Problems with “Project Nim”

I went to a screening of the documentary “Project Nim” recently.  The film is in very limited release, but it is very interesting and worth checking out if you get a chance.  I went out of an interest in the project itself, since it is one I have heard referenced numerous times in my linguistics classes, but I didn’t know all of the specifics.   Well, this documentary wasn’t interested in the science and data.  It was much more focused on the people involved, and seemed to be questioning whether this whole project was even very “scientific” at all.  It’s also seems directed towards making the point that Nim’s treatment over the span of his life was unjust.

isn't baby Nim just adorable?

The film is actually based on a book written by Elizabeth Hess, called “Nim Chimpskey: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.”  I have yet to read it myself, so I can’t comment on how the movie may differ from it’s print source of inspiration.  Like most documentaries, the narrative is largely told by various interviews with those involved recalling anecdotes and opinions about their experiences, and there is also some archival footage of Nim playing around or signing.  Although there wasn’t as much information on the actual data and results as I was expecting, it was still an incredibly fascinating look at the interpersonal dynamics behind such a famous research project.

I definitely came away from the film with some unflattering impressions of many of the individuals involved with Nim, (crazy hippie, naive assistant, smarmy, lecherous, callous professor), but it’s difficult to tell how much of those impressions are due to the way the movie was edited.  We of course don’t see anyone’s complete interview, only the most relevant (or outrageous) soundbites.  And there are shots included of Herbert Terrace, lead researcher on the project, smoothing down his mustache in-between questions, which is perhaps unfair footage to include since it’s not really part of the interview and makes him look like a creepy old man.  But then, he admits that he slept with two of Nim’s teachers, and “[doesn’t] think it affected the science at all.”  (I remain unconvinced on that point.)  Also, it’s hard to think of  a context that would make many of the quotes by the woman who was Nim’s original primary caretaker, Stephanie LaFarge, sound sane.

One question that kept occurring to me as I watched was how such a seemingly unorganized, unplanned project  was ever funded or approved in the first place.  Every experimental research project that I have first-hand knowledge of from my own University is ten times more methodically planned, organized, approved and executed than Project Nim appears to have been.  Were the seventies such a different time period?  In a similar vein, I couldn’t help but wonder how a project with such obvious flaws brought such acclaim and academic career advancements for many of those involved.

Nim with one of his teachers, Laura-Ann Petitto

As much as I disliked Terrace by the end of the film, I had to agree with his conclusion, (based on my limited observation of the sessions and data included in the film), that Nim did not display syntax and was merely performing signs as a behavioral, not linguistic, response to elicitation.   However, this experiment was not conducted in a way that conclusively shows chimpanzees are incapable of acquiring language naturalistically!  It was a sensational case because of the way that Nim was raised with a human family, but neither Stephanie nor any of her children knew any sign language before Nim came to live with them.  They learned individual signs and taught them to him explicitly.  Later, an undergraduate Research Assistant, Laura-Ann Petitto, takes over Nim’s instruction, (because Stephanie refused to take notes, charts, or schedules, insisting Nim “wouldn’t have thrived” in such an orderly environment), and constructed daily lesson plans for the chimp.

Does any of that sound remotely like the way human babies acquire language?  Do their mothers learn one or two words a day and then teach it to the baby?  Do their nannies make lesson plans, and quiz them on the words they were taught the day before?  Of course not.  Children learn language by being exposed to natural language use going on all around them, and yes, sometimes directed towards them.  If Terrace really wanted to investigate whether a chimp could learn language “like a human”, he should have placed him with a family that regularly used sign language to communicate not only with him, but with each other.  It struck me as very strange that Nim’s handlers, in the clips shown, used only signs with him, but wouldn’t speak verbally while signing, yet they spoke out loud to one another in his presence.  What a confusing linguistic environment!  No wonder his signing never resemble human language!

In many ways, watching this documentary reminded me of what it was like to read the book Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, a similarly behind-the-scenes look at another very famous, often-cited linguistic case that was also surrounded by ethical controversies and interpersonal drama among the researchers.  I think there’s probably always some degree of drama when people work together on anything, but it seems that these high-profile cases attract more of it.  The movie “Project Nim” does a great job of presenting the juiciest bits of that drama up for our entertainment, but hopefully it also provides an opportunity for some critical analysis on the way this and any scientific experiment ought to be conducted.

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