19 July 2010

Its long.. but worth the read.

Back in the 1970s, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky took part in a Columbia University research study called "Project Nim."

Project Nim was led by Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia who was attempting to find out if a chimpanzee could learn to communicate using American Sign Language.

"Everyone knows that words are learned one at a time," but something happens when children begin to combine words and create true language, Terrace says

Terrace wanted to disprove Chomsky's theory and show that a chimpanzee could develop real language.

To immerse Nim in a world where he would be taught sign language in the same way a human child would, Terrace brought him to live with a family in New York City in 1973, not long after the chimp was born. There, Nim joined a sprawling, chaotic blended family with many human siblings who could teach him sign language.

Young Nim

Jennie Lee was 10 when Nim came to live with her family.

"He was coming off the plane with my mom, wrapped up in baby blankets," Lee says. "He was this tiny newborn being who happened to be a chimp, and it was probably love at first sight."

Nim's surrogate mother was Stephanie LaFarge, a psychology student studying with Terrace. LaFarge carried Nim around on her body for almost two years.

It wasn't easy to raise a chimp in a Manhattan brownstone. Nim was active, playful and strong. Soon he was breaking things all over the house. LaFarge's husband was never comfortable with Nim, and as Nim entered his "terrible twos," the chimp became too much of a handful.

So Terrace took Nim to live in a mansion that was part of Columbia University. By that time, Nim had learned about 125 signs. But the question remained: Was he really learning language?

Terrace doubts it. He says that while watching a video of Nim signing with a teacher, he realized that the chimp was tracking most of his teacher's signs, imitating most of them, but he almost never made a sign spontaneously.

In the end, Terrace came to believe that Chomsky was right, that Nim would never use language the way humans do — to form sentences and express ideas.

Terrace ended the project in 1977, and Nim went to the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Okla., to live a very different life. He was often in a cage with other chimps.

Bob Ingersoll, who worked at the institute and got close to Nim, says that while in Oklahoma, Nim was learning how to be a chimp again. "He was with his brothers. He got to have a chimp group" and have a life that wasn't always controlled by humans, Ingersoll says.

One of the things that made Nim remarkable, Ingersoll remembers, was his "unbelievable personality." Nim understood humans better than any other chimp, Ingersoll recalls.

The Chimp Who Would Be Human

Research is not a secure proposition, and in 1981, all funding ended for the Oklahoma research program. There was no exit plan for the chimps.

Within a year, Nim was sold to a medical lab for tuberculosis studies. Because he was a famous chimp — who even appeared on Sesame Street and The David Susskind Show— Nim's supporters were able to rescue him. He lived out the rest of his days at Cleveland Amory's Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Texas. He died in 2000.

Many of the people involved in Nim's life have been reflecting on their experiences and on the ethics of what they did.

And Elizabeth Hess, in a new book called Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, interviews many of the people who were involved in Nim's life and tells the story from differing perspectives

Lee, Nim's surrogate sister, says she took it hard when Nim was sold to the lab.

"How do you reconcile a tiny chimp in blue blankets, drinking from a bottle and wearing Pampers. Those are the baby pictures," she says. "And then, when he is 10 — him in a lab, in a cage, with nothing soft, nothing warm, with no people? This is my brother. This is somebody that I raised — and that the system could let this happen was shocking."

LaFarge, Nim's surrogate mother, says that as amazing as it was to have the experience with Nim, she now believes what happened was unethical. The project essentially tricked "him into thinking he is a human being, with no plan for protecting him," she says.

But Terrace says that "given that people eat meat, have pets and raise horses for races," what was done to Nim was not unethical.

Author Hess says Nim was a survivor who had a unique, charming personality.

She notes that while the debate over whether chimps have language, and what kind of language, continues, most researchers are no longer trying to teach animals our language. Instead, they focus on the myriad ways animals communicate.


  1. interesting read... sweet at times, but tough stuff as to going from living in a home to a lab... i was glad to see that after being with humans and then being with other chimps, he was able to adapt back to chimp-social activities, cuz some domesticated animals can't make that switch back to their natural roots....

    i met a guy in alaska years ago who'd worked with chimps in the nasa space program... he was particularly attached to one, who went up in space.... there were complications in orbit and some of the oxygen supply had to be reduced, and against the guy's strong objections, the chimp's supply was cut off and so he was essentially sacrificed for the sake of science... the guy was so heartbroken and pissed off he quit nasa then and there and moved from florida up to alaska... eventually, he started a nature-science-program for kids in the anchorage area...

    back to your nim story... maybe he was copying the sign-language and not initiating communication, but i think he's still strong evidence for the theory of evolution..

  2. That was very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing it. :)

  3. eep eeeeppp.....throws a sign at you.... ; )

  4. Hi David, yes, you have told me about your friend on a couple of occasions now and it would have, indeed, been heart breaking for him.

    I was reading last night about a male chimpanzee, in a zoo, calmly collecting stones and fashioning concrete discs that he would later use to hurl at zoo visitors. Researches studied him doing this for ten years.. Poor little fella.

  5. Gday and welcome Mythical ...

    I read quite alot last night about Chimpanzee's and various studies conducted in the past.. normally its a topic I steer away from.

    But I was trying to locate a particular story Id watched on 60 Minutes some years back. It was concerning a Lab Chimp who had been in a program with other Chimps and taught to use sign language. After the research regarding "signing" was concluded he was relocated to another Lab for Aids testing..at the point of the 60 Minute program the researcher/scientist who had worked with the Chimp in the signing program was trying to halt the Aids testing from taking place. Ive yet to find the info that I was looking for.

  6. i done told you the chimp-tale on a couple of occasions? i thought i might've mentioned it on another of your posts, but i didn't think i'd done so more than once, if that... soooo, guess i gotta write a 'no more monkey bidness with angie!!!' note above my monitor...

    annnd, the only tube i could find via nim chimpsky search was this one... the singing's verrrrrry bizarre, 'annoying' and 'hideous' to some of the commenters on the tube page, so you might wanna lower/mute the volume, but apparently all the pics are of nim, so here ya go...

  7. Hey thanks for this David. and yes you are right I did have to turn the volume down in all of . 75 of a second.. how annoying was that ??

    I have been thinking since I posted this yesterday.. in the past I have read about Chimps and various Laboratory Tests or Housing of the poor animals.. its a topic that does upset me... any Lab testing on animals.. I do understand that over the decades Scientifically many advantages have taken place because of all manner of tests but ethically .. do the advances we make justify the cruelty??

    Back to what I was thinking. I am drafting an email/ letter to forward to some schools, sporting clubs and businesses in the district asking them to sponsor an animal for 12 months, if not longers. Personally, Id love one of their sponsorship gifts as a gift ...perhaps this December instead of Glenn, myself and the Boys giving gifts we may be able to sponsor a chimp for 12 months.. Id really like that, I will run it by them.

    For anyone interested here is the link , Perhaps you could also post it on your pages or email it to a friend or business associate.


  8. hey again angie... yeah, very good idea re sponsorship... two christmasses ago, tina n' richard did that.. they asked all their friends/family to, instead of giving them a gift, go to a site where one could help an animal to live in a more natural environment and help people living in impoverished regions by sponsoring that animal's travel from a lab to a rural environment... milk-giving creatures such as cows n' goats, egg-giving creatures such as chickens.. so it was a win-win for both the animal and the poorer people on this planet to both have better lives... (i'll check out the save-the-chimps site you posted)