SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Flowers for Nim

by Michael Shermer, Jul 26 2011
Project Nim film trailer ad from

When I was in a psychology graduate program in the late 1970s, the nature v. nurture debate was in full-throated either-or mode, with crudely conceived experiments and data sets marshaled to defend one side or the other, as if asking whether π or r2 is more important in calculating the area of a circle. (Thankfully this debate today has morphed into much more sophisticated research by behavioral geneticists and others to understand how nature and nurture interact, well summarized in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture.) In addition to the studies examining twins separated at birth and raised in separate environments, I recall that raising chimpanzees in a human environment and trying to teach them sign language garnered considerable media attention as pioneering research into understanding the nature of human (and primate) nature, along with language and cognition. These were heady times of bold experimentation, the most prominent being Project Nim, initiated and monitored by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace. Terrace in particular wanted to test MIT linguist Noam Chomsky’s then controversial theory that there is an inherited universal grammar that is the basis to language and unique to humans, by teaching our closest primate cousin American Sign Language (ASL). Terrace, however, did a turnabout, concluding that the signs Nim Chimpsky (a cheeky nod to Noam Chomsky) learned from his human companions and trainers amounted to little more than animal begging, more sophisticated perhaps than Skinner’s rats and pigeons pressing bars and pecking keys, but in principle not so different from what dogs and cats do to beg for food, be let outside, etc.—a “Clever Hans” effect in primates. His 1979 book, Nim, outlines the project and his assessment of its results. There have been many evaluations and critiques since that time, most recently by Elizabeth Hess in her 2008 book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (Bantam Books), which is the basis of the new documentary film, Project Nim, by James Marsh (whose previous film, Man on Wire, is portrays the tightrope walker Philippe Petit).

Project Nim is a dramatic and disturbing critique of Terrace’s research and the treatment of Nim that also serves as something of an indictment of the entire enterprise of animal behavioral research. Having worked in an animal lab for two years training rats and pigeons in Skinner boxes, I was deeply moved by the perspective several decades have brought to what we were doing to animals back then in the name of science. There is, however, next to no science presented in this film, and perhaps that is the way it should be because how that data was collected was, by today’s standard, so sloppy as to be virtually worthless, or at the very least morally questionable.

It is with some irony that Nim spent the remainder of his post-experimental life at the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, because Project Nim is, on one level, presented from his perspective, through the eyes (often tearing up) and voices (often cracking) of his trainers and handlers. Nim was ripped from the arms of his mother at only a few weeks old. As he was the seventh of her children to be so seized she had to be tranquilized and grabbed quickly so that she did not accidentally smother her baby that she clutched to her chest in motherly love and protection, as she collapsed on the floor. Stop right there. Five minutes into the film and I’m already wondering what science tells us about the effects on a mother of having her seven children stolen from her arms.

Marsh’s film shuttles between talking-head interviews with all the major players in the project (including Terrace himself) and original footage shot throughout the experiment. Nim began his childhood in an upper west side brownstone New York apartment surrounded by human siblings in the mildly dysfunctional LaFarge family spearheaded by Stephanie, who breast-fed Nim and, as he got older, allowed him to explore her nakedness even as he put himself between his adopted mother and her poet husband in an Oedipal scene right out of Freud. Just as Nim grew into his new family, surrounded by fun-loving human siblings and days filled with games and hugs, Terrace realized that scientists were not going to take him seriously because there was next to no science going on in this free-love home. (According to one of the trainers, there were no lab manuals, no diaries, no data sheets, no recordings of progress, and no one in the family even knew how to sign ASL!) So for a second time in his young life Nim was wrenched from his mother and placed into a more controlled environment in the form of a sprawling home owned by Columbia University. There a string of trainers carefully monitored Nim’s progress in learning ASL, making daily trips to a lab at the university where Terrace could control all intervening variables in a manner not dissimilar to a Skinner box. There some halting progress was made, but Nim was clearly not enamored at being shuttled back and forth between the Disneylandesque environment of home and the sterile environment of the lab, and it is unclear whether his lack of significant progress was the result of cognitive shortcomings or simian protest.

In due time Nim grew into his teenage years, and as most testosterone-fueled male primates are wont to do, he became more assertive, then aggressive, then potentially dangerous in his evolved propensity to test his fellow primates for hierarchical status in the social pecking order. The problem is that adult chimpanzees are 5-10 times stronger than humans. In other words, Nim became a threat. As one of the trainers said while pointing to a scar on her arm that required 37 stitches: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you.” After several of these biting incidents that sent trainers and handlers to the hospital, including one woman who had part of her cheek ripped open, Terrace pulled the plug on the experiment and therewith shipped Nim back to the research lab in Oklahoma from whence he came. Tranquilized into unconsciousness, Nim went to sleep surrounded by loving human caretakers on a sprawling estate in New York and awoke in a grey-bar cold steel cage in Oklahoma.

Having never seen another member of his species Nim was understandably anxious and scared at the sight of grunting, hooting male chimps eager to let the youngster know his place in the pecking order. I imagined that it must have been something like being tossed into a maximum-security prison with muscle-bound, tattoo-hardened murderers and rapists looking at you like fresh meat to be pounded on. As a result, Nim slipped into a deep depression, losing weight and refusing to eat. A year later Terrace visited Nim, who greeted him eagerly and expressed himself in a manner that Terrace himself described as signaling to get him out of this hell hole. Instead, Terrace took off the next day for home and Nim slid back into a depression. Some time later he was sold to a pharmaceutical animal-testing laboratory managed by New York University where Hepatitis B vaccinations were tested on our nearest primate relatives. Footage of a tranquilized chimp being pulled out of and stuffed back into a steel-barred cage barely big enough to turn around was sickening to watch. The emotional impact of the visual imagery left me to imagine what Nim would have signed to Professor Terrace had his vocabulary developed into fully human with the necessary colorful language for emotional expression appropriate for the situation: “Screw you Herb Terrace, you traitorous back-stabbing, low-life scumbag. You took me from my mother and my species. You robbed me of my simian childhood. You gave me a new mother then took her away from me just as I grew attached. You used me and abused me in the name of bogus science to further your own career, and when I protested you sold me off like so much raw meat. How about we put you into this hell-hole environment, lock you up behind bars, feed you crappy food, and make you sleep in your own piss and shit and see how you like it?”

In reality, no chimp has such verbal language, but violent incidents between chimps and humans and research on chimpanzees in the wild enables us to imagine what Nim would have done to Terrace given the opportunity and awareness of his ultimate responsibility for Nim’s fate: Nim would likely have torn off his face, ripped open his neck, eaten his genitals, and left him for dead in seconds. At least that is what this film evokes in emotional desire for revenge on Nim’s behalf. To be fair, the trainers and handlers come across as caring, loving people who did the best they could under the circumstances, but they had little say in the long-term course of Nim’s existence. Terrace, by contrast, who ran the show and called the shots, comes across as an almost psychopathic manipulator, an alpha male egotist who, in his own words on camera, spoke of Nim’s suffering in cold clinical language, saw absolutely nothing scientifically objectionable to employing mostly young nubile graduate students, most of whom he bedded during the research project then dispensed with before moving on to the next conquest. I realize that this was the free-love 1970s in which professors and students often conducted research between the sheets, but even by those standards Terrace appears to be the very embodiment of moral turpitude.

Momentarily, Terrace partially redeemed himself in my eyes when he admitted that the data he collected changed his mind on the nature-nurture debate—since Nim did not even remotely approach the complexity of language or cognition of humans, Chomsky was probably right. What a rare treat to hear a scientist say, “I was wrong.” But after thinking about it for a day I came to the conclusion that even this might have been nothing more than a way of reducing cognitive dissonance for how Nim’s life turned out. If Nim is human like, then the subhuman treatment of him becomes criminal. But if Nim is little more than a rat or pigeon, merely begging for food and favors like a lowly dog, then shipping him off to a research lab to live out his life in a cold steel cage perhaps doesn’t seem so deplorable. Sadly, there was no Shawshank redemption for Nim. But thanks to this film we can at least put flowers on his metaphorical grave.

23 Responses to “Flowers for Nim”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    It sounds like an expertly-made, feature-length PETA ad.

    • Alan says:

      Just because PETA may have more than it’s fair share of idiots/jerks does not mean that it is necessarily wrong with any particular claim. How we treat animals, especially those like chimps who seem to have a sense of self (and thus are potentially vulernable to “existential angst”) is an important consideration, IMHO. It is well established that animals can be emotionally/psychologically abused just like human beings. That means we have a responsibility to treat them with an appropriate level of sensitivity.

    • Stephen says:

      Sounds like an inexpertly made cheap shot by an ignoramus.

  2. Exister says:

    It needs to be emphasized how little science there is this movie. They didn’t even mention Noam Chomsky; you’d think that would come up. Same for B.F. Skinner. It’s not that I sympathize with Terrace; he hired researchers who didn’t know sign language (or anything about chimps), seemingly based on who he wanted to sleep with. But a movie about a scientific experiment that doesn’t really explain why it was done or what the results were is a waste of time.

  3. MadScientist says:

    Too much anthropomorphism of the chimp. Unlike humans in general, that chimp apparently was incapable of empathy so it gets little sympathy from me although I would agree that the animal could probably have been treated better (for example, by leaving the damned thing alone with other chimps of its species).

    • Alan says:

      I think you (and others) are missing the point — The movie ISN’T about per se the chimp, but about we humans and how we can betray our own natures in the pursuit of a goal.

      One way to gauge the moral quality of a person or a people is to see how they treat the less powerful and those without any power. The cruel treatment of Nim is an indictment of the individuals and (at least) their immediate cultural environment that allowed this to happen.

      In a sense the science is separate from that question — that is, we can look at some experiment and determine its scientific validity independently from its moral implications. This movie sounds like it is far more interested in the second question rather than the first. Thus, to debate the scientific quality of the work or, worse, to try to justify (or not) the experiment on that basis does, I submit, completely miss the point of the movie.

  4. I don’t see how anyone could possibly come up with conclusions about the chimpanzee’s linguistic ability based on studies like this. It starts with the rather bold assumption that human language is the universal standard for language, and then measures the success or failure of other species in understanding how we compartmentalize information into words or gestures. It’s an experiment that’s essentially designed to fail.

    The only way to adequately gauge how other species use language is to analyze how they communicate with each other in their natural environments. There’s plenty of evidence that other animals have some type of language – different dialects among orca pods, or unique identifiers for dolphins, or differing alarm calls in prairie dogs and primates. We have to learn to understand them, rather than expect them to learn to understand us.

  5. Ed Graham says:

    That’s the most depressing think I’ve read today…and I’v just finished reading the comments in the Religion section of Huffington.

  6. Ed Graham says:

    That’s the most depressing thing I’ve read today…and I’ve just finished reading the comments in the Religion section of Huffington.

  7. Gregory L. Stuart says:

    Excellent review, Michael! I ventured to my local arthouse to see the movie last week, despite my trepidation of leaving the theater with my heart broken by yet another story of humankind’s lack of empathy for other living creatures. However, I left the theater with hope, and a warm heart, because at least one of the people in Nim’s life showed fearlessness and unshaking empathy for Nim. This former trainer of Nim’s was the real hero of the movie, a man who never gave up on Nim and who shed more than a few tears for him after he died (some on camera.) I left the theater feeling happy for Nim, who, despite a life of imprisonment and betrayal, lived at least the last part of his life in a relatively-good place with two fellow-chimp soul-mates at his side. Thanks for your empathetic review and keep up the good work, Michal; you are a true inspiration to me for all the good work you do.

  8. charles ramis says:

    I recommend the articles by Martin Gardner on simian language where he gives context to the Terrace research against fairy tales around Koko y Washoe.

  9. Howard Lyle says:

    Great review, Dr. Shermer – it makes me want to see the film now.

    Now give us a review of the new Planet of the Apes film – lots of junk science in there, I’m sure ;)

  10. Jordan says:

    I feel like I don’t have to see the movie now after this summary-review.

  11. Stephen says:

    “But if Nim is little more than a rat or pigeon, merely begging for food and favors like a lowly dog, then shipping him off to a research lab to live out his life in a cold steel cage perhaps doesn’t seem so deplorable”

    I’m surprised at the language used here. Who said dogs are lowly? And I’d disagree that it “doesn’t seem so deplorable.” It’s deplorable all right. Of course, I know what you mean, but I’m always uncomfortable with reminders of a hierarchical chain of being and the kind of people who believe in it, the kind that presumably make us both cringe.

    The article also seems to lean toward conceding that Nim’s experience in learning language–“little more than animal begging”–is the norm for chimps. There have been other successes with more dedicated teaching programs.

    An impressive passionate review, though. The way you described Terrace is all too familiar, resembling a great many individuals in animal exploiting industries.

  12. David says:

    This is not a review of a movie as much as it is about Shermer himself. Big surprise. Sadly, Shermer, who is neither a scientist nor a psychologist, doesn’t understand much about either. This “review” is a pathetic attempt to show us that he (Shermer) is a person who is sensitive to animals. Moreover, it reveals his complete lack of understanding not only of human language and current scientific research on it, but also of what it means to be a scientist. Shermer hasn’t conducted publishable research himself or published in peer-reviewed scientific journals for a long time, if ever. It’s easy to write blog posts and magazine articles in your own magazine and, yes, even popular books that don’t have to be peer reviewed. He has jumped on the popular “science” bandwagon, but without the scientific credentials to do so, and is riding it for all it’s worth. I would suggest that he stick to debunking UFOs, ghosts, and telepathy and leave the science to the big boys.

    • grumpy_otter says:

      David, your post contains nothing but an ad hominem attack. Would you care to behave more like a scientist and be specific in your objections? Then there might be some room for dialog. As it is, you just sound like a tool.

      • Majority of One says:

        Yes, I would have to say “wow.” If you dislike Dr Shermer so much, may I suggest not reading his articles/reviews.

  13. Clayton Gardinier says:

    How Nim was treated was deplorable at best. I can’t condone what they did. But I can understand it. As well-intentioned as they were (and I do believe they were well-intentioned for the most part), they were embarking on a new scientific frontier with little or no guidelines, probably making them up as they went. On top of this, they ended up with data that today is considered next to worthless (getting good data would not have made this right or acceptable). Well, not totally worthless data. We learned how not to do it. Unfortunately for Nim, and other animals, that understanding came too late. In hind sight we all stand aghast. Looking forwards, this episode serves to highlight that more care needs to be taken in the research proposal process during that mad rush to get the bucks. Better and more critical (skeptical) thinking is required.

  14. chickenfog says:

    Great review. The question we might ask is what experiments are we doing now that we will look back on as barbaric? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that at this moment in some lab there are events occurring, sanctioned by top universities, that will turn our collective stomachs in a few decades hence.

  15. Majority of One says:

    The description of Terrace makes him sound like the alpha-male dog or gorilla, etc that gets all the females around him pregnant therefore setting us up for more males just like him in the future. I don’t see his behavior as being all that different from the animals he was “studying” except maybe more deplorable. And, I only say that because like most of my other fellow humans, it is deplorable because we think we should be “better” than that…at least WE think so.