Apes, legal personhood and the plight of Nim Chimpsky

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Natasha Mitchell, host of the excellent ABC National Radio Program (Australia) recently interviewed Elizabeth Hess, author of Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.

Natasha Mitchell: The story of project Nim begins with an ambitious research project whose goal is really embodied in the name the chimp was given. What was the project and tell us about the name?

Elizabeth Hess: Nim Chimpsky was the chimp's name and the psychologist at Columbia University whose brainstorm this was was called Herbert Terrace and he was BF Skinner's protégé. And there was a longstanding argument essentially between BF Skinner and Noam Chomsky, famous linguist and philosopher, over whether or not you could draw the line between humans and non-humans at language. BF Skinner of course argued that language was learned, even a chimpanzee could learn a language; whereas Chomsky argued language only could be found in the human species and there was actually a biological organ responsible for the fact that we can speak and most animal species do not use language the way that we do.

The idea was to put an infant chimp into a human family, allow that chimp to learn language in the same way that human children might learn language, that they would absorb it naturally from their siblings. And the reason that they were using American sign language is there had been earlier studies which had shown that chimps are extremely gestural, they were able to learn American sign language whereas they don't have the same voice boxes that we have. But no chimp had been raised from infancy in a human language and taught ASL, so this was an experiment that everybody was really looking at and watching to see what would happen.

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Natasha Mitchell: He even got to a point where he drank beer and smoked.

Elizabeth Hess: Yes, it was the 70s so you know it wasn't uncommon for Columbia students to be hanging around at night smoking pot, and Nim loved pot and eventually developed his own sign for give me a joint. You know chimps have the same vices that we have. Nim started the day for his entire life with a cup of coffee and as he grew older was often grumpy if he didn't get it.

Apes, legal personhood and the plight of Nim Chimpsky (ABC National Radio)