Planet of the ape researchers: Project Nim this Sunday in Rhinebeck

Professor Herbert Terrace with Nim Chimpsky in car as seen in Project Nim (photo by Susan Kuklin)

Professor Herbert Terrace with Nim Chimpsky in car as seen in Project Nim (photo by Susan Kuklin)

What, irreducibly, makes us human? Is it language? But clearly, animals have their own ways of communicating with others of their own species. Is it the ability to use language in ways that transcend fulfilling basic survival needs? Is it, as Noam Chomsky posited, some sort of hardwired mental capacity to organize language according to a syntactic system?

Questions like these were rife in the air of academia during the 1970s, when psycholinguists and behavioral scientists were conducting experiments with apes to find out how much they could learn to communicate with us. The general public began to share the intellectual excitement when word got out in the mass media about the striking success of a gorilla named Koko in acquiring more than 1,000 words in American Sign Language (ASL). Even more impressive, Koko learned without prompting to string words together in novel ways: coining “water bird” the first time that she saw a swan, for example, or “finger bracelet” to describe a ring.


Chimpanzees being our nearest DNA-sharing kin, many of the animal language-acquisition studies of the day focused on them. Washoe was the first to become famous: a wild-born chimp raised from the age of ten months to five years by a scientist couple named Beatrix and Allen Gardner in an environment where vocalizations were minimized, as if she were the child of deaf parents, and afterwards by Roger and Deborah Fouts. Washoe learned more than 350 signs and often strung two or three together in apparently meaningful combinations – coining “candy fruit” when introduced to watermelon, for example. She even spontaneously taught signs to other chimps in her social grouping. According to Roger Fouts, when one of Washoe’s caretakers returned to work after a miscarriage and told the chimp “My baby died” in ASL, Washoe responded by signing “Cry” and tracing the path of a tear down her cheek with her fingertip.

But Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace was not impressed with the methodology of the Washoe project, believing that the subject has merely been conditioned to imitate signs in order to obtain rewards. So in 1973 Terrace undertook an ape language experiment of his own with a captive-born chimpanzee dubbed Nim Chimpsky. As an infant, Nim was raised by a surrogate human family who were not fluent in ASL, but was subsequently relocated several times in order to conduct the experiment under more controlled clinical conditions instead of in an environment of social learning.

The chimp eventually learned about 125 signs, but became more aggressive as he matured, doing things that grown chimpanzees are genetically programmed to do, like biting his handlers. Funding sources dried up, and only four years into the project, Terrace declared that it had proven his thesis that apes don’t use signs in syntactically meaningful ways. Nim was relegated to the cold, sterile environment of a primate research center in Oklahoma and later sold to a pharmaceutical testing laboratory before eventually being rescued by the Fund for Animals and living out his “retirement” years in an animal sanctuary.

Nim’s is a sad and a fascinating story, captured in Elizabeth Hess’s book Nim Chimpsky: The Ape Who Would Be Human and a documentary film based on it, Project Nim. Directed by James Marsh, who won a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award for Man on Wire, the film reconstructs Nim’s life during and after the study using archival footage and extensive interviews with Terrace and many of the graduate students and other caretakers who worked with the chimp.

The focus of Project Nim is far less on the scientific implications of the study than it is in the human egos involved and in the humanitarian issues involved in animal experimentation. So it’s no surprise that this Sunday’s free screening of the documentary at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck is being sponsored by the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society and Hudson Valley Vegans. Author Hess will be on hand for a question-and-answer session and “meetup” at Rhinebeck Town Hall immediately following the 1 p.m. showing of the film. Vegan appetizers and desserts will be served at the post-screening event; call (845) 876-2626 or e-mail to reserve a ticket.

Project Nim screening, Sunday, March 23, 1 p.m., free, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck, Hudson Valley Vegans meetup/discussion afterwards, Rhinebeck Town Hall, 80 East Market Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2626,