Nim Chimpsky was taken from his mother at birth. The experiment served as an attempt to prove Noam Chomsky’s claim wrong – that humans are the only beings capable of communicating with the use of language. James Marsh (Man on Wire) documents a chimp raised in various human environments as a human child would, in an attempt to draw some further knowledge concerning chimpanzees (experts claim that 98.7% of chimp and human DNA is identical) and linguistics.
The man conducting the experiment titled Project Nim was Professor Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. After being torn from his mother, Nim spent the first period of his life with a family of hippies on the Upper West Side. Terrace identified his former-student, Stephanie LaFarge as the perfect addition to his study (though her family turned against Terrace’s methods soon afterwards). The second period of Nim’s life was spent in a large mansion belonging to Columbia University. Nim was taken from Stephanie, and placed in the hands of student, Laura-Ann Petitto where he was taught sign-language extensively. After Nim started to show signs of his true nature (aggression, anger), Terrace announced the end of the entire project. Nim was transported to the Institute of Primate Studies and then to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) until he was finally bought by the Black Beauty Ranch in Cleveland, where he died at the age of twenty-six.
Marsh’s documentary was both fascinating and tear-inducing. Nim’s life was beautiful and torturous. Much of the time, human interaction would add to his life, instilling a sense of companionship. He developed notable bonds with many of the humans around him, throughout different periods of his life. In his early years, he spent the majority of his time with Stephanie (a relationship almost sexual as a result of its proximity). Another friendship that helped in shaping his life was that of a young research student, Bill Tynan. At other times, Nim suffered as a result of loneliness and an extreme sense of misplacement. His need for freedom and human company made the hostile solitude of the institute for Primate Studies even worse. Perhaps the worst periods of his life were spent in LEMSIP.
Nature or nurture? This question was never fully answered. Instead, the documentary more successfully managed to illuminate the strange nature of human curiosity. Nim was revealed as a chimp. Intelligent, but not human. He developed an understanding of basic sign language, stringing signals together – naturally without syntax, displaying something impressive, but not extraordinary or unheard of. It was interesting to observe the flaws and peculiarities of humanity, while Nim (the subject of experimentation) was gradually revealed as the only stable character in the whole film. At times, Herbert’s somewhat psychotic assistant, Laura-Ann Petitto, proved herself to be far more scientifically interesting than the film’s star.
In this way, Project Nim is divided. Parts of the film provide the viewer with heart-warming images of chimp-human interaction, similarities and attachment. Moments that make you feel good about nature. Other parts work to highlight human arrogance, pride and frustration — the horrendous images of caged chimps and animal testing. Sometimes, you ask yourself why Nim was taken in the first place. What right did they have? And when has Noam Chomsky ever really been wrong? The truth is, if chimps did have the capacity for language, they probably would have figured it out for themselves.