Project Nim is a rather sad documentary that is worth watching if you are interested in the subject matter. It tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother at the age of 2 weeks and raised by humans.
The project, which is still the subject of fierce controversy, was created by Herbert S. Terrace, a professor of Psychology at Columbia University. He hoped that a chimp raised this way and taught American Sign Language (chimps can’t form human phonemes) would learn to communicate in a manner similar to humans, though presumably with less sophistication.
The documentary is constructed using interviews with the participants combined with film and photographs from the original experiment. A few brief sequences are re-enacted using actors.
Most of the participants show bitterness towards Terrace, and it is tempting to view him as the villain of the story, but this is really a tragedy with no real villains. Everyone acted with good intentions, doing what seemed to be reasonable at the time.
Nim learned several hundred signs and Terrace was initially enthusiastic about his linguistic abilities. However after extensive analysis of the data he concluded that Nim was not using language as a human does. Nim did use signs that seemed appropriate in context and he strung signs together in a manner that resembled a human sentence. However he did not use grammar as a human would. He had just learned that certain signs would get him things that he wanted and strung together whatever signs seemed likely to produce the desired results. “Nim give banana,” “banana give Nim,” and “give banana Nim” all meant the same thing: that Nim wanted a banana.
The movie makes a good case that it is inherently cruel to raise a chimp as a human. Chimps are very smart and as babies they are adorable. However they soon grow to be several times as strong as a human, with sharp teeth, powerful jaws, volatile tempers and nothing resembling human self-control. The closest human analogy would be a two-year-old who has a gun and knows how to use it.
After Nim severely injured one of his teachers Terrace halted the experiment and returned Nim back to the primate research facility in Oklahoma where he was born and which still legally owned him. Since Nim had been raised among humans he was no happier about being sent to live with a bunch of chimps than you or I would be.
Things got worse when the university closed down the primate research facility and sold all the chimps to a medical research lab. This led to a certain amount of public outrage since Nim had earlier been the subject of many news stories that emphasized his intelligence and adorableness.
Cleveland Amory, the famous animal-rights activist, purchased Nim and sent him to his Black Beauty Ranch, a shelter for abused animals. But there were no other chimps there and Nim acted depressed and violent. Eventually some other chimps were added and hopefully their companionship made his final years more pleasant.