Nim: the unproject

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The documentary Project Nim, about Herbert S. Terrace's effort to have a chimpanzee reared from birth like a human child and taught sign language, is an excellent piece of film-making, and you should see it. But if you go to it expecting to see something about research and data and results, there's a surprise in store for you. I now think this was not an experiment, there are no results, there is no Project Nim.

I won't write at great length on this; you can not only see the film (which will definitely stimulate your thinking about the ethics of animal experimentation), but also read Herb Terrace's 1987 book, and the recent book that inspired the film: (Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human by Elizabeth Hess (2009). But I'll tell you a few salient things about the story the film tells.

Nim was snatched from his protective mother in an Oklahoma chimp colony just after his birth and put into a household in New York City where nobody was a fluent signer. The household, a prosperous hippy family, modeled neither a sign-language environment nor what was normal for chimps nor what was normal for human children (they allowed Nim alcohol and marijuana). He had no discipline, no intensive exposure to use of sign in context, and Herb Terrace rarely visited. In these early stages there were no log books kept, no records of any scientific kind concerning what went on. Nim was just a pampered wild animal kept as a household pet. This was not a scientific project at all, at least at the start. Terrace talked to the press occasionally about "the experiment" and "the science", but this was hardly an experiment and he was hardly an experimenter. He showed up for photo sessions with Nim but he wasn't a signer and they didn't interact much.

When research assistant Laura Pettito started giving Nim intensive tuition in sign, he showed virtually no interest unless a sign would get him something he immediately wanted. The chin-touch sign for "dirty" would usually get him out of the windowless training cell at Columbia for a visit to the toilet; a cursory slapping of the hands together would signal that he wanted to play.

After Pettito and Terrace got things a bit more organized, handlers and trainers would make notes of sign sequences Nim emitted, and eventually amassing a corpus of over 20,000 sequences. But Terrace himself has pointed out (not in the film, but on BBC Radio 4 on August 15, the same day that I saw the film), if you examine the film of utterances you can see that almost always Nim is repeating signs his trainers had made an instant before. (Nim's vocabulary is alleged to have reached 125 signs; I suspect that the trainers only got that high by writing down every single sign Nim ever imitated.) He was not expressing anything; he was mimicking. And always in order to get something he immediately wanted right there and then. Terrace's own view is that Nim was just an expert at begging.

There was no sign of any regularities of order in the corpus. Nim produced just random sequences. Virtually always they shadowed what the human companions had just signed. The trainers would demonstrate signs or short sequences and try to get Nim to do the same, and as soon as he imitated them they would write down that he had done so, without noting that he was merely mimicking. Famously, the sign sequence of Nim's longest ever utterance was this:


Perhaps you can guess the context and what Nim wanted.

Some of the people filmed had apparently deluded themselves into thinking they had conversations with Nim where views were expressed, but there was no sign of it whatever in the film. Nim never initiated or pursued a conversation, never expressed an opinion, never voiced a thought. He threw around a cursory sign or two now and then to try and get some immediate desire satisfied.

As Terrace notes, the problem is a lack of theory of mind: the reason chimps say nothing to us seems to be not just because they have nothing much to say, but because they have no idea that we have brains and might understand them.

Nim rapidly grew into a dangerous wild animal. He would give Pettito serious bite wounds. One needed 37 stitches. When he bit another woman's face so hard he nearly tore her cheek off, a succession of relocations began. (You may notice a double standard, by the way: when talking about Nim being sent away to an animal facility, people who knew him talk with tears in their eyes about his life and hopes and dreams, and argue for treating him as if he were human; when he commits savagely violent assaults that would get a human locked up, they don't.) Later in his life a well-meaning couple looking after him at the Black Beauty Ranch, operated by the Fund for Animals in Texas, let him into their house, where a small white poodle barked at him. He smashed it to death against the wall.

To the end, Nim's largely prompted and cursory sign use seems never to have expressed anything particularly meaningful. Project Nim was a total bust: quixotic, constantly improvised, and badly managed. I'm not sure it should be called a project at all.

Yes, it would be wonderful to see propositional communication across a interspecies barrier. But that hasn't happened yet. This film should convince you of that, even if the ludicrous gullibility of earlier press reports about language acquisition in primates hadn't already.

And it should also convince you that the title of Herb Terrace's 1987 book Nim, A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language is blatantly dishonest. I guess the publisher would not have gone with an honest one like "Nim, A Chimpanzee Who, Like Every Other Chimpanzee, Never Learned Sign Language".

[Comments are welcomed from commenters who are either chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) or bonobos (Pan paniscus). Email them in, and they will be reproduced below. No human intermediaries please.]

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