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Project Nim

July 30, 2011
Project Nim

From 1973 to 1977, Dr. Herbert Terrace, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, arranged a study that may well be the only one quite of its kind. At least, if there were others one hopes they were conducted better. Terrace took an infant chimpanzee from the Institute for Primate Research in Oklahoma and casually lobbed it into the home of his former student, Stephanie LaFarge to raise as a child in order to see if he could learn to use language. He somewhat whimsically named the subject “Nim Chimpsky”, and Nim’s life is the story behind Project Nim.

The problems were half-baked right into the plan from the beginning: nobody in LaFarge’s house used American Sign Language fluently, so there wasn’t exactly a normal environment from which to learn. On top of that, LaFarge — a psychological graduate student — seems to have been an unconstructed Freudian, not to mention a rather naïve self-described hippie. There wasn’t much in the way of structure for her own human children, let alone for what she never seems to have realized is a wild animal. Her kids at least had outside interactions to help socialize them, but Nim was allowed to become sort of a spoiled brat. There is no evidence she was at all ready to undertake any sort of serious scientific project.

After some time, Terrace moves Nim more and more to the care and teaching of an undergraduate research assistant, with the aid of a few other sign language teachers, at an estate owned by the university. There is now more structure, but still little oversight, control, or accountability. Even so, Nim is shown to use more and more and more signs as time goes by. And yet, in retrospect, there are still questions as to whether he ever really used “language”, as such, or only learned gestures to get what he wanted; a more abstract form of a rat pushing a button to get a food pellet.

Either way, after four or five years, Nim became dangerous. Small chimps may be adorable and remarkably like very agile human babies, but even well-socialized adult chimps can be violent, and they’re much stronger than a comparably-sized person would be. Nim had to go back to the Institute from whence he came. But was the Institute really that much better a living environment? And from there Nim’s life took one heartbreaking turn after another for a good many years.

Project Nim is really about this biography, and even then it’s better at making you feel than think. I lost track of the number of times I wanted to storm through the screen, grab Terrace by the turtleneck, and shake him like Nim could have, demanding to know what the hell he could have been thinking. The man comes off as completely amoral and disinterested in the consequences of his own actions.

And yet, even though I hardly forgive him his blunders, I’m just not that interested in Nim’s life. The plight of chimpanzees kept in captivity in the 1980s is a tragedy, but the movie doesn’t really draw any connection to conditions these days; are they better? worse? I know that the National Zoo maintains a fascinating cognitive science lab working with orangutans; how do their conditions compare?

But when it comes right down to it, I’m really not interested in a bunch of heartstring-tugging but disconnected biography. What I want to hear about is the science of the project itself. And beyond the vague description of its mission, the vague description of its conclusions or lack thereof, and some anecdotes about how it was conducted, I really don’t come away with any understanding of the project itself. I don’t have a concise description of how it succeeded or failed, or even what success or failure would mean in the first place. And for a movie ostensibly about a scientific project, that’s just too little science.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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