Project Nim: heartbreaking film on animal ethics, and academic arrogance

[Video Link] I went to see the documentary Project Nim last night at the advice of a friend, and would like to recommend it to all who read Boing Boing. James Marsh (Man on Wire) directed. Be prepared to cry or require hugs afterwards. Above, the trailer. It's in theaters throughout the USA now.

I was talking about it with Google+ followers last night, and one shared this review which squares with my own reaction. You can watch the first 6 minutes of the film here. The film is based on Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess, who consulted on the film.

Without spoiling too much, I'd just like to share that the most upbeat takeaways for me were: Deadheads really can be awesome people. And, chimps like weed.


  1. Another sad tale of a chimp who knew sign language, for those of you who haven’t yet memorized this classic “Mr. Show” sketch:

    That chimp seems to have a good rapport with Bob Odenkirk.  The chimp was probably less scary to work with, though.

  2. I don’t have the heart to watch this movie. I’ve read about similar cases. “Fresh Air” aired  an interview about one, a few weeks back.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if all of the prints of Genesis of the Planet of the Apes (or whatever they’re calling it) were magically replaced with this film?

    1. Wouldn’t
      it be cool if all of the prints of Genesis of the Planet of the Apes (or
      whatever they’re calling it) were magically replaced with this film?

      To give the Planet of the Apes filmmakers their due, they did make a very deliberate decision not to use any real apes in the production of the new film because they didn’t want to contribute to their exploitation.

      Though as an aside I still think they’d sell more tickets if they titled the film “Too Many Monkeys!” and added a bunch of zany sound effects.

  3. “Academic arrogance” is truly the best way to describe this heart breaking movie.   My wife and I got a chance to see this here in LA over the weekend.

  4. I might be veering into *SPOILER*is territory here…

    So the big “reveal” is when all is said and done “Nim” realizes he will never become human.  He will never “loose his hair” and he is different? So not only is he too old to safely interact with humans, he now has to have his life turned upside-down (right-side up) by facing this reality with what little mental capacity that chimp has to cope?

    Part of the story is charming and cute. But there is a hippie narcism here that really creates more harm in the long run than is expected.  That in my mind is pure evil because nobody is to blame but the “hippies” who forced this faux existence on another being.

    1. I would have liked the documentary to have covered more of the science behind this. This could have been done without changing the focus on the people involved and how they interacted with Nim. My impression of Terrace is that he is not a compassion-less villain, nor is he an angel. He was rather lackadaisical in designing this “experiment”. At the start, he isolates Nim from other chimps. If sign-language acquisition was the goal, why did he throw in another massive change and attempt to raise Nim as a human? Too many changes at one time, ignoring the effect on Nim’s psychology which has to have greatly affected the focus of the experiment, sign language acquisition. Nobody in that initial family new sign language. Are you kidding me? Also, how can Terrace not have known the potential problems that would occur as Nim grew up and got much larger and stronger? Because, that initial teacher, at her home, did not record observations and went about teaching in a totally natural, read haphazard, way the critical early teaching period was somewhat squandered. So, Terrace does an about face and puts Nim in a barren, controlled laboratory setting incorporating a very structured teaching schedule. That change-up was irresponsible, completely ignoring the intelligence and social behavior of a chimpanzee. Things get better, and more scientific, after that. The changes seem due to the efforts of the new teachers involved rather than Terrace himself. When problems arise because of Nim’s dangerous chimp behavior, Terrace apparently washes his hands of the project by declaring a negative result and ending the study without consulting the dedicated teachers. Although, I have not read his paper or other papers on the linguistics aspects, I accept his result that chimps don’t have all the  language capabilities of humans. In the movie though, he was saying Nim was not using signs as language at all. The footage seemed to contradict that, and Bob Ingersoll, one of his last teachers (post-study) said as much. What Terrace should have done was investigate more carefully what those language capabilities were. So what if that didn’t match human capabilities, there was still something quite useful to learn.
      I think Terrace cared about Nim’s well-being. I think he cared about his students. However, he was lazy in designing the experiment. He was lazy in restricting his involvement to setting things up but letting his researchers do all the hands-on work. The experiment was not rigorously scientific. The experiment was unethical in it’s treatment of a chimpanzee. His series of relationships with his female students was unethical then and would get him booted out of a university these days. All of this could really have been handled much better and is still a worthwhile study.

  5. From that review Xeni says squares with her takeaway “Marsh is obviously less interested in the dull specifics of linguistics and scientific research than he is in telling the story of the people involved in Project Nim, and they often don’t come across very well”

    Yeah, why bother understanding the science? That’s nerdy! Instead, let’s focus on the people and whether we like them or not! That’s what the popular kids care about.

    1. You could use the same defense for Josef Mengele. There’s been lots of experiments teaching apes to sign, Nim’s is widely understood to have been a fiasco. Of the more legitimate explorations into ape language acquisition Kanzi and Koko tend to have much more weight in their case studies. The one thing all of these studies have in common is that the minute the apes start to show real communication the scientific establishment rushes in to say that it’s anecdotal, coincidental, or if they must concede that the animals are communicating with humans then they aren’t using language because that would imply some kind of magical threshold where they would now be close enough to humans that treating them as subjects rather than participants would be unethical and we can’t have that.

      1. Ignoring the attempt at Godwinization, if you actually care about the facts, Nim was earlier than the Kanzi or Koko experiments, which indeed would have never been attempted without the previous Washoe and Nim experiments. That’s how science works — it builds on previous studies. 

        Not that many linguists are convinced  that either Koko or Kanzi really can sign either — not because of any nefarious conspiracy to deny their comunication skills, but simply because they failed in tests with outside sign language speakers — much like the example of  Clever Hans, it is likely that the apes were responding to unintentional cues by their handlers and not to the signs themselves.

        1. “Not that many linguists are convinced  that either Koko or Kanzi really can sign either — not because of any nefarious conspiracy to deny their comunication skills, but simply because they failed in tests with outside sign language speakers — much like the example of  Clever Hans, it is likely that the apes were responding to unintentional cues by their handlers and not to the signs themselves.”

          Hmm, “citation needed”. The Great ape language wiki article doesn’t mention anything about such failed tests in the “criticisms” section, it just talks about their lack of true grammar. And the section on Kanzi mentions that messages are sent to him via a computer which vocalizes the message automatically, presumably this is meant as a control to avoid the possibility of “uninentional cues” of the type you mention (also I don’t think Kanzi even uses regular sign language, in which case the notion of his being tested “with outside sign language speakers” wouldn’t even make sense)

          1. There are many criticisms that have been made of attempts of teaching apes language, and the classic summary from the 1990s is Joel Wallman’s “Aping Language”, in which Wallman argues pretty convincingly that it is a conditioned response based on cues. Yes, there are other possible criticisms even if you don’t buy that argument, such as the lack of grammar even in the reported “conversations” by the handlers. While there have been attempts to limit the effect of handler bias as you mention, the simple fact is most prominent linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker remain unconvinced to this day that any non-human animal has been taught a language — and that includes parrrots as well as apes.

          2. It could well be that they haven’t been “taught a language” in the sense that they lack true grammar, but the idea that they are just responding to cues would imply that they don’t even have a basic understanding of what the individual words stand for (or simple combinations, like “red ball” vs. “blue ball”), which seems pretty unlikely based on what I’ve read and seen about a few of these animals. See the discussion of Kanzi’s language use in this article, which also discusses Wallman’s book a bit.

          3. Sorry, it appears for some reason that if you click my link to the article you only get a preview, but if you find the article through googling as I did earlier you can read the whole thing…just google “talking to the animals” and “Patrick Phillips” and hopefully you’ll be able to view it.

          4.  the simple fact is most prominent linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker remain unconvinced to this day that any non-human animal has been taught a language

            Neuro and behavioral linguistics have more or less left Chomsky to take up Skinner’s vacant position at this point. He laid some useful groundwork and he’s always going to have a place in the history books but his model for how language works in the brain has become more and more wrong with each new experiment. Pinker’s great, and has stayed more relevant than Chomskey in the field as far as I can tell, but neither one of these people are anything resembling the word of God on the subject. 

            It is definitely the case that no animal has ever acquired language as generally defined by linguistics (IIRC 1. distinct 2. recursive 3. novel correct me if I’m wrong here), but experiments with both apes and dolphins have shown a lot of evidence for novel communication that goes beyond experimental bias (especially with the dolphins because those were double blinded and traveled from handler to dolphin and then from dolphin to a removed dolphin) and I would argue along the lines of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh that at that point the distinction between communication and language is arbitrary at best when it comes to their ethical treatment. And that ethical treatment and its implicit ties to language as a barometer for intelligence, is often present in critiques of animal language.

        2. No ape has ever managed to get enough grammar to meet the linguistic definition of language. They can’t get recursion down beyond a few words. Never the less, they do show signs of novelty. Yes, I understand that Koko and Kanzi probably wouldn’t have happened without Nim and Washoe, but that doesn’t mean that Nim’s case wasn’t horribly mismanaged to the point of ethical breakdown (and if I’m remembering my linguistics course correctly Washoe was much more informative than Nim). That was my point about Mengele, not to say that Terrace was a Nazi but that you don’t need to understand the science to understand that what happened was unethical. You don’t need to have a medical understanding of Human Anatomy to know that sewing two twins together to see what would happen is monstrous. Likewise, you don’t need to understand X-Bar Theory to know that giving a chimp to your ex-girlfriend, telling her to raise it like a member of the family and teach it sign language when she doesn’t know that much sign language herself, not maintaining any kind of methodology for recording observations, and then trying to sell the chimp for medical testing when the whole thing fell to shit… is unethical. Complaining that anybody who has a problem with that is being overly emotional and is too dumb to understand SCIENCE is an excuse you could use for lots of terrible experiments. I could have used the Stanford Prison Experiment and the point would be the same.

  6. People can do terrible things with the best of intentions so I can forgive a lot of the misguided effort that went into raising Nim as a human being. However one thing I’d like explained is if Nim’s new “parents” were truly raising him as one of their children then why did they give him weed and booze? I’m no teetotaler but I’m not planning to hand the whiskey bottle to my young ‘uns until they are WAY past the age of five.

  7. Need a feel good chaser for that film, where people are actually working to save Apes from human caused extinction? Check out the trailer for Born to Be Wild 3D on Youtube. Morgan Freeman Narrates! Orangutans ROCK!!!

  8. Next month’s Fortean Times (in shops soon!) has a short feature about language-learning animals, focusing on Nim.

    Haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know if this is a SPOILER: but basically it says he, like all previous “language” animals, was taking cues from the humans, and never really developed a grammar.

    edit: oops, just saw the comment above!

  9. My first reaction to hearing about this film was that I thought it was the same chimp from the Radiolab story – but amazingly, that’s a different chimp named Lucy Temerlin.

  10. Does the etiquette of spoiler alerts really apply to movies covering historical events, mythology and lore?

    Bonnie & Clyde starring Warren Beatty: Bonnie and Clyde are killed by law enforcement in a flurry of Tommy gun fire
    Troy starring Brad Pitt: Achilles is mortally wounded following a strike to his heel
    The Patriot starring Mel Gibson: The American colonists defeat the British empire
    The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston: Moses dies having merely gazed upon the promised land but without ever setting foot upon it

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