Book Review: Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess

Washoe was justifiably famous for her use of sign language and everyone is familiar with her story. What may not be as widely known is that Washoe was only the tip of the iceberg. Once upon a time, raising chimps among human families was quite common. Such endeavors served a wide variety of purposes. One, attempt, just as famous as Washoe, concerns a chimp named Nim Chimpsky.


Nim%201.jpgNim was born in a Oklahoma research facility, in 1973, and at ten days old was separated from his mother and sent to New York. He was to take part in a study designed to settle the debate between Skinnerians and Chompskians concerning the nature of language (and whether language was a strictly human trait). The idea was to raise him as a human. he was to be adopted into a human family and raised as a human. He was also to be taught American Sign Language (ASL). Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is the story of that experiment – and it’s aftermath. The Institute for Primates Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where Nim was born, was at the center for a thriving industry of chimp studies – mainly involving adopting out chimps to human families and Hess tells the story of some of those other attempts as she tells Nim’s rather tragic story. If you ask me the experiment was doomed from the beginning, but that is to look back with the benefit of hindsight. The cultural changes taking place during the 1960’s and and 1970’s didn’t help much either. Back then, little was known about chimp behavior and this was going to have a crippling effect on the experiment. Even worse, as those people who dealt with Nim on a daily basis came to understand Nim and his behavior their advice was frequently ignored and chalked up to sentimentality. Nim was adopted into a rather interesting family and for the first year or so things went well – at least in terms of his integration into the family. Linguistically, he was learning some signs, although the lead scientist (Herbert Terrace) wanted to push him harder. By 1975 Nim was developing a mind of his own, and this, along with disagreements over the methods used to train Nim (among other things) led Nim to be moved to a new location. Nim’s new home in Delafield was larger and had larger grounds for Nim to roam (though always on a tether) and had grad students. So Nim learned, along with ASL, to drink alcohol and smoke pot. By 1977 Nim was becoming hard to handle and biting people on a regular basis. I don’t wish to paint Nim’s time in New York as entirely bad. There were people who loved him and genuinely tried to understand him. Things would have been a lot worse for him otherwise. At any rate, in September of 1977 Nim was returned to the Institute of Primate Studies. The experiment was over and Terrace would later right an paper in Science that characterized Project Nim as a failure, in essence, for Terrace Chomsky was right. Language was a uniquely human trait. In the meantime, the IPS was slowly falling apart and by 1982 Nim had been sold to a lab researching Hepatitis. Fortunately for Nim, the press caught wind of it and after a bit of a struggle Nim was bought by Cleveland Amory and shipped to his Black Beauty Ranch. In some ways, this was to be a repeat of previous experiences for Nim. It took awhile for people at the ranch to understand him and chimps in general, but eventually they learned. On March 10th, 2000 Nim passed away due to a massive heart attack. He was only 26.
This is the basic outline of Nim’s story as portrayed by Hess’s book. In some ways it is a book about arrogance quite a large number of people started out dealing with Nim as if he had no mind of their own. This arrogance had a disastrous impact on almost everyone involved – in one way or another. Even more corrosive was the industry that grew up around chimp adoptions and the effects this had on the chimps themselves. Separation anxiety can be a killer gor highly social animals such as chimps. Isolation from their own kind in a forced attempt to make them human had disastrous affects as well – especially when the chimps grew hard to deal with and were returned to IPS and had to face the shock of dealing with other chimps. Part of the problem with Project Nim is that Nim was being forced to relate to humans as humans rather than as chimps and the consequences for their behavior and readjustment into chimp society was disastrous. Hess brings this out in a well written, empathetic book – a book in which very few people come out looking well. She also brings out the wonderful, but fragile, toughness of the chimps themselves. After reading the book you wonder how many of them survived.
This is the best book I have read this year and I recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in primates. It is hard, sometimes to do justice to a book so in closing I will quote from the final page:

They occasionally signed a few words to each other, although Byrne had often said that sign language was irrelevant to their relationship. From time to time Byrne believed that their discussions, however they communicated, verged on the philosophical. It was as if Nim was questioning Byrne, asking him over and over, “Why am I here? Why am I locked in this cage?”
Byrne had thought seriously about the answer to that question. He concluded that Nim was not asking to escape but making a more poignant comment on the injustice of his captivity.

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