Project Nim: Documentary About a Failed ’70s Language Study

Project Nim
Project it.

Project Nim is a 2011 documentary from director James Marshall (responsible for 2008’s Man on Wire).

It’s about a 1970s research project on the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000). This was about if a primate could be raised around humans and gather solid language skills through American sign language.

The result is a 90 minute documentary that’s pretty fascinating to watch, as well as revealing very human societal flaws along the way.

Project Nim the Documentary

The daft (but great fun) 1995 film Congo explored the idea of a chimp communicating through sign language.

We watched that one as kids, making it interesting to come across this real life attempt to make it happen.

The official term for such an experiment is animal language acquisition and this study was led by Herbert S. Terrace, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University. Psycholinguist Thomas Bever also assisted.

They named Nim Chimpsky after Noam Chomsky, as a type of pun. Yeah?

Their study aimed to show only humans have language. And this began after just three weeks into Nim’s life in late 1973.

As the study went on, it went to the extent he was removed from his surrogate parents in 1975. And he was brought into a human environment and grew up around other humans, whilst being taught sign language.

The results, as the documentary show, weren’t convincing.

Over three years, Terrace and his students trained Nim and he did learn some 128 signs. And he could manage sequences of them.

But Nim would simply mimic sign language to receive a reward. He’d make random signs until something made sense, which would result in a treat.

So, the chimp had a solid understanding of the excellence of food and minor manipulation. But otherwise he was never going to be the next Solzhenitsyn.

The result of the experiment was, no, chimps can’t be conditioned to communicate with humans if they’re raised like a child.

Project Nim, the documentary, then goes on to explain the ethical consequences of this study.

As Nim Chimpsky went on to have a rather depressing life. After the experiment, he was transferred back to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma.

He struggled to return to the life of a chimp after 10 years as being treated like a human.

Professor Terrace would visit Nim from time to time and the chimp would become excitable, hanging out with the prof and making sign language with him.

However, he’d become depressed when Terrace left and would remain in that state.

Worse would follow when Nim was sold to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. There he was kept in a wire cage and tested with hepatitis vaccines.

A charity later bought him out of that facility and the chimpanzee, often in a fraught state of mind, lived out his days at the ranch. Although he would often show signs of aggression—throwing TVs and even killing a dog.

Nim died on 10th March 2000 of a heart attack at age 26.

The documentary, then, begins as a hippy-esque take on the possibilities of being far out with animals. Kind of like Werner Herzog’s subject in Grizzly Man (2005). 

But it twists into the standard animal abuse and ethical dilemmas that are often the case in these scenarios.

Along the lines of Blackfish (2011) and The Cove (2009), Project Nim displays a keen sense of compassion about its subject matter.

And with an equally tragic figure as Tilikum the orca in Blackfish, who also displayed dangerous personality issues due to a lifetime in captivity.

Whilst Blackfish changed the world, Project Nim didn’t have the same impact and has become more of an obscure documentary.

It’s well worth giving it a watch, however, to see a well-meaning effort of understanding animals plunge into a quagmire of a corporate bog.

6 comments

  1. Sounds interesting. I’d like to watch it if I can find it somewhere. The only one I’ve seen out of the films you mentioned here was Grizzly Man, and I definitely got that theme of “humans fundamentally misunderstanding animals” out of it, as though we think we can just impose our own ways of thinking onto them without any problems. Seems horrible that after being treated more or less as a human Nim would be sold off for testing purposes as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that’s the really heartless thing about it. Raise him as a human, sell him off for drug testing. Lovely. A fascinating film, though, but the main thing to take from it is the study seemed doomed to failure from the start. But hey ho, it was the ’70s after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. It sounds like the precursor to Koko the gorilla, though she seemed to have had a better life. I grew up thinking she could communicate with sign language, but just recently saw some pretty excoriating evidence that much of that was bunk. It’s really a shame, but I think it’s better to know the truth. I’d never heard of Nim. His story sounds heartbreaking. It’s like once he outlived his usefulness, he wass literally thrown away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, a sad story and one we see played out a lot. After watching Congo as a kid for quite a while I thought it was possible for apes to speak basic English skills but, yeah, really it’s the type of experiment that has obvious answers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There was a fascinating video I saw about how apes have sort of a trade off in that respect. They do better at short term memory rentention than humans as opposed to having language. I’m not selling it as well as I should. I think it was a V Sauce video, and it was fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

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