Project Nim (Roadside Attractions, PG-13)

Nim may or may not have acquired language but he certainly demonstrated a complex array of emotions, a fact that makes his subsequent fate all the more painful to watch.



One of the hot debates in academia in the 1960s and 1970s concerned the nature of human language. Is it a behavior we learn through trial and error coupled with reinforcement, just as we learn many other things? Is it a special type of knowledge that we are, uniquely among the members of the animal kingdom, predisposed to learn? Noam Chomsky championed the latter theory, B.F. Skinner the former.

In 1973 Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace (and former student of Skinner) began an experiment he believed would answer this question. An infant chimpanzee, named "Nim Chimpsky," was taken from its mother and given to a human mother to be raised as a child and taught sign language. If this chimp learned to use sign in a way that demonstrated an understanding of grammar, then that would be taken as evidence that language learning was not a uniquely human capacity.

This experiment is the basis of James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim and Marsh brings to it the same strong visual instinct and sense of narrative that are the hallmarks of his Oscar-winning Man on Wire (also a story of the 1970s). In Project Nim Marsh is much less concerned with the scientific results of the study than he is with the behavior of the human beings involved, particularly Dr. Terrace whose behavior was, to put it mildly, not a credit to his species.

Nim was first placed with a large family of "rich hippies" living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he formed a strong bond with the mother, Stephanie LaFarge, who breast fed him and observed his sexual behavior (the family cat seems in peril at one point) without interference. Nim also plays with the other kids (LaFarge and her husband had 7 children between them) and merrily trashes the family’s home while regarding the husband as unwelcome competition.

Somewhat concerned over the chaotic conditions of the LaFarge home, Terrace abruptly removes Nim to a rural estate owned by Columbia to be raised by a series of (usually female) students. They teach Nim sign language in a more systematic manner and eventually he learns more than 120 words. Dr. Terrace achieves celebrity for Nim’s accomplishments which including combining words to indicate desires ("apple me eat"). Whether such "utterances" (chimps lack the muscles to speak, hence the use of sign language) constitute language use, or merely learned responses, is a disputed point.

Nim may or may not have acquired language but he certainly demonstrated a complex array of emotions, a fact that makes his subsequent fate all the more painful to watch. When you watch him interact with his caretakers (the project was extensively documented on film) it’s amazing how he seems almost human, demonstrating social emotions like empathy as well as a very human hedonism (he enjoyed both alcohol and pot). But that "almost" qualifier is important; as Nim grew up he became increasingly dangerous, both because of his strength (an adult chimp is 5-6 times as strong as an adult human) and also because he became increasingly aggressive as his animal instincts kicked in. After he bites several caretakers severely it becomes evident that the cute furry little baby has grown up to be a dangerous wild animal.

The story becomes much darker here, as Nim is removed from his life among humans (he has never interacted with other chimps since being taken from his mother at the age of two weeks) and sold to a medical experimentation facility, then to a well-intentioned animal activist who does not understand the social needs of chimpanzees. The ethical issues raised are numerous and reach far beyond the simple issue of animal cruelty, making this film a natural discussion-starter for classes in philosophy as well as for those involved in scientific research (one does have to wonder what the Institutional Review Board at Columbia was doing during this time).

I’m not one of those people who believes all animal experimentation should be banned (and if you are, to be consistent you should refuse any medical procedure or drug that was developed using animal testing) but the conduct of this particular experiment seems both wasteful and particularly cruel. Wasteful because it was conducted so carelessly that any conclusions to be drawn must remain tentative at best, cruel because it took an infant from a species very similar to our own (chimps and humans have 94 to 99 percent of DNA in common) and with a highly developed social instinct and treated it like raw material to be discarded when the experiment was over (apart from one heartbreaking photo-op visit).

Project Nim is constructed out of archival footage, contemporary interviews (staged with a real sense of style) and re-enactments that are blended so seamlessly that it’s not always clear whether you are seeing something that actually happened in the course of this experiment or something that has been staged for this film. That’s a bit disturbing in a film that has as one of its subjects the search for truth, but as a facet of Marsh’s style simply has to be accepted much as we’ve become used to Ken Burns’ "photo animation" effects.

Most revealing among the interviews are those provided by Terrace, who seems completely unaware of how he appears on camera—basically self-centered and incapable of considering any interests but his own. Welcome to academia, folks, and we’re not really surprised when we learn that Terrace had affairs with at least two of Nim’s caretakers (at one point saying he wasn’t sure why he always hired female assistants) or that he dropped Nim like a rock once he was no longer useful. | Sarah Boslaugh



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