Friday, May 11, 2012

Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to scientific studies that are revealed to have been miscalculated only in retrospect. Such is the true story behind Project Nim, an experiment that revealed the long-term consequences of exploiting a primate for research. A result of interviews and historical records collected by journalist Elizabeth Hess, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is a tragic, funny and maddening story of misguided attempts at scientific advances resulting in animal cruelty, and a character study of a much loved yet much mistreated chimp.

Project Nim was an attempt on the part of Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the capacity for language belongs exclusively to humans. Taken from his mother at birth, Nim was placed in a human family in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and raised as one of the children, while taking lessons in American Sign Language. Yet as human as he was, it soon became clear that Nim’s feral nature could not be contained, and the experiment was subsequently deemed a failure. When Project Nim ended, the chimp was abandoned by the only family he knew, and rotated throughout various facilities, from a chimp breeding farm to a medical research lab. It was his signing ability—along with the fame he amassed as a result of the study—that would save his life.

Given that Project Nim took place during the 70s, the personal dramas of the people involved were influenced by the zeitgeist of the era: a time of increasing political activism, hippie culture, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. By detailing the cultural backdrop, Hess successfully provides some rhyme and reason to the uninformed and deplorable actions on the part of the researchers, from substance abuse and marital infidelities to punishing Nim with solitary confinement. Additionally, Hess always makes it clear that there are few clear-cut heroes and villains, and that their intentions, whether good or bad, have little bearing on the outcomes.

Hess characterizes Nim himself as not unlike a human child: mischievous, playful, unruly, and endearingly creative in his means of disobedience. But the professionals involved would eventually realize the hard way their own cardinal sin of anthropomorphizing a primate; a fact that became clear during attempts to socialize Nim with other chimpanzees after a lifetime spent with humans. What appears infuriatingly obvious to modern readers was not so to these seemingly intelligent psychologists and linguists whose actions are now considered not only despicable but completely foolish.

Alternately humorous and heartbreaking, Nim Chimpsky is a story that needs to be told; a cautionary tale of the treatment of animals as research subjects, and the unpleasant truth about the price of scientific discovery; as much a morality tale, and a fun, charming story, as it is an educational biography. 

1 comment:

  1. Get a job in real estate or finance. Most would be able to share their similar experience. nice post. Nim Chimpsky