Testing nature vs nurture


In 1973, Nim the chimpanzee was torn screaming from his mother at a primate research centre in Oklahoma, where he had been born a few days earlier. He was to be raised by a human family and taught sign language, with the aim of determing whether he could learn to communicate, not simply with crude single-word gestures, but with more sophisticated, grammatically correct sentences.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Marsh had read Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky, and was drawn to the way it told 'an animal's life story in the same way as you tell a human's'. For his documentary, Project Nim, he interviewed the experiment's architect, Columbia University psychology professor Herb Terrace, and many others who had encountered Nim during his bizarre and tragic life.

'The emotional world of the film surprised me,' says Marsh. 'I was taken aback by the intensity of their feelings. Particularly Stephanie LaFarge, who was his 'mother' when he was a baby ... That became the theme of the story, that the people who had interacted with Nim had a really strong relationship with him, and described it in the same way they'd describe a relationship with a person.'

Project Nim is pieced together from talking-head interviews, archival footage, and dramatic recreations used to evoke scenes for which there was no existing footage. The result is a compelling narrative with unerring attention to authenticity. 'There are a wealth of ideas that you can ponder and perhaps enjoy,' says Marsh. 'Hopefully the story is sufficiently well told that you can encounter them.'

While it's possible to read Project Nim as a treatise on animal cruelty — as Nim matures and his animal nature asserts itself, he is removed from human 'family' environments into more controlled and even cruel laboratory or captivity settings — the film is not didactic. 'It invites the audience to reach their own conclusions,' says Marsh. 'But it's not my job to distil a cheap little moral.'

In fact, far from preachy, Project Nim is simply a compelling story, both humorous and moving, but with implicit questions that ask what it is to be human, as much as what it is to be animal.

'What the experiment does on a larger canvas is explore the whole idea of nature versus nurture. It asks "how much can we actually make Nim human?" ... It surprised me how powerful Nim's animal nature was. Irrespective of their attempts to domesticate and civilise him and teach him language, he remained a chimpanzee completely. It was his situation that was weird, not his behaviour.' 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.  
This is an edited extract from an article that first appeared in The Big Issue. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, James Marsh, Project Nim



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Existing comments

Thanks, Tim. I think I'll look out for this film. I'm interested in the way the experiment may have posed the question about the dividing line between human and non-human. The traditional view was that the difference was the former was rational, thinking. Many now appreciate that even concepts like "thinking" are interpretative constructs, and that the highest form of thinking is - from a chimpanzee's or horse's view - their own. Thus, just because we can frame a thought that "humans" are superior, doesn't make us so. In all likelihood, in their own way, chimpanzees and horses etc may have exactly the same idea about themselves.
Stephen Kellett | 29 September 2011

Meanwhile, in the wild, these animals (and other apes) are heading for extinction because of human pressure; we are taking their land and even eating them. It's our behaviour that's truly weird.
Penelope | 29 September 2011

don't you think the outcome is quite predictable?
AZURE | 29 September 2011

Motherless child. I am sure I could not bear to watch the cruelty outlined in this story. The premise of taking a child away from its mother is too heartbreaking.
Jenny Esots | 29 September 2011

I am 63; even before the ditital age I was interested in Psychology & the experiments that were being performed on our primates. The is Koko the gorilla who has been humanised to the point where she doesn't want to socialise with her own species. Humans who mess with the order of living things like Koko & Nim create freeks that die a lonely & screwed up individuals
Kathleen Garraway | 30 September 2011


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