The ‘right’ method of caring for your baby is a slippery and often controversial topic. Should it sleep in your bed? How long should you breast feed? Do we start education early? As the first chimpanzee raised by humans, Nim’s upbringing was even more stigmatised. Project Nim, the new film by Man on Wire director James Marsh is a comprehensive history of science’s navigation of the special differences between man and primate, and the ethics of experimentation.
In 1973 Columbia University research professor Herbert Terrace embarked upon an exciting, long-term experiment. He removed an infant chimp from its mother’s arms in an unwelcoming primate centre and precociously dubbed the animal Nim Chimpsky, a pun on the name of historical Linguist Noam Chomsky, who famously claimed that only humans “have language”. Terrace placed the chimp in the care of Stephanie LaFarge, a freewheeling, sexually unhinged hippy-matriarch, where he was treated like a human baby (indeed, more lovingly) and in a world first, was taught how to use sign language.
The documentary follows Nim’s growth from word association to something closer to conversation, and illustrates his problematic relationships with humans as he was passed between researchers, photographers, trainers, sanctuaries and medical testing facilities. The resulting film is a powerful compilation of excellently preserved footage, photographs and tastefully realised re-enactments. These records are testament to the inability of humans to disengage from a personification of animals, especially with our closest relatives.
Marsh’s approach is even-handed, never trifling the relationships between Nim and his custodians with overt sentimentality. This gives the interviewees about as fair a trial – one by public sentiment – as possible, whilst never abridging the complexity of that judgement. Each keeper used different ratios of education, parentage and friendship, ownership and freedom in their interaction with Nim. One smoked joints with him; one bit him; one told him off for displays of sexuality; one let him eat at the table; one gave him a TV; one even breast-fed him. Nobody had the perfect combination, but everybody thought theirs was the best method.
Marsh leaves no hole in the chronology, whether historical, emotional or visual. His interviewees are astonishingly willing contributors, and it’s easy to see why: None were ever openly criticised or held accountable for their missteps during the experiment. Their testimony often slips into confessional, or unwittingly proves them to be unsound or unintelligent keepers. This is interviewing at its best. Many don’t seem to realise how inappropriately their emotional connection with Nim, or lack thereof, made them to behave. Keeper Stephanie is the most deluded of all. She misinterprets the scientific rigour of another female trainer as an underhand play for Nim’s '#1 Mom' role, and describes the chimps’ adolescent curiosity in terms of Oedipal sexual discovery and its attractiveness. Audiences will no doubt take great pleasure in a wry pan shot of her recreated study where a tome entitled ‘Women and Madness’ is of no small prominence. As an audience member, you feel ethically superior as you reassure yourself that such things would never happen in these humane and enlightened times. But the truth is, you don’t know that for sure. What is clear is that Nim’s status as a half-chimp, half-human confused not only Nim, but his guardians and their families too.
Project Nim is a visual smorgasbord of everything 70s. The beards, the tight shorts and terrycloth tennis shirts, the lax approach to institutional romance and the all-pervading sepia-tone. One keeper, Bob, describes his days with Nim as the best of his life, nodding grey locks akimbo, until he remembers: “except for seeing the Grateful Dead play”. The film also boasts an elegant soundtrack, which articulates a tangible sense of the era.
Perhaps fortuitously, Project Nim treads on the coattails of special effects bauble Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film that packaged futuristic primate sentience as a kind of entertainment wonderland. This attitude was present for Nim, too. Certainly apes have been treated as either desperately cute or comedically ugly quasi-humans in films like Dunston Checks In, King Kong, Congo, Might Joe Young and the upcoming tripe Zookeeper. Nim is at all times either a novelty or a problem to those around him. This seems markedly different from our general disinterest in most other humans.
As Nim’s lawyer (yes, lawyer) points out, Nim has been raised to believe he is human and therefore cannot go on to be treated any less. We then see Nim’s experiences translated through a human lens: any cage he is in becomes a prison, any keeper looking after him becomes his family, any pain he suffers becomes torture, any change of custodian is betrayal and evokes guilt in the keepers. Most crushingly of all, Nim’s animal nature and therefore violence is largely treated as criminal.
Today Project Nim is rarely cited in the comparative psychology field. Its embarrassingly poor methodology, ambiguous objectives and cruelties make it a deficient example. Not to mention Terrace’s conclusion that Nim’s communicative vocabulary was not language, but an advanced survival ploy. In the end, the experiment failed Nim. It could not make any point or sense of his difficult and confusing life.
What is saddest is that Nim perfectly embodies that most sacred and long-standing of scientific traditions: trial and error. So often, it is by getting things wrong or making mistakes that we are able to learn and improve ourselves. Nim was the proverbial guinea pig and lost a great deal of what can only be called dignity from that experiment. At the time, many people saw his language abilities, the clothes, the family-like environment, the lessons, as some kind of honour, making Nim special, privileged above all other chimps. Marsh implores: is it right to teach something that it is human, and then take that humanness away from it? Or was it nobler for Nim to resume his place amongst fellow chimps?