In Loving Memory of My Old Friend Nim Chimpsky | Nonhuman Rights Project
I f Herbert Terrace had his way, before any discussion about his research in the evolution of language, he would put everyone into a room for a quick lesson in breaking the habit of anthropomorphism. Not that the psychologist is unsympathetic to the impulse. I talk to my cat; she understands. Terrace famously came to this conclusion in the s, after a three-year study that involved teaching sign language to a chimpanzee.
And he has focused much of his career since developing a theory that explains how humans arrived at language when simians did not. The Brooklyn-raised Terrace, who has worked at Columbia since , earned a B. There, he studied under the famed psychologist B. Skinner, known for his theories in operant behavior. The basic idea is that behavior is determined by its consequences, be they reinforcements or punishments, which make it more or less likely that the behavior will occur again.
Terrace also was intrigued by reports of people who were training chimpanzees to use human languages — among them, a couple at the University of Nevada who in the late s taught American Sign Language to a chimp named Washoe. He envisioned taking the next step — not only training the animal but also documenting and rigorously vetting the results.
Thus in , Terrace embarked on a research study with a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky a nod to Chomsky, who insisted that language as we know it is innate and unique to humans. At first the infant Nim lived with the family of a psychology student studying with Terrace, in a Manhattan brownstone; as he grew older and more rambunctious, he was transferred to a sprawling estate owned by Columbia in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Across a roughly three-year period I collected upward of 24, utterances in sign language and not only that, but during a two-year period I only looked at combinations of two or more signs.
He was preparing to submit his results to the journal Science when, while looking at videotape of Nim working with teachers, he realized something critical: Nim was not signing spontaneously; rather, the teachers signed most of what Nim signed, about a quarter of a second before he signed it. This was not unprecedented. Although chimpanzees are adorable as infants, within a few years they are too strong, too agile, too emotionally unconstrained for a household; they wreak havoc by accident or intention, and they bite. In , after further trouble and diminishing returns, the experiment was officially ended and he was sent back to Oklahoma University.
Just about everyone involved was interviewed for this book, which paints a detailed picture of affairs and animosities, a soap opera of psychologists. The chimpanzees seem quite civilized in comparison. An appendix gives a where-are-they-now update. An associated documentary film has numerous clips and summaries online. As part of this experiment, he was raised by humans, lived with humans, and many ways acted like a human Nim's story is an interesting and often emotionally affecting one, and it raises a number of thought-provoking questions about the ethics and the underlying assumptions of experiments like this, and of animal experimentation in general.
Nim Learns to Smoke Pot
But Hess often seems much less interested in the chimp, or in the science, than she is in the researchers. A disproportionate amount of the book involves gossipy details of their personal lives: who had an out-of-control ego, who was feuding with whom, who was sleeping with whom, who was smoking pot, etc.
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The answer, by the way, is that everybody was smoking pot and everybody was sleeping with everybody else. Because it was the 70s. I suppose this might have been vaguely interesting, in a tawdry reality TV kind of way, if Hess were really bringing these people vividly to life with her prose, but mostly I just found it dull and kept wishing she'd get back to more worthwhile topics. Its about the person who bought him, the many people who raised him as a human child - although they would never have given up on the job as they all did so quickly with Nim - and all the people who were part of the various experiments on him.
Finally it is about the people who looked after him in his retirement. As a book about an animal, animal behaviour and language acquisition, this book fails miserably - Vince Smith, Roger Fouts and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh have all written much more interestingly on these subjects. However, it was interesting to see the wheeling and dealing and politicking of the world that lives on research grants and where jealousy rather than co-operation is the name of the game for these scientists. Xs Apr 2, The terribly sad story of Nim the chimp who was raised with human children and taught sign language, and then after a brief period in a chimp sanctuary, more or less abandoned to his fate.
I devoured this immediately after watching Project Nim , an extremely good documentary. I recommend both.
Named in parody of linguist Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky is the center of "Project Nim" and thus the book surrounding his life. Delving into the details of the primate facility in Oklahoma where he was born to the home of his foster family and the research university in New York, Hess unravels a story that fluctuates between humorous, sweet, appalling, and unbelievable. I found myself exceptionally interested in the scientific side of this story but was shocked at the lack of ethics and standards in raising of Nim.
Though expected to learn ASL, the family he lived with was not fluent in sign language and few of his numerous handlers were intent on keeping records of his progress. Also, when the project began very little thought was given to the long term ramification of teaching a chimpanzee to behave as a human and predictably, the adolescent Nim quickly becomes too much to handle. The tragedy of the personable chimp left without a home or a purpose - and the greater story of research animals in general - is ultimately the most stunning part of Hess's work.
It's impossible to approach this book without falling a little bit in love with the precocious Nim. The photographic documentation of the tiny baby chimp who dresses in toddler clothes; growing into a midsized animal with enough sense to wash dishes and play with pets; and finally a full grown ape with a deep intelligence in his all-too-human eyes reveal the closeness of chimpanzees to homo sapiens in a way that statistics about genetic similarity will never match.
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Though it may not conclusively answer the questions of animals' ability to use language what Nim's story does is raise even more questions about our compassion towards other species. This is a book for lovers of animals and fans of science and anyone who enjoys an out of the ordinary biography.
Terrace's goal was to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language in order to refute Noam Chomsky's assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp, was "adopted" by a graduate student.
Related Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human
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