[Marxism] The troubled life of Nim Chimpsky

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 19 07:34:52 MDT 2011

(Peter Singer is an animal rights advocate. He does not persuade 
me that chimpanzees can use language, but I agree with his call 
for ending experiments with primates.)


NYRblog : Roving thoughts and provocations from our writers
The Troubled Life of Nim Chimpsky
Peter Singer

     “Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must 
not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have 
     —Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince

Perhaps Herbert Terrace, professor of psychology at Columbia 
University, and director of the experiment that is the subject of 
Project Nim, a new documentary by James Marsh, never read The 
Little Prince. The sad story of Terrace’s irresponsible treatment 
of Nim, the chimp he tamed—or more strictly, whose upbringing in a 
human family he organized—is the guiding thread of this revealing 
film, which raises important issues about the distinction between 
humans and animals, about our attitudes toward animals, and about 
scientific objectivity (or the lack thereof) in behavioral research.

Nim was born in a primate research center in Norman, Oklahoma. His 
mother, Caroline, was treated as a breeding machine—all her babies 
were taken from her for use in experiments. She knew the routine 
well enough to turn her back to humans as soon as her baby was 
born, presumably hoping that they would not notice him. But how 
can a chimpanzee hide her baby, when she lives in a bare cage? Nim 
was taken from her a few days after his birth, to be used in 
Terrace’s experiment testing whether sign language could be taught 
to a chimpanzee. (His full name, Nim Chimpsky, was a play on the 
name of the linguist Noam Chomsky, who had suggested that only 
humans have the ability to learn language.)

The film, which draws on Elizabeth Hess’s fine book Nim Chimpsky, 
overplays the novelty and significance of Terrace’s research. It 
neglects the real pioneers in this field, the psychologist Keith 
Hayes and his wife Cathy, who in the 1950s tried to raise a 
chimpanzee called Vicki as a child, to see if she would learn to 
speak. The attempt failed, but in 1966 another pair of 
psychologists, Beatrix and Allen Gardner grasped that the failure 
may simply have been due to the inadequacies of chimpanzee vocal 
chords for forming words. They therefore brought up an infant 
chimpanzee, Washoe, in their own home, using American Sign 
Language to communicate not only with Washoe, but, when Washoe was 
present, with each other. Washoe learned many signs, using them 
singly and in combinations that appeared to be sentences. She even 
invented some of her own terms, like “candy fruit” for watermelon.

Those who insisted that language is unique to humans, however, 
simply raised the bar on what counted as language. Some claimed 
that Washoe had not demonstrated that she really understood the 
signs she was using. Perhaps she was just imitating her human 
“parents.” They wanted to see chimpanzees use signs creatively, in 
novel combinations, or, taking their lead from Chomsky, they 
insisted that to prove that chimps are using language, it would 
have to be shown that they implicitly understand and use the 
syntactical rules that are critical to grasping the difference in 
meaning between “Mary gave the ball to John” and “John gave the 
ball to Mary.”

In 1973, Terrace set out to do something similar to what the 
Gardners did but with, he hoped, a more rigorous focus on whether 
a chimpanzee really could use language in the same way that humans 
use it. He arranged for the infant Nim to be adopted by Stephanie 
LaFarge, a free-spirited former student of his who was bringing up 
her own family in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 
selecting LaFarge, he neglected the crucial element of expertise 
in sign language. According to LaFarge’s daughter, Jennie, who is 
interviewed in the film, no one in the house was fluent in sign 
language. The family did not limit their communications to sign 
language when Nim was present and La Farge did not even begin to 
communicate with Nim using signs until he was three months old—an 
inauspicious start, given that infant chimpanzees develop more 
rapidly than humans. In other respects, Nim was treated as a new 
human addition to the family, dressed in human clothes, fed what 
the family ate, and most importantly, loved and cuddled as a human 
baby would have been.

Once the teaching began, Nim did pick up some signs. But Terrace 
wanted more structure in Nim’s learning. He put Laura-Ann Petitto, 
a student, in charge of Nim’s education. LaFarge and Petitto 
obviously did not get on. In the film Petitto describes the 
atmosphere in the LaFarge home as “chaotic” while LaFarge says of 
Petitto: “She came out of nowhere as a cute little thing from 
Ramapo.” Terrace organized sessions in which graduate students 
taught Nim signs, not in his home but in a windowless room at 

Terrace then decided that Nim would no longer live in the 
undisciplined atmosphere of the LaFarge household and placed the 
chimp in Petitto’s care—a decision LaFarge compares with the 
original taking of Nim from his biological mother. Was this 
decision influenced by something other than Terrace’s desire to do 
what was scientifically best for the project? Terrace denies it: 
“I had strong personal feelings about Laura, but I don’t think 
that got in any way in the way of our science.”

Nim was moved to a large mansion owned by Columbia University, 
where he had plenty of space, and where Petitto and two other 
teachers and carers could also live, while others came as 
visitors, giving him regular signing lessons. They developed a 
system for recording Nim’s signing, which was progressing rapidly. 
Terrace says that at this point the project was “literally 
humming.” Nim developed a vocabulary of about 120 signs and the 
project was featured in several magazines and television programs. 
But Nim was getting stronger, and at times, quite aggressive.

He attacked Petitto several times—in the film she shows the 
location of one bite that needed 37 stitches, and of another that 
hit a tendon. That may have made her think of leaving, but as she 
tells the story to the camera, it seems that a brief romantic 
involvement with Terrace—and the abrupt way he then ended the 
relationship—was the most significant factor. “It was the humans I 
wanted to leave, not the chimp,” she says. She detached herself 
from the project, and was replaced by Joyce Butler, who had come 
to the project to write her undergraduate thesis on Nim. Now she 
became his third surrogate mother. But it wasn’t long before he 
bit another teacher severely enough to put her into hospital. 
That, combined with difficulties in raising further funds, led 
Terrace to decide to end the project after only four years.

Terrace called the group together and told them that they already 
had ample data that needed analyzing and there was no point in 
continuing. Nim’s carers and teachers were stunned, but Terrace 
was telling them of his decision, not seeking their views.

But where should Nim go? From the time he was taken from his 
mother, he had never known another chimpanzee. He had lived with 
humans, worn human clothing, and eaten human food. When sorting 
photos of humans and apes, he placed his own photo among the 
humans. He had never lived in a cage. Yet Terrace sent him back to 
the primate research center in Oklahoma. Butler, who went back to 
Oklahoma with Nim, says “It was just a nasty thing to do… very 
deceitful.” On camera, she breaks up, crying, as she recalls 
prying herself free from Nim, who was trying to hold tight to her.

Terrace visited Nim there a year later for a pre-arranged photo 
shoot. Nim recognized him immediately and engaged him in play and 
signing, but when Terrace left, Nim just lay there and refused 
food. Terrace admits that the primate center turned out to be 
“surprisingly more primitive” than he had remembered and confesses 
to feeling that what he had done was “not the right thing to do… I 
was definitely doing something that he would feel was unjust or 
wrong.” Nevertheless Terrace took no steps to get Nim transferred 
out of the facility.

Project Nim tells a moving story of the remainder of Nim’s life—he 
died in a Texas wildlife refuge in 2000—that I will not retell 
here. The documentary also sheds some light on the way in which 
Terrace wrote up the results of his research. Before his abrupt 
decision to close down the project, he had shown enthusiasm for 
the way in which Nim had learned to sign. Yet in the book that he 
wrote afterward, he declared it a failure, joining the skeptics in 
denying that chimpanzees are capable of language. After viewing 
the videotapes, he concluded that what appeared to be 
communication was mere imitation.

Some of Nim’s care-givers were startled by Terrace’s sudden 
about-turn. For Terrace, like some other researchers at the time, 
the fundamental question was whether a chimpanzee could create a 
sentence. Nim used signs in combinations, like “Give Nim banana.” 
If a human child said that, we would all think she had uttered a 
sentence. As for the idea that Nim’s signing was mere imitation, 
or a response to a stimulus that elicited the sign, there was 
ample evidence of Nim initiating conversations. How could that be 
mere imitation?

Project Nim ended prematurely, at a time when Nim was young, and 
still learning. It was impossible to tell what he might have 
achieved. Moreover, Nim had had a checkered upbringing. If he was 
not learning rapidly enough to satisfy Terrace, might that not 
have been due to his unsettled home life, and the succession of 
teachers he had had, rather than to any innate inability to learn 
language? In the film Terrace himself says “You just can’t count 
on having outstanding teachers all the time.” But maybe if Terrace 
himself—who is described by one of Nim’s teachers as an “absentee 
landlord”—had been more involved in the project, the standard of 
teaching would have been higher. Was it possible that Terrace had 
taken such a negative view of Nim’s abilities because dumping a 
language-using, humanized ape back in a cage with 
non-language-using chimpanzees would be worse than doing that to 
an animal without the ability to use language?

Whatever the reasons for Terrace’s verdict regarding Nim’s 
abilities, it served to reinforce the view that language is a 
distinguishing mark of what it is to be human. Money for research 
on teaching language to nonhuman animals dried up, and the whole 
field was set back for at least a decade. It is now clear, though, 
that Terrace was wrong to suggest that signing in apes is always 
some form of imitation. Roger and Deborah Fouts, psychologists who 
now co-direct the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, at 
Central Washington University, managed, after a struggle, to take 
over responsibility for Washoe from the Gardners, and ensure that 
she did not meet the same fate as Nim. They observed her teaching 
her companion chimpanzees to sign, and using signs in novel ways, 
including asking questions about the future—for example, after a 
snowfall, asking about the “candy tree,” their term for the 
Christmas tree they get each year.

Perhaps the most rigorous proof that nonhuman animals can 
understand language comes from the primatologist Sue 
Savage-Rumbaugh’s research, although her work concerned not 
chimpanzees but their close relatives, bonobos. Savage-Rumbaugh 
trained bonobos to use a keyboard to sign, thus eliminating any 
uncertainty about what was or was not being signed. Kanzi, a 
bonobo who began to pick up signs without any training, while 
observing his mother being trained to use the keyboard, clearly 
understands complex novel sentences. For example, when asked, for 
the first time, to “make the dog bite the snake,” he takes the toy 
snake, puts it in the mouth of the toy dog, and closes the dog’s 
mouth over the snake. He does not put the dog in the snake’s 
mouth. (In Kanzi’s Primal Language, Savage-Rumbaugh and her 
co-authors Pär Segerdahl and William Fields suggest that Terrace’s 
failure to make comparable progress with Nim may have been due to 
the fact that, in contrast to the way Kanzi picked up language 
from the environment around him, Nim was supposed to learn it 
largely in structured sessions, more like the way we teach 
children a second language.)

Eighteen years ago, Paola Cavalieri and I founded The Great Ape 
Project, an organization dedicated to the idea of giving great 
apes the moral status and legal protection that befits their 
nature. As the work of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, Francine 
Patterson, Birute Galdikas, H. Lyn White Miles, Roger and Deborah 
Fouts, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and many other remarkable scientists 
has shown, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans are 
self-aware beings, capable of thought, and with rich and deep 
emotional lives. Our idea is that the great apes, as our closest 
relatives, could serve as a bridge over the immense gulf we have 
dug between ourselves and other animals. Once one group of animals 
is included within the sphere of beings with rights, we hope that 
the extension of some basic rights to other sentient animals will 
be that much easier to make.

Fortunately, the idea that great apes should not be treated as 
tools for research—as opposed to the kind of relationship 
developed by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh—has made some progress since the 
time when Nim was sent back to Oklahoma. Experiments on great apes 
are now either banned or severely restricted in New Zealand, 
Australia, Japan, and throughout the European Union.

In the United States, a bipartisan group of members of Congress is 
supporting legislation to end the use of chimpanzees in invasive 
research. Project Nim shows that even when research is not 
invasive, it can have a devastating psychological impact on an 
animal. What happened to Nim was wrong, and should never happen again.

Project Nim is playing at the Anglika Film Center in New York and 
in theaters across the country.

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