Thursday, 18 August 2011

Project Nim

I went to see the new film Project Nim with some other linguists last night. We knew there wouldn't be much linguistics in it, but still - we had to go and see a film about Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee famously named after Noam Chomsky. (The film sort of gave the impression that the chimp was named Nim from birth, and then didn't really make anything of the Chomsky connection. They were playing down the linguistics, but still. Unless he was really called Nim Chimpsky - that really would be an example of nominative determinism.)


This chimp was taken from his mother at a couple of weeks old (the people at the ape place apparently thought this was good for chimps, to be removed from their mother very young. It didn't seem to be good for the mother, who'd had six babies taken away and was very protective of this one) and sent to live with a family of 'rich hippies' in New York (in 1973). The idea was that he be treated as a human child and he would (they hoped) pick up sign language. None of the family he lived with was a fluent signer, but hey - who cares. They didn't even know how to look after a chimp (as in fact did none of the people he ever lived with, and no one ever seemed to think it was a good idea to find out).

He was treated as a human, though not quite as a child, as he was allowed to smoke dope and drink alcohol. But he was given love, and play, and he seems to have enjoyed himself, and he was very cute and so one. But he got bigger, and big chimps are scary. Plus, the weird guy Herbert Terrace who was running the 'experiment' (he didn't put any scientific methodology in place) visited occasionally and felt that Nim wasn't getting the teaching he needed if he was going to learn sign language (oh, so he won't pick it up by himself then?).

He hired a pretty 18-year-old research assistant to be Nim's teacher, and she worked with Nim tirelessly and enthusiastically. She made good progress with him, getting him to repeat many signs and apparently understand some too. Eventually, Terrace decided that Nim should move from the family he lived with to a special sort of 'school' just for him, a big house in the country with three or four teachers. This caused enormous emotional upset for the family who felt like he was their son, of course (though the mother was a bit odd too - she seemed to regard Nim as human, and she said she allowed him to 'explore her body').

Nim seemed to thrive in the country, and all his teachers obviously loved him. The first one eventually left after she got into a romantic relationship with Terrace (he seems to have been involved with a number of the people who worked on the project), but others remained and Nim continued to make signs on their prompting (not really on his own initiative, though he occasionally made a sign for 'play' or 'give me food' if he wanted something).

After Nim got a bit bigger and a bit more vicious he had to be moved again. He crossed the line when he bit the face of one of his teachers really badly, I think, and then after that it became obvious that he was not controllable. Chimps get to be six times as strong as a man, so they're quite dangerous. Somehow, no suitable home was found for him and he was sent to LEMSIP, a chimp testing facility where they did legally required tests of certain human medicines on chimps. I wonder if they have Lemsip (the cold medicine) in the US - it seems unlikely that GlaxoSmithKline or whoever it is that owns the brand would be thrilled with that association.

Anyway, eventually Nim ended up living at a sort of horse and donkey sanctuary. He was the only chimp there for a while, and lonely and grumpy. He narrowly avoided killing his first human mother when she visited, and he did kill a little dog who barked at him. But in the end, they got him some chimp friends and his life seems to have ended reasonably happily. The film ended by telling us that he died of a heart attack at the age of 26 - but didn't say if that's old, or about average, or whatever. Apparently chimps in captivity can expect to live to 60, and in the wild to 40 or 50, so he was quite young.

So: did he learn sign language? No. He learnt some signs, the researchers claim over 100, but he doesn't seem to use them spontaneously apart from a couple, as I mentioned earlier, that get him food or attention. As Terrace said, he's basically just good at begging, and has learnt that a certain gesture gets him what he wants. He didn't combine signs in any meaningful way, just as an unordered repetitive chatter. And he didn't sign to other chimps, when he was first introduced into a chimp study centre. I was sort of hoping that he would use them and teach them to the others, and they might all begin to use them, but it didn't happen at all. So the experiment was a failure if you judge it on whether they taught Nim sign language, but a success if you consider it as an experiment into whether it's possible to teach chimps sign language. Although they could have run the experiment a lot better, the extent of his failure to learn indicates that no, it's probably not. But then, we knew that already.

No comments:

Post a Comment