Documentary Tells the Tale of Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Raised as a Human

By Andrew Moseman | January 26, 2011 5:14 pm

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 Alternating between previously unpublished footage and interviews with participants in the experiment, the film shows how Nim initially connects with his family before his animal nature gradually takes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.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Battle for #2 in Primate IQ
80beats: Boom Boom Krak-oo! Have Monkeys Demonstrated Syntax?
80beats: Clever Monkeys Can Recognize Basic Grammar
80beats: Renowned Harvard Primatologist Found Guilty of Scientific Misconduct

Image: Project Nim

  • Kevin R. Bridges

    Language, in humans, is nearly impossible to avoid. Not all parents actively teach their child to speak, but nobody, excluding those with certain handicaps, grow up mute.

    You can strain to teach an animal to talk, though, and end up with results that are ambiguous, and controversial, but only to those that already think animals should be able to talk.

    If they could talk, they would.

  • nick

    If they could talk, would we be capable of understanding it?

  • Dog lover

    My dog is a mutt and his mix of breeds are Tibetan spaniel, kelpie, fox terrier, black Labrador and after a year of coming home to him and saying ‘hello’ to my dog Jimbo (3 years old at the time), I went away for two weeks and upon my return Jimbo raced out to greet me followed by my mum and he said ” arrow” , both of us heard it and told him what a good boy he was, he sounded like an impersonation of an asian, he can also say ” um” for ‘come’ and ” Rup” for ‘hurry up’ . He is a very smart, sweet dog.

  • Wesley

    In all the studys I’ve read, the only animals other than humans that actually appear to be pretty good at using language and that have no problem with grammer are… dolphins!
    It’s true. If we could break the language barrier between man and dolphin, that would be pretty cool…

  • matt

    We already talk to animals and they talk back, dogs can talk in half dozen words to us same as cats with expressions and guestures.

    Think of a conversation, we say hello then chat about what we did at the supermarket then say goodbye.

    Do you honestly think a dog cares about what it didnt do at your supermarket. A dog will say hello, say goodbye and stare blankly for the rest and perhaps wonder what you got for him at the market.

    You could probably train your dog to talk about the weather because it would be interested and i put it out there for people to try it. Im sure it will be able to regurgitate the correct weather for walks after a while.

    Also what sort of conversations do you want with your pet, perhaps chatting over the latest release movies, what you might prepare for dinner, a real friend is what you need instead of a talking toy.

    As far as i know some monkeys groups have been identified with cultures and to have culture you need to communicate and to communicate you need grammer/syntax so any arguement to say dolphins are the only beings with grammar are probably short-sighted. It would be better to say you have read articles saying dolphins use grammar than to rule out every living thing on the planet the studies never looked at.

  • Awesomeness

    I think this is really cool! :)
    If only my hamster would speak, i would be the happiest in the world! :)

  • Walter Benesch

    Hess’ book is so inaccurate about who moved in with Nim at Delafield that it must raise questions about the rest of the book. It appears that Hess is too interested in making up stories about volunteer’s sexual relations that she ignores the facts. The fact that Walter was reported by Terrace as living on the 2nd floor and Amy on the 3rd is completely ignored and Hess has those two as a “couple” in the same 3rd floor room. Interesting since they had met shortly before the move into Delafield and never dated (Walter had a relationship with another woman at that time). Also the temper tantrum has Bill T. coming to the rescue when he was not in the house at the time.
    Such errors must raise questions about the accuracy of the rest of the book. As far as can be determine by one who was involved, the literary license taken has taken a serious story out of the realm of fact into historical fiction.


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