Project Nim

James Marsh who directed Man on Wire, the 2008 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, turns his attention to a study in which a baby chimpanzee was raised and nurtured like a human child. Conducted in the early 1970s by Herbert S. Terrace, professor of psychology at Columbia University, the thesis was predicated on the belief that a monkey brought up in this way, could be taught to use American Sign Language as a means to communicate. This then would shed light on the way a vocabulary is acquired and used by individuals. The simian was named Nim Chimpsky, a pun on Noam Chomsky, the celebrated linguist who did not hold these beliefs. Chomsky believed only humans develop language in this fashion.

One might expect a sweet tale regarding a lovable chimpanzee and how similar they are to us. But that is not the story documented here. Right from the start, it’s apparent that this is not going to be a feel good documentary.  It’s the exposé of flawed human behavior that drives the narrative. The goal was to evaluate whether a monkey could comprehend language in a manner comparable to that of a human baby. However, these scientists failed to utilize professional methods. First he was removed from his mother at two weeks, not at birth. Then he was shuttled from “family” to “family” never really establishing a proper connection with any of them.

The arrogance these scientists exhibit is troubling, but from this random sample, a quality that many in the field seem to share. What’s fascinating is this picture suggests not just the selfish motives of these researchers, but of all researchers. The professor in charge, Herbert Terrace, comes across as a rather callous individual. While I believe he and his team had honorable intentions at the outset, the experiment clearly did not end properly, as presented here. However at no time did I ever sense director James Marsh was judging these scientists. He allows them to speak for themselves and their frank honesty is compelling. Many come off as sincere and genuinely caring about Nim’s welfare. You may find yourself agreeing with statements they make, but likewise hating them for what they did. So disturbing was this report, it made me question the validity of animal testing in general and a facility as seemingly innocuous as a zoo.

Based on Elizabeth Hess’s book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Project Nim is a well presented, but unsettling and thoroughly depressing story. The way the events unfold can be infuriating to behold. It’s much deeper than I expected. This is not some sentimental reminiscence concerning a cute chimp. It’s a document of how poorly this scientific test was regulated. It takes a surprisingly atypical point of view. The documentary goes to great lengths not to misrepresent Nim as human and moreover doesn’t push the humans as barbarians either. I admire that level of impartiality. Yet I wanted to be more emotionally invested in the research. Make no mistake, it made me profoundly sad. It was an affecting chronicle of an experiment gone wrong. But it’s hard to care when the monkey shows more humanity than the people.

8 Responses to “Project Nim”

  1. I agree with you for the most part, but I felt that it was not as upsetting as I had been led to believe. I’m sure it’s only because I’ve become quite jaded & desensitized over the years. That & I’ve seen better documentaries about animals & /or science. My number one gripe about this film was that I felt the experiment started out wrong from the start. The chimp was supposed to be raised as a human with a family so that it could learn to communicate with other humans, but was instead treated like a superior pet & not taught very much at all. This is of course realized by the lead professor & action is taken, but I felt the experiment should have ended with that chimp right then & there. From a scientific standpoint, the subject (NIM) had already been comprised by his previous surrounding & in my opinion should not have been used in the continuing project. From then on, it was hard for me to care about this social experiment for the rest of the film. Which maybe wasn’t the point anyway? As for the Nim, I did feel for him & his unnecessary & unbalanced treatment throughout the film. Though I believe his life as a test subject & medical experiment, while turbulent, could have been much worse. I’m glad for his sake that it was not. I have always had a hard time accepting the treatment of animals in all realms of science & entertainment, so nothing in this film surprised me very much. It was just another sad commentary of human disregard & I direct that to everyone in the film, not just the obviously cruel. Bad things happen when you toy with mother nature.


    • You make brilliant points, Rochelle, emphasizing that the “experiment started out wrong from the start“ and that Nim was “treated like a superior pet & not taught very much at all”. Stephanie LaForge, the first “mother” let Nim run around the house and mess up her husband’s stuff. There was no discipline. She let Nim fondle her and even breastfed him! So Herb Terrace hires Laura to be Nim’s teacher. At this point Nim basically gets caught in a custody battle between Laura and Stephanie. Laura and Herb take Nim away from Stephanie and move him to a big estate, with such an open space that it’s basically like the wild, not a human habitat at all. One of the film’s most appealing characters, Bob Ingersoll was working at the facility when Nim was there. Everyone throughout Nim’s life has sort of a hippie, laid back 70s vibe, but Bob clearly embodies this spirit more than any of the people we meet. You may criticize his decision to smoke marijuana with the chimp, but he also remained Nim’s most loyal friend throughout the rest of his life.

      Incidentally, Your comment actually caused me to re-write part of my review to clarify things you brought up. That is about the highest praise I can bestow.


  2. I love the idea of trying to humanize chimps through sign language. That’s a plus. It seems maybe they didn’t handle this correctly though. The Chimp needed to be part of the family, rather than a test subject. I’m glad he didn’t become a medical expericment in the end.. That would have made me mad and sad, had I seen this.


    • **** SPOILERS ****

      Once the experiment was over, he was shipped off to research facility. He was later rescued. The outcome was better than being tested on, but worse than living free in the wild. Being free was probably not possible anyway given the way he was raised.


  3. I’m afraid to watch this now due to what I “think” you’re implying. I’ll be netflixing this one.


  4. Wow, I’m throwing this one on my queue. I vaguely remember reading something about it at some point, but for whatever reason, it never solidified in my brain. It’s time to remedy that. Thanks.


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