an end in 1865 some people are still fighting it today.  It’s very hard for people to change.

What I ask:  What evil do we embrace that is invisible to the society at large that a few people rightly want to abolish today?

The list could be quite long and it might take a century or two before the issues become obvious to everyone.  Evil is not invisible.  Evil doesn’t take a century of social evolution to see.  Evil is ignored.  Everyone in the 19th century should have seen that slavery was evil.  Southern states embraced slavery because it benefitted them economically.  They had to rationalize the practice.  The framers of the Constitution had to carefully dance around the issue in words.  Our forefathers accepted a level of cruelty in life that we can’t rationalize, but instead of feeling enlighten, we have to ask:  What cruelty do we rationalize so easily?  What vile practices do we embrace because we don’t want to see its evil because it profits us?

The first thing that comes to mind are animals.  Factory farms are nightmares of animal cruelty that slaughter billions of beings each year.  We’re also destroying animal habitats worldwide and causing extinctions only slightly slower than mass extinction events.  Given our trends, we’ll start surpassing some of those events soon.

The second thing that comes to mind is how we’re destroying the environment for future generations.  A century from now the the people of the world will hate us far worse than we ever hated slavers, colonialists, Nazis, Communists, terrorists, serial killers or child molesters.  Our excesses will make us the worst of the worst.

Most people today if confronted will go, “Huh, not me, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

And you can’t claim ignorance because we do have our own abolitionists.  They are out there.  They are telling us what’s wrong.  We’re just not listening.

JWH – 2/5/12

The Cat, The Dog, The Robot and The Soul

Since before Biblical times men and women believed that human beings were unique, superior to the other animals that inhabited the Earth.  Later theologians would claim we had souls and animals didn’t.  Actually, the idea of an immortal soul only seems to arise after the New Testament, because in the Old Testament, life after death is barely hinted at.  It was man and woman that got special attention in Genesis, giving them dominion over all the animals, and God eventually told Noah we could eat them.  So we hunted and killed anything that swam, crawled, flew, leaped and ran.  We sacrificed them by the thousands in honor of God for many chapters of the Bible after that.   We justified our dominion by writing off the other beings in our environment as soulless creatures, unable to feel and know, and unworthy of love, empathy and compassion. 

Well science is starting to take a second look at the lives of animals.  Either we are closer to them, or they are closer to us.  If we have souls, maybe they do too, or at least some of them.  It’s hard to imagine all the cockroaches having unique identities, personalities and desires, but maybe we just don’t examine their lives long enough before we step on them.

The wonderful science writer Natalie Angier wrote in her NY Times “Basics” column, “Even Among Animals: Leaders, Followers and Schmoozers,” where she tells us about animal personality research.  She has a significant quote that I like:

“There are low information processors who don’t attend much to their environment and bulldoze through life,” said David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Then there are the sensitive ones who are always taking things in, which can be good because information is valuable, but it can also be overwhelming.”

I guess I’m one of those sensitive creatures that are overwhelmed by input, and that’s why I take the time to worry about cruelty to pigs and cows, rather than being the kind of person that just gobbles down the barbecue.  But that quote, based on animal studies, is very revealing.  Does it explain the foundation of conservatives and liberals?  Can we see the seeds of human traits like bravery, leadership,  cruelty, compassion, creativity, and so on in animals?  It’s natural to assume so if you believe in evolution.  If our eyes are a product of continual evolution, why not our individual personality traits?

Would we see this more dramatically if other animals had evolved bigger brains like us and could tell us what they felt?  I recently read a story about an uplifted chimp that can talk.  Read or listen to the very moving short story “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal.  I think the narrated version has more impact and it will only take six minutes.

Anyone who lives with pets knows they have personalities.  People who love their animals want them to have souls too.  If you search on the quoted phrase “do animals have souls” on Google you’ll find 6,580 replies, many of which that look for theological justification that will give them hope they will see their pets again in heaven. 

I don’t think we have souls, being an atheist, but I believe animals have a kind of self-awareness that make them more than animated meat.  I’ve always been fascinated by robots, and believe we’ll one day have intelligent machines that are smarter than us humans.  They will have to evolve just like us, and I think we’ll see them go through developmental stages equal to various animals.  I doubt we have a machine as smart as an ant yet, but it won’t be long before we’ll see machines with personality traits, and soon after that we’ll have machines equal to dogs and cats.  Through robotic studies, we’ll eventually understand how much awareness an animal has.


However, we shouldn’t need to wait until then to understand our unethical relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.  We need more animal observers like Jane Goodall.  Can you imagine what compassionate observers could report about living among chickens, pigs and cows in factory farms?  Are their inhabitants all identical soulless creatures, or do they each have a personality struggling to survive in monstrous living conditions?  Maybe I’m wrong about souls.  But I’d like to be believe if we have souls its because we earned them.  Who knows, maybe in the far future vast AI intelligences will observe mankind and note they come in two kinds, those with empathy, and those without.

JWH – 4/11/10

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