[Marxism] Project Nim: "The chimp they tried to turn human"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at verizon.net
Thu Jul 7 21:48:38 MDT 2011

Thursday, Jul 7, 2011 21:01 ET 
The chimp they tried to turn human
"Project Nim" tells the bizarre true story of the pot-smoking,
kitten-humping celebrity chimp 
By Andrew O'Hehir 

If your cultural memory goes back to the 1970s, here's what you already
know, or think you know, about the subject of James Marsh's film "Project
Nim": An infant chimpanzee called Nim -- or Nim Chimpsky, in joking homage
to linguist Noam Chomsky -- was raised entirely by humans and taught
elements of American Sign Language, as part of an experiment that aimed to
determine whether an ape could acquire language the same way we do. (If one
could, that might disprove Chomsky's contention that humans are uniquely
hard-wired for language.) The results of the experiment were controversial
at the time and remain so today. Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University
psychologist who designed the project, ultimately decided that Nim hadn't
gotten anywhere near a syntactical understanding of human language and used
his vocabulary of 125 or so signs merely as a primitive code to achieve
short-term goals, such as a piece of fruit or a play session.

As he did in his Oscar-winning "Man on Wire," Marsh takes a
much-mythologized, media-friendly event of yesteryear and gradually fills in
the background and context via a meticulous blend of archival footage,
talking-head interviews and artful reconstructions. (This film is based on
Elizabeth Hess' 2008 book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.") As
with Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers, the Nim
experiment looks a whole lot different in retrospect. "Project Nim" is a
darkly hilarious social portrait of the bizarre alternate universe of 1970s
academia and an extraordinary biography of a non-human individual, on whom
all sorts of human desires and ideologies were projected. Marsh is far too
scrupulous, or too canny, to take sides in the dispute between Terrace and
his many detractors, but he doesn't have to. Basically, the more the guy
opens his mouth, the more he looks like a massive sleazebag, and the more
you learn about his so-called experiment, the more it looks like a
misbegotten and sloppily executed disaster that says more about human
arrogance than it does about chimps and language.

Continue reading 
"Project Nim" also belongs on the ever-lengthening list of movies designed
to convince younger people that however much the '70s may sound like a
paranoid fantasy out of a Philip K. Dick novel, they actually happened. (See
also: "Carlos," "Munich" and "The Baader Meinhof Complex," not to mention
"Man on Wire.") I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up. Terrace's
supposedly scientific exercise involved shooting Nim's mother with a
tranquilizer gun, seizing her 2-week-old infant and entrusting it to
Stephanie LaFarge, a former graduate student (and former lover) of Terrace's
who knew nothing about chimpanzees. She did, however, have a large blended
family, in which numerous children lived in a state of unsupervised
Manhattan chaos; evidently the idea was that one more who wasn't quite human
wouldn't make much difference.

LaFarge had a background in Freudian psychoanalysis and arguably conducted
her own experiments on Nim while by her own admission seeking to undermine
or derail Terrace's single-minded focus on sign-language acquisition.
(Chimps lack the musculature for verbal speech, in case you're wondering.)
She breast-fed Nim, allowed him to "explore" her body, and observed his
masturbation techniques. Nim was permitted to trash the house and terrorize
LaFarge's husband, whom he immediately identified as a rival male. He was
possessive, needy, affectionate and violent; an extremely intelligent and
humanlike animal, but still an animal. She gave Nim alcohol and marijuana.
I'll say that again: Entrusted with the care of an infant ape during a
controversial species-bridging experiment, she got him high. (A bit later in
the movie, you'll see Nim trying to get disturbingly intimate with his pet
cat. As humans know all too well, those male urges always find a way out.)

Terrace dropped in and out like a benevolent but largely absent uncle, and
seen in old film footage with his combover and his BMW sports coupe, he
looks the part. Once he'd had enough of LaFarge's act he transferred Nim to
a bucolic Columbia-owned estate just north of Manhattan, where Nim was
briefly entrusted to a high-energy undergraduate named Laura-Ann Petitto, at
least until she and Terrace had an affair and then broke up. Notice a kind
of pattern there? (In fairness, I should add that Petitto is today an
eminent neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, who remains supportive
of Terrace's conclusions about Nim's language skills.) Whatever you make of
LaFarge and Petitto and Joyce Butler, another undergraduate who became Nim's
third surrogate mother, the chimp's five-year run at the heart of Terrace's
experiment were characterized by a level of disorder and discontinuity that
would be distressing for any human child. It's hard to imagine what valuable
information could be extracted from that situation, and equally hard to tell
whether Nim bit and injured several of his human companions because of his
innate male-animal qualities (as presented here) or simply because he was
pissed at them.

Furthermore, if Terrace wants to reflect a little harder on his contention
that Nim learned to use language only in the cause of short-term
self-interest and never imparted any deep chimp philosophy, maybe he should
look in the damn mirror. Terrace never evinced the slightest concern for
Nim's welfare beyond the instrumental goals of his experiment. After Project
Nim collapsed Terrace cheerfully shipped his overeducated,
human-acculturated subject -- who had learned to drink coffee, wash dishes
and use the toilet -- back to the dirty and overcrowded primate research
facility in Oklahoma where he was born. (Terrace admits to some vague guilt
feelings, in retrospect, but his limited capacity for reflection and
introspection makes his choice of profession seem willfully perverse.)

While the endgame of Nim's story is undeniably distressing, it isn't as
tragic as it might have been, and there are heroes in it as well, along with
idiots and villains and one intelligent ape who learned some dubious lessons
from his time with human beings. Foremost among the heroes is Bob Ingersoll,
a longhaired Deadhead grad student at the dismal Oklahoma facility who
became, you'd have to say, Nim's best and truest friend. Now, it sounds as
if Ingersoll and Nim smoked a fair bit of weed during their time together,
but it's impossible not to feel different about this portion of Nim's life.
He was an adult ape by then, and no longer a star of interspecies
communication, but just another inmate in the secret prison-industrial
complex of animal research facilities.

Terrace visited Nim once in Oklahoma, with photographers along, in a
transparent P.R. event for the book he published in 1979. He never saw him
again after that, and took no interest when the Oklahoma facility sold Nim,
and most of its other apes, to a New York University lab where experimental
vaccines were tested on primates. (Terrace's current website at Columbia
makes no mention of his 1970s work with Nim, which is instructive in
itself.) Nim could well have died there had not Ingersoll, with the help of
a crusading lawyer and a guilt-ridden research veterinarian, focused media
attention on his plight and attracted the notice of animal rights campaigner
Cleveland Amory. Even that's not the end of the story, since Amory's Texas
shelter had no suitable facility for primates and at first resisted all
offers of help from Ingersoll and other experts. Ultimately, Nim ended his
life in acceptable conditions, among other chimps and old friends. (But wait
till you see what happens when Stephanie LaFarge, his first foster mother,
shows up!)

Ingersoll says he doesn't care about the language-or-not debate, but insists
he communicated with Nim perfectly well, using signs (including some of
Nim's own invention) and ordinary nonverbal cues. Almost anyone who's ever
lived with an animal feels the same way, to a greater or lesser degree, and
one could almost say that Terrace's experiment was a deranged and hubristic
attack on common sense: Animals can be both clever and intelligent, but it's
no good trying to turn them into human beings. If you ask me, Terrace began
with a set of ideological assumptions about words like "language," "meaning"
and "imitation" that predetermined his outcome, but Marsh's resonant and
thought-provoking film doesn't try to answer the question of whether Nim
learned to talk, or could have. It does suggest that only by treating other
species with dignity and respect can we respect our own unique status, and
that's a lesson we keep forgetting.

"Project Nim" is now playing in New York and Chicago, with wider national
release to follow. 


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