Saturday, August 06, 2011

Project Nim

In 1973 Herbert Terrace of Columbia University started a scientific experiment to determine if a chimpanzee could be taught American Sign Language and hence disprove Noam Chomsky's hypothesis that only humans have the ability to communicate using language. He put a 2 week old chimpanzee with a human family and later with some student researchers to see if it could be taught American Sign Language. The chimp was named Nim Chimpsky.

The documentary Project Nim is not about whether the use of hand signs and groups of signs by chimpanzees constitutes a use of language or not. You'll have to read about that elsewhere. The focus is on how the baby chimp is brought up, and what effects he has on the people around him. Contemporary video footage and interviews with the family he was with in New York and the researchers leave no doubt that the experiment wasn't rigorous enough to produce much useful data and that Herbert Terrace took a very casual and ad hoc approach. What is more interesting about this phase is not his use of sign language but how a chimp uses its social skills in an alien human environment. Even as baby he began asserting his dominance over certain people. Later one research student demonstrated her understanding of this by responding to a bite from Nim by biting him back (on the ear). He never bit her again. He did bite other researchers often drawing blood and sometimes requiring stitches (chimpanzees have strong jaws and large canine teeth and humans have lots of body fat, looser skin and no protective fur).

Eventually the language experiment was abruptly terminated and he was returned to the Oklahoma primate research facility he was born in. This cage environment was a huge change from the up state New York mansion and 38 acre grounds where he lived during the sign language experiment. The bigger change was meeting other chimpanzees for the first time. Unfortunately the Oklahoma facility was running out of funding and the chimps were sold to a New York University pharmaceutical testing laboratory (in late 1970s to early 1980s many chimps were bred and used for AIDs and hepatitis research in America).

The second half of the film races though the next 20 odd years of Nim's life in large leaps. Nim's adult life was depressing and boring, including 8-10 years in solitary confinement in an equine animal sanctuary. Meanwhile the owner issued legal threats against one of Nim's keepers from Oklahoma who wanted to maintain contact and improve his social conditions. Eventually 2 other ex-medical testing chimps join Nim.

The animal cruelty message of the film is never in doubt, even though you could argue that focusing on an intelligent and social animal like a chimp, and specifically focusing on a named chimp that was initially treated well and then going from bad to worse plays strongly on the emotional side of the argument. Especially with half the film showing Nim when he is young and cute. But cinema is largely an emotional media. If you want reasoned argument about animal cruelty there is plenty of philosophy to read.

Herbert Terrace eventually decided that Nim wasn't using the hand signs in language like sequences and that his main motivation for signing was only a means of obtaining an outcome (mostly food and hugs) and not to express meanings, thoughts, or ideas. Though in my mind these two things are not as far apart as he is suggesting. For instance my writing of this blog is a means of obtaining an outcome. It is more a case that I am interested in a wider range of outcomes than Nim.

There are interesting insights into the more casual 1970s attitudes to the ethics around both research and student-teacher sex and the differences in the money that different universities have (or had) in America. The interviews in the film are remarkably candid.

Ian's rating 4/5 Anne's rating 2.5/5

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