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On Movies: 'Project Nim' showcases human arrogance and ignorance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2011 - "Language is a highly specialized human ability. It's about as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as that there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless birds waiting for human beings to teach them to fly."

--MIT linguist Noam Chomsky in reaction to being told about the treatment of his namesake.

Almost from the beginning of "Project Nim," a fascinating and, at times, horrifying documentary about human arrogance and ignorance in the name of science, we realize the chimpanzee known punningly as "Nim Chimpsky" is in big trouble.

In 1973, as we are shown in a chilling re-creation, the infant chimp was dragged screaming from the arms of his tranquilized mother and taken to New York for an experiment. Nim would be raised among humans, without the benefit of the company of his species, to see if a chimp could learn to talk to people using the sign language of the deaf.

The director of the experiment, Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace, tells us with scientific rectitude that he did not think of Nim as a living, breathing, feeling fellow creature. Instead, to Terrace, the chimp was purely the subject of a scientific experiment, an experiment to help define what is meant by "human" and perhaps to help understand the thoughts and feelings of man's closest genetic cousin.

What apparently did not concern Terrace was what would happen if the experiment didn't work -- didn't undo millions of years of primate evolution -- and Nim in effect remained a chimpanzee.

Using recent interviews with people involved in the experiment, actual historical film footage of Nim and his various human guardians and recreations of dramatic events, filmmaker James Marsh ("Man on Wire") lays out the story clearly and cleanly. Nim is first placed with a former student of Terrace and her family, rich bohemians who live on the Upper West Side of New York. It is the '70s, and the family members seem more interested in getting Nim to join their dope-smoking circles than in actually teaching him sign language, which in any case none of them knows very well.

Still, in addition to developing a taste for pot, Nim seems to be learning to sign - at least he is able to indicate that he is hungry (very hungry), and that he wants to play, and that he likes the cat. But he is also growing strong and rambunctious, and he regularly tears up the house, inflicting particular damage on clothing and other objects family members seem to cherish. He competes with the men for family dominance and forces himself physically between the woman who is in some sense his surrogate mother and her husband.

Grown too large and destructive for a house in the city, Nim is taken to a country estate owned by Columbia University, where he is allowed to run around the property on a leash. He is supervised by a series of graduate students, but by the time he is five years old, with an apparent vocabulary of 120 words, he has bitten so many of his keepers that he is shipped back to the Oklahoma primate center where he began his life and locked in a cage.

When the primate center, already a pretty dismal place, begins to run out of money, Nim is sold to a laboratory for medical research. Luckily for Nim, that is not the end of the story, and by the time the 26 years of his life are over, he has found at least one friend, a laid-back psychologist named Bob Ingersoll who used to work at the Oklahoma primate center. Ingersoll accepts the fact that Nim is a chimpanzee, not a hirsute human child with behavioral issues. Tellingly, Ingersoll seems to be the only member of the human race that Nim actually likes.

You do not have to be an animal rights activist to be disturbed, even appalled, by Nim's treatment. Legitimate larger questions - do we have the right to use animals to test drugs that could potentially save millions of lives? - seem beside the point to this film, which shows how cruelly and irrationally this particular creature was treated in the name of science. Project Nim was not intended to save any lives - indeed, it essentially lost one.

"Project Nim" is a movie full of unreliable narrators, all but one or two of them bearing some guilt in the tragedy of Nim, almost none willing or able to admit that they were partly to blame for the bad things that happened to Nim. And now the Columbia psychology professor who abandoned Nim tells us that the chimp, when he used signs, was not really talking to us at all. Nim was, instead, reproducing gestures that in the past had succeeded in obtaining something he wanted. He was no more participating in the language of human beings than is a dog trained to stand on its hind legs for a treat.

Somehow, that magisterial judgment, in addition to the overall sense of futility and waste it brings, adds to the feeling that human arrogance and contempt for animals dominated the Nim Project from beginning to end.

Opens Aug. 12.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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