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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lessons That I Learned from Reading About Nim

I highly recommend Elizabeth Hess' biography Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. It is an objective, even-handed coverage of Nim's life from the moment of his birth to the day he died. Many people have tried to use the story of Nim Chimpsky as a cautionary tale over the years, but some of the conclusions that they have drawn are completely unwarranted.

Isn't it true that Nim was only signing to please his trainers and that he didn't even know what he was saying? Generations of college students have been taught that this is the lesson to take away from his story. But did you know that long after he had been abandoned by all the humans who were involved in that experiment, and he was confined to a cage in a sanctuary where he was meant to be "humanely" retired, Nim was still trying to communicate with people by signing?

Isn't it true that the tragedy of Nim's life was due to the fact that he was enculturated as a human, but he was really a chimp, and genetic breeding always trumps enculturation? No. The real tragedy of Nim's life is that the people who adopted him did not take their commitment seriously, and they discarded him the moment having him in their lives turned out to be inconvenient. First his adoptive mother, and then his adoptive father, gave up on him, when he was just a little boy. He was shuttled from one caretaker to the next, and every time he developed an attachment, the person was yanked from his life. We know how harmful it is for human children to be brought up this way. It is no less harmful for a chimpanzee.

Isn't it true that Herbert Terrace's involvement with the scientific community is what kept him "honest" about his project, and allowed him to admit that he had no viable results? No. Terrace was constantly engaged in trying to raise funds. Part of the reason he couldn't spend much time with Nim was that he kept having to spend his time trying to get grants and writing up reports. He was so intent on documenting everything that he had a bigger budget for "proof" than he had for spending quality time just being with Nim.

Language doesn't happen in a vacuum. Real language is learned in context, when we try to communicate with one another. Terrace had results, but they weren't nearly as good as he thought they were, because all his time was going into chasing after the funding that he needed to keep going. When he realized there was never going to be enough money to keep Nim and his caretakers going in the manner to which they were accustomed, he shipped Nim off back to the Lemmon farm, and only then did he decide that the experiment was a failure. Not getting the funding influenced Terrace's assessment of the outcome. Nim was not yet an adolescent when that happened. He had years of development ahead of him.  Imagine what would happen to a human child, if parents gave up that easily!

Learning language requires love, a commitment, and the ability to live independently. If every parent expected to make a living off their child, how many children would learn to speak?

Of course, we all have to try to raise funds for our living expenses. But one difference between me and Herbert Terrace is that while I sit here writing this, Bow is sitting right next to me, and listening to me read it out loud! 


  1. I was outraged by this book! I couldn't believe that this project was started without funding in place, carried out by people who were not fluent in ASL to begin with, had no background in animal husbandry, and often were just volunteers who were apparently more interested in getting free room and board in exchange for their presence than actually helping Nim learn and helping the project to be a success.

    I was quite convinced that Nim learned sign as well as he could under the circumstances and made the most of it. I would love to see how something like this would work with a culturally deaf family who are also familiar with handling large animals/dealing with children. I think if ASL were the language used in the home, and the people in charge were confident, capable, and stable, the results would be absolutely astonishing.

    The fact that he was so excited to talk with the deaf people who visited him in the sanctuary and that he regularly used appropriate sign to ask for the things he wanted and to follow instructions (as when he helped apply medication to an injured friends' foot) prove that he was definitely using language, benefiting from it, and enjoying it. It is a crying shame that he was just considered excess baggage when his human guardian's poor planning caused the wheels to fall off the bus.

  2. Suzanne, I agree with all your points. Nim did amazingly well, and did acquire language, despite the slipshod way in which the project was conducted.

    I am not fluent in ASL, which is why I did not use it in my project. As a linguist and a bilingual speaker, I realize how foolish it is to use anything but a language you are fluent in to communicate with your children.

    As far as having funding in place is concerned, nobody can be 100% sure how much income he will have in the future. Competent parents make do with however little they have, rather than abandoning the child. The idea that there is a specific dollar amount required to raise a child or a chimp is one of the fallacies of the current thinking on economic issues. When we have less, we make economies, we change our lifestyle, we do not just give up!

  3. I agree that parents and pet guardians should definitely realize that they are in for the duration when it comes to kids and critters of all kinds. No child, ape, or pet is disposable, so adjustments just have to be made within the budget when any of these beings is a family member.

    However, to start off with something as expensive, demanding and challenging as a chimpanzee with no funding whatsoever in place is just foolhardy and then to have to spend all of your time having to scramble around trying to come up with funding during the time one should be devoting to the complicated, important project one has proposed is just irresponsible.

    I have always had multiple pets, and I have kept and provided for them through thick and thin, and I will continue to do so. But, I have also always had a place for them to live and some way of procuring food for them.

    If, God forbid, I did become completely unable to care for them, I would find them homes. I certainly would not sell them off to a research facility as happened with Nim before he was rescued and put in a sanctuary.

    Clearly, Terrace's interest was in himself and his own advancement. Nim was just property.

  4. Suzanne, I share your feelings. As a mother,I don't see how anyone could abandon a child, just because things weren't going exactly as planned.

    But I also think that from a scientific point of view, spending more on a research project is not necessarily better. If Terrace spent more so that he could do something else while underlings worked with Nim, then he was selling his science short. He was turning himself-- the scientist -- into an accountant, and the people who did the research into lowly laborers.

    People saying that every chimp requires 70k a year to maintain say this, because it never occurs to them that they could just share their accomodations and save money.

    Imagine thinking that for every child you had, you had to maintain a separate home!

  5. Yes, he was definitely an absent researcher and more interested in how the project would look on his resume than with the welfare of his chimp. So he just farmed Nim out to one inadequate setting after another. When it became clear the project wasn't going to be a feather in his cap, he bailed.