The 1970s: a time for Reggie Jackson, the first go-round of John Travolta, and adopting a chimpanzee to settle a scientific dispute.
The new film Project Nim by director James Marsh, the documentarian behind the acclaimed Man On Wire, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week. Marsh tells the tale of a chimp that was taken from its mother and raised in a human family just like a human baby; the experimenters were attempting to show that language is not unique to our species.
In Project Nim [Marsh] looks at a project dreamed up by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and carried out on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp named for famed linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued language is uniquely human. Alternating between previously unpublished footage and interviews with participants in the experiment, the film shows how Nim initially connects with his family before his animal nature gradually takes over. [AFP]
Where a previous study had taught a chimp named Washoe symbols in American Sign Language, Terrace sought to go further with Nim. The chimp lived with the LaFarge family of New York, and for four years Terrace’s team tried to teach Nim to respond using a series of signs to make a sentence. (Nim’s Wikipedia article lists all the “phrases” he put together.)
But by the time the researchers published their article in the journal Science in 1979, evocatively titled “Can an ape create a sentence?”, Terrace was not impressed. “Superficially, many of its utterances seem like sentences,” the paper states. “However, objective analysis of our data, as well as of those obtained by other studies, yielded no evidence of an ape’s ability to use a grammar.” Particularly, video evidence showed that a teacher’s “prior utterance” appeared to prompt Nim’s utterances.
But some other researchers were not convinced. Among them was Roger Fouts, the psychologist at Central Washington University who began teaching the chimpanzee Washoe to use sign language in the late 1960s. He argued that Terrace’s study was not designed in a way that would have maximized Nim’s language capabilities. “He blamed [the failures] on the biology, rather than looking at his own procedures,” Fouts said. [Los Angeles Times]
If Fouts’ name sounds familiar, that’s because he was the sign language instructor for Lucy the chimp, who was similarly “raised human” and has been the subject of recent stories on “Radiolab” and “This American Life.”
What about Marsh, the filmmaker? What does he think of Nim’s weird odyssey?
“He doesn’t know anything about what he is, he just sees human beings and so the film and indeed, the experiment, becomes about nature and nurture. If you nurture a sentient animal, what and how can you influence him? And the answer is in the film,” Marsh said. “We discover quite quickly that he has his own unique chimpanzee nature.” [Reuters]
The value of Project Nim remains in dispute, but researchers are still striving to understand how communication works among other primates, and how far their abilities go. Take the studies over the last couple of years suggesting that monkeys—further from us on the evolutionary tree than chimps are—could understand the rudiments of grammar or syntax. However, it’s still a field marked by controversy and intrigue: See last year’s scandal over the research into monkeys’ cognitive abilities by Harvard primatologist Marc Hauser.
And here’s one more peculiarity: If you’re interested in the film, read up on Peter Elliott, Hollywood’s preferred primate and the actor who plays Nim in reenactments for Marsh’s movie.
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Image: Project Nim