Nim and Noam

“Project Nim” is a twisted mirror image of “Grizzly Man.” The former is about a guy who thinks he can make a wild animal human by raising it in civilization. The latter is about about a guy who thinks he can make himself a wild animal by living in the woods. The former gets tenure. The latter gets eaten. Both want to be famous.

“Grizzly Man”, a 2005 documentary by Werner Herzog, concerns one Timothy Treadwell, a suicidal misfit who goes to live among grizzly bears in Alaska every summer for 13 years. He videos his encounters with grizzlies and concludes that because he hasn’t been eaten yet, he is one of them. He also sees himself as their protector, even though they are already protected in a national park. And then the bears decide to eat Treadwell and his girlfriend.

Moral: Bears will be bears.

The tragic hero of “Project Nim,” a 2011 documentary by James Marsh, is Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who is raised by humans who think they can teach him to communicate using sign language (chimps don’t have the throat structure to talk). The alpha scientist of the project is Herbert Terrace, a Columbia psychology professor who acquires Nim at the age of two weeks in 1973. Nim is violently separated from his distraught mother at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma and shipped to New York. It is clear in the movie that Terrace hadn’t given the experiment or his chimp much thought. If he had, he probably wouldn’t have given Nim to a family of rich, vaguely bohemian intellectuals with seven children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They seem like nice people, but nobody knows anything about chimps or sign language. This is also true of the press, who do a lot of soft features on the project.

For 18 months, Nim wrecks the home and marriage of his surrogate parents, and becomes dangerous as he gets larger and stronger. No “science” is getting done, so Terrace moves Nim to a country estate north of the city, from which Nim commutes to a classroom at Columbia. Various student assistants try to teach Nim sign language and are lucky to escape with their lives. Fearful of getting sued, Terrace decides that he’s got enough data in 1977 and sends Nim back to his birthplace in Oklahoma. He sees Nim a year later to have his picture taken for an anecdotal memoir bragging about all the sign language Nim learned. In 1979, he changes his mind and publishes an article in Science saying that Nim had learned nothing, that chimps can’t learn language.

After the trauma of adjusting to life in a cage with other chimps, Nim gets lucky for a while. One of his keepers is a hippie Deadhead named Bob Ingersoll who appreciates Nim for his essential ape-ness. They play a lot in the woods and smoke dope together. The reserve closes because of financial problems, and Nim is sold to an NYU lab where vaccines for hepatitis are being tested on primates. It is also a medieval torture chamber. Ingersoll lobbies to get him purchased and moved, and Nim ends up in Cleveland Amory’s private animal prerserve, where he has a few happy years and finally dies of a heart attack at the age of 26 (about half of his expected lifespan) in 2000. Since Nim’s favorite foods in New York were ice cream and pizza, one wonders if his handlers ended up killing him with arteriosclerosis.

Moral: Chimps will be chimps.

A large gap in “Project Nim” is that the origin of the name Nim Chimpsky is not explained, which means Terrace’s motives?other than to be the first man to talk to an ape? are not explained. The viewer leaves the theater wondering, “Why did he want to tweak Noam Chomsky?”

Well, Chomksy trashed B. F. Skinner on several occasions, that’s why. Perhaps America’s most influential psychologist then and now, Skinner was the chief proponent of “radical behaviorism” which held that the behavior of any organism was completely determined by its history of rewards and punishments. From his experiments making pigeons do odd tasks in prison-like devices known as Skinner boxes, he advocated “cultural engineering” for humans along the same principles. When Skinner’s grand statement Beyond Freedom and Dignity came out in 1971, Chomsky applied basic principles of logic to Skinner’s grand vision and demonstrated that Skinner’s scientific claims were trivially true or absurd and his philosophy compatible with a “well-run concentration camp.” The review, reprinted as “Psychology and Ideology” in The Chomsky Reader, is one of Chomsky’s greatest essays and one of the few that is laugh-out-loud funny.

Central to their argument was language. Chomsky said we were born with it, that the brain is a language producing organ which makes everything else possible for us as humans. Sentences, given their infinite variety of meaning and construction, are indicative that human beings are unique among animals and probably do best in conditions that maximize freedom and creativity. Skinner said language was all conditioning, that environmental input determined human output, and that the brain was a blank slate. If the brain was indeed blank at birth and therefore infinitely malleable, the smart people in a given society should engineer young brains for the happiness of all, and they could engineer any kind of brain they wanted. Traditional concepts of freedom and dignity were obsolete.

Terrace, it turns out, got his Ph.D at Harvard and was mentored by Skinner. The most effective way to restore the reputation of Skinner and behaviorism would be to prove his foremost critic wrong. Said the foremost critic: “It’s about as likely that an ape will prove to have language ability as there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless bird waiting for humans to teach them to fly.”

It’s easy to see why a documentary with time constraints would skip a debate between two intellectuals about the nature of the brain and human freedom. Fortunately, the documentary is based on a fascinating book, Nim: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess, which adds a lot of telling detail to a story that is sometimes a Monty Python routine and sometimes a Greek tragedy. Its mostly flat tone makes the bizarre events stand out even more starkly.

On the Monty Python side, imagine you’re a student assistant in Primate Studies and your job, as mandated by your professor, is to make a young chimpanzee hang up his coat, sit at a desk in a college classroom and learn sign language for hours at a stretch. Suppose further that the chimp is regularly howling, hitting, wrecking stuff, ripping chunks of flesh out of you and breaking your bones with his teeth, and smearing his feces all over the walls. Why would anyone think sign language necessary to communicate with such an animal? Do you have to be Dr. Doolittle to understand that the ape is saying, “I’m having a dysphoric experience with your teaching methodology”?

What is more absurd–a fundamentalist Christian trying to cure a gay man of his homosexuality with Bible verses or a behaviorist trying to cure a chimp of his ape-ness with language?

How much of science is this silly?

On the Greek tragedy side, Nim really was a social animal of high intelligence and pretty much the full range of human-like emotion. His trainers all loved him, despite the frequent marathon tantrums. What seemed to bother Nim the most about his learning experience was that his classroom was next door to a laboratory and he could hear the experimental rats screaming. One day he escaped the classroom and let all the rats out of their cages. It’s only an anecdote, but it’s certainly indicative of empathy, inborn desire for freedom and animal solidarity in pursuit of liberation.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Nim’s life is that after Terrace concluded in Science that Nim was using sign language only as as sophisticated form of begging, which had the effect of killing most chimp research at the time, Nim spent the rest of his life living in cages and desperately signing to people. He even taught sign language to his fellow chimps. When approached by an unfamiliar human, Nim would sign his desire for food, freedom and companionship (what else is there?). If the human signed back, Nim was thrilled. If the human didn’t know sign language, he would lapse into passive depression.

While Nim was never able to formulate a sentence, he did show great promise as a poet. When he wanted erotic stimulation, for example, he signed “pull” and “tickle.” Perhaps his life would have had a happier outcome if he had just been allowed to switch his major from Psychology to Creative Writing.

So Chomsky won the debate. Chimpanzees can’t make sentences. If they could, they would have come out of the trees 150,000 years ago, learned to cooperate at a high level, mastered fire, invented agriculture, built great cities and sent a chimp to moon. The only ape to accomplish those feats was the human one.

The spirit of B.F. Skinner is nonetheless everywhere alive and inspiring the cultural engineers, whether they call themselves behaviorists or not. Every time a corporation talks about “incentivizing” its customers with rewards and punishments, every time a prosecutor talks about “incentivizing” witnesses with shorter prison sentences, every time an educator talks about “incentivizing” teachers with merit pay and students with grades and test scores, the underlying idea is something that started with a starving pigeon in a Skinner box.

George Wald, the Nobel laureate biologist and antiwar activist, ran into one of Skinner’s minions at Harvard back in the 60s and reported this encounter: “One day he said to me, his face just shining, ‘Give us the specifications and we’ll make the men.’ I’m aftraid I lost control a little, and my first reply was, ‘Not if I can shoot you first.’ That seemed to irritate him.”

Moral: Human beings have choice, and the choice right now is between being a pigeon dancing for food pellets or Nim Chimpsky wrecking the specifications of his engineers.

Charles M. Young is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader (sort-of) supported online alternative newspaper, now beginning its second year of daily publication