Tag Archives: ape language

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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Nitpicking “Apes”

I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” (RotPotA), last night.  It was so good!  Truly amazing how much storytelling and conveyance of emotion and thought was accomplished with little to no dialogue and a main character who was completely motion-capture CGI.  Andy Serkis is brilliant.  The people at WETA are brilliant.  It was a fantastic movie.


But, you know, I’m a nerd and my brain has a tendency to look for logic, even in fantasy.  It doesn’t have to be “real” but I like for my stories to be realistic, assuming the imagined events really happened.  I’m totally willing to suspend disbelief and accept that aliens could show up, but then I want their ships to be designed for actual space travel, and I don’t want them speaking English unless there is a very good explanation for how and why they learned it.  That type of thing.  So with RotPotA, while I enjoyed the film very much overall and was moved by Ceasar’s journey, there were a few things that didn’t add up.  And I’m willing to overlook them and say it was still a great story, very well-told, but come on, isn’t this the type of thing having a blog is for?  Being able to complain about tiny details in movies that didn’t make sense?

Okay, so first of all, although it was a very handy storytelling device that made power dynamics very clear, and although it provided some very emotional moments, Caesar should not have known the palm-up “supplicating gesture”.  Unless Will taught it to him, but he obviously didn’t, because he didn’t recognize what it was and had to have Caroline, (his eventual girlfriend), explain it to him.  When they go to the redwoods reserve for the first time, Will takes the leash off of Caesar and says something like, “if I take this off, you’ve gotta promise to stay in my sight.  I’ll never find you again otherwise.”  Caesar is eager to explore and climb the giant trees, but he stays put, looking up at Will pleadingly and extending his hand palm-up.  Will doesn’t know what he wants, but Caroline says, “He’s asking your permission.  It’s a supplicating gesture,” and takes Will’s hand to brush his fingers across Caesar’s palm, giving him the permission he feels he needs to run off and explore.  The same gesture comes back several times later on, and as I said, it is very useful.

But the problem with the way it was introduced is that Caesar wouldn’t have known it if, as Will says when he surrenders him to the ape reserve, “He’s never spent any time around other apes.”  He was raised entirely around humans, and Will taught him several signs, but not this one.  So how does Caesar know it?  Is it supposed to be an innate knowledge, like spiders weaving webs?  Some animal communication systems are instinctual, like bees and their waggle dances, but many others, even some types of birdsong, baby animals have to learn through socialization with others of their kind.  I’m not an expert on primates, but as far as I know apes are not born with an innate knowledge of any kind of social interaction or communication skills such as this “supplicating gesture.”  So it is possible that all or most of the other apes would be familiar with this gesture, having lived amongst other apes that also used it, but Caesar would have no knowledge of it unless Will (or Caroline, or somebody) had taught it to him.  It would be more likely that he would have signed ASL for “please” or something in this situation, showing the same deference to Will as the alpha male but using a different communication symbol.

Caesar’s transition to spoken language, while emotionally powerful, is equally illogical.  The whole reason that many apes have been taught to sign in research (or circuses, I guess, according to that orangutan), is because it’s impossible for them to speak as humans do.  As George Yule put it in his introductory textbook The Study of Language,

“…it has become clear that non-human primates do not actually have a physically structured vocal tract which is suitable for articulating the sounds used in speech.  Apes and gorillas can, like chimpanzees, communicate with a wide range of vocal calls, but they just can’t make human speech sounds.”

Probably an ape with super-intelligence like Caesar really could say or approximate something very similar to “No!”, but there is no way he could say “Caesar is home,” the way the does at the end.  (Sorry if I just spoiled that bit for you.)  Just the word “Caesar” would be impossible, two alveolar fricatives (s,z) and a retroflex approximant (r)?!  Not happening.

If an ape was exposed to a drug that caused increased brain functioning resulting in super-intelligence, it is entirely possible that he would either vastly expand his signing inventory, (a few hundred signs is the most that apes in research have been able to acquire, compared to thousands of words the average human knows), or even that he would develop his own complex form of spoken language, it just wouldn’t sound anything like English.  Or any other human language.  I mean, I realize that this development had to happen, plot-wise, in order to set up the original Planet of the Apes movies in which they all talk, but I’m just saying, increased brain functioning doesn’t explain how that could have happened.  You’d need an evolution of the vocal tract, too.

And by the way, after watching RotPotA I googled “what is an ape” since I was never sure about the exact definition.  Wikipedia says the word has several different senses, and in the process of reading I saw “Except for gorillas and humans, hominoids are agile climbers of trees.”  So that presents another problem for the movie, because when they break out of the ape habitat they have a gorilla in their group, so how did the gorilla (Buck) keep up when they were swinging through the trees and knocking all the leaves down onto that jogger on their way to the zoo and the bridge?  I’m just saying.  Realistically he wouldn’t have been able to keep up.

Oh well.  It is still a great movie.


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