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7 August 2011

The Chimp's Tale

I first came across Project Nim during my the year of my degree. As background reading for my intro to linguistics courses, I had, of course, picked up a copy of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which includes a section on how human language differs from animal communication systems. Later, when I had transferred to the linguistics Tripos, I learned more about Nim in my language evolution and language acquisition lectures. At the time, I was more interested in Alex the parrot but Nim's story is actually more compelling--and sadder--than the linguists had me believe.

 In the 1970s, it seemed, a group of linguists and psychologists tried to raise a baby chimpanzee (nicknamed Nim Chimpsky; tee hee) as a human and, more specifically, to teach him American Sign Language. Initially hailed as a success, with Nim apparently learning dozens or even hundreds of signs, the project picked up a lot of media coverage but ultimately the principal investigator, Herbert Terrace, admitted that scientifically, the project was a failure. Nim hadn't learned as many signs as originally thought and many of the signs weren't ASL signs, resembling instead those made by chimps in the wild. More importantly, the signs that Nim did produce weren't combined systematically in anything even vaguely resembling the structure or grammar seen in human languages. He might sign something along the lines of, "Nim eat Nim eat," or "Banana me me me eat," whereas even a two-year-old human child uses a far more sophisticated language. Meanwhile, as Nim grew older, he grew smarter and learned how to manipulate his human trainers into giving him exactly what he wanted, so the claim that he knew and understood a language in the same way humans do, is flawed.

So, I knew that Project Nim had failed scientifically but I didn't know just how badly the people working on the project failed Nim. This is where Project Nim, a documentary directed by James "Man on Wire" Marsh, comes in, and Marsh tells a fascinating, strange and often sad tale, starting with Nim's traumatic separation from his mother at ten days old, before being brought to the Upper West Side apartment of Stephanie LaFarge, a grad student in psychology, who had three children and four step-children. She was a former student--and former lover--of Herbert Terrace and her role was to treat Nim as she would a human baby and to teach him sign language. She even breast-fed him (as her then 12-year-old daughter says, wryly looking back on that time, "It was the '70s...").

Nim and one of his teachers; photo by Susan Kuklin
But as one of Nim's newly recruited teachers, an undergraduate research assistant, Laura Ann Pettito, who was later to become another one of Terrace's student-lovers, put it, "[the LaFarge apartment] was chaos." In fact, so was the whole project at that point: no systematic note-making, no journals, no schedule, no plan. This was why Pettito and several other teachers were brought in: to try to bring some method to the madness and eventually, Terrace took Nim away from LaFarge and installed him, along with Pettito and the rest of the rolling cycle of teachers, in a giant country mansion owned by Columbia University. LaFarge had always resented Pettito's increasing role as Nim's surrogate mother and so was devastated when Nim was taken away, although, as Pettito points out quite smugly, Nim didn't seem that fussed to leave LaFarge.

The rest of Nim's story is rather sad. Once he'd reached the age of five, he was strong and aggressive, had very sharp fangs and had a habit of biting people really hard. To the distress of the teachers who had come to love Nim, Terrace announced that the project was over and they all flew Nim back to the Oklahoma primate centre where he was born. The spoiled, only-child chimp, used to wearing clothes, sleeping in beds and living with people was forced to get used to a sparse, cramped cage, but he did at least make one friend--a cheerful young hippy named Bob.

All was well until the primate centre went bust and the animals had to be sold to an animal research lab. Nim underwent various experiments but thanks to a lawyer who was able to drum up plenty of media interest, he was eventually released and bought by a Texas animal sanctuary. As the only chimp, however, Nim wasn't happy there. He smashed several TVs and killed a barking poodle by tossing it against a wall. Bob wasn't allowed to visit either. Eventually, though, the ranch was taken over, Bob was allowed to visit and the owner was encouraged to buy several chimp friends to keep Nim company. But he died from a heart attack at the age of 26 (chimps tend to live to about 40 in the wild, but can live to be 60 in captivity).

Despite his habit of mauling people who wrong him, Nim comes off very well from Marsh's movie, which is more than can be said for most of the humans. In their present-day voice-overs, those involved in Nim's life are very quick to criticise and denigrate others. Terrace, in particular, comes across as arrogant and sleazy, while LaFarge and Pettito snipe and attempt to one-up each other on camera. It's easy with hindsight to say how little thought went into how raising a chimpanzee as a human might affect the chimp, especially if it came to the point where he had to return to live with other chimps, but this seems to be true. Nim certainly never forgave LaFarge for "abandoning" him: when she came to visit him at the ranch, at least ten years after she last saw him, he appeared to recognise her although wasn't very happy to see her. She went into his cage and he attacked, dragging her around by the ankle before eventually letting her go. He didn't want to kill her, it was thought, but he did want to show her who was boss.

These days animal ethics committees exist to regulate experiments involving animals, although unlike the Declaration of Helsinki for research involving human subjects, there is no worldwide body to do the equivalent for animal research. Efforts to determine similarities between human language and animal communication systems continue, meanwhile: Klaus Zuberbühler's group have detected some sort of very rudimentary syntax in gibbons and Campbell's monkeys, for example.

The real reason we are so interested in animal languages, of course, is that we still don't really understand how our own ability to talk and verbally communicate with one another evolved, the underlying basis for language, or how children acquire language. I tend to fall in with the Michael Tomasello camp, whereby humans' ability  to acquire a language comes from general enhanced cognitive ability, with pattern finding and analogy skills being particularly important. But that's a blog post for another time...

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